When Halo: Combat Evolved first introduced the world to the Xbox console in 2001/2, a game was a game, no more or less. Instantly, Microsoft’s beast had its crown jewel and console shooters were given a reality check as to what was expected. With their near limitless funding, subsequent releases have thrust gaming into the mainstream media spotlight with such a conviction that was previously alien to a stigmatised industry. Nintendo may deserve credit for introducing a new audience to gaming, but Microsoft have given a voice to the silent majority of gamers. Before so much as a button has been touched, Halo has a legacy unlike anything before its time. Reach is the ultimate product of this legacy.
How exactly do you better a series of games that have consistently innovated an entire genre and refined themselves to near perfection, without belittling their achievements? Bungie’s answer was simply to snowball the best of their previous work into a single package, then give it a makeover. Such ambition is effortlessly realised and it is with this that so many have coined Reach as a ‘Greatest Hits’ – an ode to a generation. So many are however wrong, for this is not a compilation of success, this is the final product of a decade of trial and error.
Reach’s story arc is a detachment but not a departure from the story that generated such a huge amount of fan-fiction. The story tees up Combat Evolved’s but unlike Halo 2, it does so in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the standalone title; it is a means to an end to a means. The story is entirely logical in the eyes of a player with no previous single player experience, but it holds the delicate balance of enhancing and enlightening what came ‘before’ to the loyal.
“It’s a regular occurrence to find yourself pinned down by the Covenant and such situations require a great deal of creativity and pure nerve to advance from.”
As a member of a special forces unit named Noble, the noticeable empirical difference is that of being within a squad. Whilst this has little impact on the way you approach certain scenarios, there is a subtle difference to playing as Master Chief or indeed, an ODST trooper. The first handful of missions tie only vaguely into the plot, which treads new territory in contrast to previous Halo’s very story-driven levels. Such changes allow for Reach to hold its own weight, whilst remaining true to what made Halo Halo, however purists will revel in the climactic story-intensive ‘climax’ to the saga.
The freedom from limitations allows Bungie to be as diverse as possible with level design, in both single and multiplayer. Paying homage to the previous installments, environments range from desert wasteland to urban hubs and confined aircraft. The lack of an appearance from The Flood means that for the most part, battles are an extremely tactical affair. Though your A.I. squad mates provide fire, they solely support your own advancement rather than push through the levels themselves. They do however, provide an ideal prop for flanking and the more risqué assaults on elites, particularly on the top difficulty levels. It’s a regular occurrence to find yourself pinned down by the Covenant and such situations require a great deal of creativity and pure nerve to advance from. Such refinements are typical and highlight Bungie’s desire for us to “Remember Reach”. Not playing as a character so powerful and central as Master Chief means that each little scalp throughout the campaign feels all the more satisfying – the scale of the conflict is put into perspective and you genuinely have to fight to survive.
The entire campaign mode can be played through online either with a group of friends or strangers through matchmaking. What made Halo 3 justify the hype was its incredible ability to network the entire game with Xbox Live. This is once again the case, refined. The jewel in the crown here is the implementation of matchmaking into a revamped Firefight mode, debuted in ODST. Players who are a little intimidated by player versus player modes can now play online co-operatively to improve their abilities. The implementation of this online mode simply adds a little more variety to Halo’s already staggeringly versatile multiplayer offering. At the time of writing there still appears to exist a few network issues – players quitting the game often causes long spells of reloading and reconnecting, a problem which is amplified when it is the host who quits. Such issues will be resolved in time; Bungie will be ensuring they have an optimum experience by the time Call of Duty: Black Ops is released.
Short-term flaws aside, Reach’s multiplayer modes are classic Halo and will serve as a go-to title for years to come. With the spectacular level of customisation available in the staggeringly sized Forge World, it has the potential to outlive the Xbox 360 itself.
“From swooning violins easing the player along to booming climactic scores, it’s well worth throwing a copy of the OST in the e-basket too.”
Even the impressive scores of O’Donnell and Salvatori have taken themselves to the next natural level. ODST’s soundtrack was one of the few true highlights in an otherwise consistent but unspectacular Halo, however Reach’s excels even that. From swooning violins easing the player along to booming climactic scores, it’s well worth throwing a copy of the OST in the e-basket too. The most common of pitfalls when striving for perfection is to polish each individual segment before merging the package together, but for the most part, Reach’s strengths act as catalysts for one another.
The story itself may be the weakest link within the overall product, but the raw quality of the game mechanics reinstate a sense of direction. In the final hours the story then acts as a complement to ensure the final act is a just desert. Deliberate? Possibly. Effective? Undoubtedly.
Reach is the most spectacularly euphoric hello and goodbye in gaming history. Just as Halo 2’s single player was criticized for being a means to an end, Halo: Reach should be lauded for being an end to a means. It is an encore and a lap of honour for the most iconic trilogy of the past decade, complementing rather than trying to outdo its forbearers. Every aspect of Reach pays homage to the ‘Best of’ Halo, but successfully refreshes them to feel integral to the experience. With Reach, Bungie have encompassed every strength of every department to deliver their defining end product; a hello to some, a goodbye to many but a thank you to all.