The Halo series gets a lot of flak; it’s hated on by contrarians because it’s popular and it’s trendy to hate anything that has any sort of sizable following, and it’s obviously hated by Sony and PC fanboys who simply blindly dismiss anything that isn’t on their platform of choice. Of course, some of that hate stems from the people that populate Halo’s online community, which seems like it’s made almost entirely of pre-pubescent internet tough guys and dudes who really love raised trucks. But all of these reasons to hate Halo are completely unfair, because regardless of what platform it’s on, or the audience it attracts, the fact is the games within the Halo series have consistently and undeniably been great, and out of all of them, the newest entry in the franchise, Halo Reach, is simply the best.
Reach is a prequel, taking place shortly before the events of Halo 1, and is centered around the efforts of Noble Team, an elite squad of Spartans (the same type of super soldier as series mascot Master Chief is,) tasked with the defense of the titular planet Reach, humanity’s main military and scientific base of operations, as it’s invaded by The Covenant, an alien alliance of religious zealots hell bent on committing genocide against the human race.
Now, Reach’s story certainly isn’t going to win any awards for it’s writing — every line of dialogue is filled machismo-oozing cliches that you’ve probably heard a million times over in every action movie or videogame ever made– but as a prequel, it does a great job in fleshing out the Halo universe and showing the larger, full-scale war that was only previously hinted at during the intro to Halo 1. As anyone who has played any of the previous Halo games knows, the battle of Reach doesn’t end well for the good guys, and this unique perspective of being stuck on the wrong end of a losing battle lends Reach a surprising emotional weight.
Of course, the story (while good,) is just there to lay context for the action, and in that regard Halo Reach does not disappoint. Series developed Bungie has taken the best aspects from past Halo games while tossing out the features that just didn’t work. Reach most closely resembles Halo 1 in it’s mechanics; it brings back the original tiered, persistent health and shield system from the original game, as well as ditching some of the additions that were made to Halo 2 and 3, like dual-wielding guns or the one time use tools. This streamlining of the game’s mechanics may sound like they’re taking out a lot from the series, but by reducing Halo back to it’s core mechanics of shooting, grenades, and melee, and by discarding the peripheral mechanics and concentrating on the basics, they’ve managed to craft some of the most intense, polished, and satisfying combat in the series to date.
It’s not all design by subtraction either; the biggest addition to the core mechanics of the series are the new Armor abilities, which replace the one time use equipment from Halo 3. The new armor abilities are much more useful than their predecessors, as you’re allowed to use them as many times as you want (albeit following a cool down period after each use,) and unlike Halo 3’s equipment, in which only the bubble shield was useful, almost all of the armor abilities are worth learning how to use; the new jet pack is awesome for obvious reasons (the best of which is high-altitude teabagging in multiplayer,) but even the more subtle abilities, like the defensive Armor Lock or the subversive Hologram (creates a shadow clone of yourself to distract enemies,) have their uses in almost any type of confrontation.
While the game is still fun on Normal difficulty, one only needs to turn the challenge level up to Heroic or Legendary to see just how well designed Halo Reach is; whether it’s the balance of the weapons, or the clever enemy placement or AI patterns, or the beautiful, gigantic levels, every aspect of Reach’s campaign mode has been perfectly tuned to provide a challenge while almost never feeling frustrating.
The one flaw in Halo Reach’s campaign mode is your teammate’s AI, or lack thereof. While they behave realistically during certain scripted events (like the awesome beach attack at the beginning of the sixth level,) most of the time your squad mates display a level of intelligence that seems to be far worse than that of the enemies that they’re fighting. It’s not uncommon to be completely overwhelmed by enemies while your squadmates stand around doing nothing or run in circles, and while I understand Bungie wants players to do most of the combat themselves and not rely on their AI squad to do all the work, I would’ve appreciated it if the squad at least made it look like they were actively engaging the enemy. It sounds worse than it actually is since every combat situation you’re put into is balanced enough that you can handle it on your own, and my teammates never got me killed, but it is disappointing that they didn’t really help much either.
Of course if you do want help, Halo Reach’s campaign does allow for full, four player co-op, and unsurprisingly, the campaign mode plays just as well (and remains just as challenging,) with four players. Multiplayer modes have always arguably been the main draw of the Halo series, and Reach is the most content, option rich game in the series as well. The other co-op mode, Firefight, (the Halo series’ version of Gears of War’s Horde mode,) returns from ODST, and it’s just as fun as it was in that game, as the new maps and weapons make what could’ve easily been a repetitive shooting gallery into a brilliant and addictive extension of the campaign mode.
Reach’s competitive multiplayer modes are just as great too. While the traditional deathmatch style game types are still there, the most enjoyable new multiplayer mode is Invasion, a combination between team capture the flag and king of the hill where every completed objective unlocks new weapon load-outs (selectable sets of weapons and equipment you choose from when you respawn,) and vehicles, creating games that actually escalate in intensity as the match goes on. Matches in Invasion mode require genuine team work and strategy, and almost always seem to come down to the last second. Invasion mode is easily the best of the new additions to the series and it’s so fun and addictive that I wouldn’t be surprised to see other shooters copy it in the future.
Tying all these modes together is your character. In previous Halo games, you played as Master Chief in the single player mode and a generic Spartan during multiplayer, but in Reach, you create your own customizable, unique Spartan and carry that same persistent character across all of the game’s various single player and multiplayer modes. Every thing you do, whether it’s in the campaign or online, earns you experience points that you can exchange for new upgrades and bonuses for you character, and this lends the game an almost MMORPG like addictive element, where you’re compelled to keep playing so you can level your rank up or afford a new piece of equipment.
To get back to my original statement, while it may be trendy to hate on Halo, anyone who’s actually given the series a chance knows that it is simply one of the best console shooters out there, and as the series nears it’s tenth anniversary, it’s clear that Halo has become one of those timeless franchises synonymous with gaming, like Mario or Tetris. With Bungie leaving the franchise to work on other things, it’s unclear where the series will go next, but Halo Reach is the pinnacle of the series, and is guaranteed to be one of those games that people look back on years from now as an absolute classic.
Final Score: 10/10