Impressions: Halo: Reach

Not long ago, I finished the fight…or so I thought.  This September, I started it.  While this ordering may sound a bit unusual to non-Halo fans, I’m talking about Halo: Reach, Bungie’s final heartfelt love letter to the fans; potentially the last “true” Halo. Considering the series’ massive popularity and rabid fan devotion (myself included) it’d be downright naive to think this the case.  Reach is a fantastic and fitting end to the series under their direction (let’s not count ODST, travesty as it was) and an inspiring beginning to an accessible, easy to digest sci-fi saga that will entice you with tales of an epic narrative and keep you playing with solid multiplayer action through Xbox Live. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s very much Halo; noticeably tightened, nipped, and tucked. Its multiplayer mode will be remembered – and played – for years to come, as with the previous titles in the saga. But is it the conclusion series loyalists deserve?

Halo: Reach chronicles Noble Team, set in the year 2552 – that’s placed directly before the events that would unfold in Halo: Combat Evolved. You step into the boots of one Noble Six, the team’s newest recruit, eventually to uncover why a certain relay station went offline. Intelligence and Colonel Holland suspect a human insurgency. Noble Team stumbles upon the Covenant instead. Noble Team is redirected to ONI (the Office of Naval Intelligence) to meet up with Dr. Halsey, mastermind behind MJOLNIR armor, the SPARTAN-II program, and eventually Cortana. It’s soon revealed that the pesky Covenant forces were searching for vital information. This can’t stand, so Noble Team is sent off on important defensive missions in order to combat this thread, and perhaps find a way to make a stand against the oncoming storm. This sparks a chain of events that eventually results in both the fall of Reach and the eventual SPARTAN victory over the Covenant threat.

This time around you’ll find many of the conventional Halo standbys have been augmented with distinctly Call of Duty-flavored elements, with “perks” scattered around the map, such as the ability to sprint, jetpacks, and armor lock. Sprinting should be a given; you ARE a super-soldier, after all. You can jump to dizzying heights but not run? Okay. The rest of the augments are satisfying and mesh well with gameplay, but I couldn’t quite understand the decision behind giving gamers the “privilege” to sprint through areas rather than the right. On the other hand, armor lock creates a miniature EMP field around your soldier, making you impenetrable to attack. After a few brief seconds, a blast is expelled, knocking out an opponent’s shields. Jetpacks are also obviously quite useful. If you’re being chased, simply take to the skies and leave danger behind.

Holograms, can be used to send out a doppelganger of your soldier to confuse and flank enemies (an amusing tactic). And perhaps the most useful perk out of the lot, the drop shield, serves as the updated bubble shield from Halo 3. Not only are you safe (until invaders walk right through) from grenades or artillery, but it has the power to heal you as well.

Reach presents an enjoyable enough narrative along with the trials and perils that Noble Team faces. It’s the grittiest Halo yet. One by one your team falls, and it’s tough to fight back feelings of loss and hopelessness as they fall making sacrifices — some in vain, even. There are unexpected deaths at every turn, and despite all of this Six remains still basically a silent protagonist with few words to offer here and there. You can choose to play as a male or female and customize your look completely (as far as SPARTANS go), but I never felt as though myself, playing as Noble Six, was a “real” part of the team until the very end of the game. I felt in the end as though this was more of a cosmetic choice than any real effort to include the player. I may as well have been playing as one John-117, except with a distinctly feminine voice and physique.

II felt as though the previous Halo excursions presented a more engaging narrative despite their more confusing nature. Reach presents an easy to follow adventure, but also expects you to commit emotionally, more than with the previous games. The absence of Cortana amplified the feeling of loneliness throughout the game (though her creator Dr. Halsey was present), the humorous Grunts, and the general feeling of being able to laugh at the alien threat was curiously missing. This is a recognizably appropriate decision, to treat this “farewell” as deathly serious – after all, a lot of innocents lost their lives. I found that I preferred the camaraderie of Johnson, Chief, Cortana, and the other soldiers to the deaths and the uncomfortable atmosphere found as we fought restlessly to stave off the Covenant. Guns seemed more vicious. Brutes and Elites struck terror in my heart. To me, this was not distinctly Halo, and I found myself wishing the Grunts would run from me, calling me “demon.”

The roughly six hour campaign just flies by. And that’s a good thing, as any longer and it would become less of a punctuated “last stand” and more of a slog. The saga of the Noble Six is an explosive adventure filled with heartbreak and disappointment, but with so few “wow” moments that I came out feeling quite underwhelmed despite the slick presentation, fantastic new SPARTAN customization. In the end, a harrowing, but thoroughly pointless mission, seen after the end credits sprang up that served only as a real mirror to the opening cinematic. ‘Survive,’ the ultimatum commands you. It felt more of an afterthought than a real ending, as if ungie had trouble letting go. As if they didn’t quite know how to end this game – and their involvement – on a positive note. Even the thoughtful words spoken by Dr. Halsey seem flimsily tossed onto the end to give the illusion of closure. As enjoyable as I found the campaign, this was ultimately disappointing. I wanted something so much bigger. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

Where the campaign let me down, however, multiplayer shined. I had participated in the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta, and the complete version is everything I had anticipated and more. A myriad of game types, the ability to play competitively in the arena, and a host of options available in the Armory for upgrade provide a new viable alternative to the modern frag fest that is Call of Duty. Though there are some upgraded, “recycled” maps, I appreciated the return of past favorites, as well as the tools and thoroughly polished Forge mode. It’s the definitive Halo multiplayer and has been refined to the point of mastery (for these games, at least) and provides a more colorful, fast-paced, and visceral shooting fest for those of us who can’t take another “brown” online shooter. As in the regular campaign, these colors pop. You can see what each of your friends are doing simply by logging into the multiplayer menu. It’s all streamlined, simplified, and finely tuned to, likely, what we the gamers have asked for. If you buy Halo: Reach for nothing else, play the excellent multiplayer mode.

Halo: Reach isn’t the masterpiece I wanted it to be, in terms of its campaign and the way it was chosen to be wrapped up – but I do think it’s a fitting and very open goodbye letter from Bungie to their fans. Perhaps this isn’t the way I would have chosen to “begin” the series, but it wraps the package up enough nicely to form a fitting fanfare introduction and ending, funnily enough, to the Halo series. It was an exciting ride to get here, and I suppose I’m just filled with sadness that it’s come to an end. I am not optimistic as to what may happen to the future of Halo, so I am appreciative for such a polished effort that it’s clear a lot of work went into. If you’re a fan of the franchise, pick this entry up and see how it all began.

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