Halo: Reach is something of a contradiction. Planned as the pinnacle of Bungie's work on the series, Reach offers up both disappointment and exhilaration. For every moment of innovation, there is also a moment where the game drops the ball. Reach is by no means a bad game, but it fails to impress as much as those that have come before.
Charting the course of the Halo franchise, it is easy to see how the multiplayer component of the game has gained in both importance and prominence. In the original Halo, multiplayer was a nice bonus for those who had the luxury of system link. In Reach, multiplayer feels as though it got the lion's share of attention during development. This is where the game is most assuredly at its best.
Building on the Firefight mode first introduced in Halo 3: ODST, Reach has a revamped and improved system. The goal is still to survive the onslaught, but this time around, there are many more options to be had. You can customize game types to an incredible level of precision, creating just about any kind of combat experience that you can think up.
Want low gravity, rockets and nothing but grunts? Done. Prefer to test your skill with a pistol? You can do that. Feel like a classic game of firefight? That's in there, too. For those who want more of a challenge, you can even opt to have a human player or two join in on the Covenant side. When we first started playing Firefight for the review, everyone initially wanted play with default settings, but after getting familiar with the maps, the experimentation came fast and furious. Some of our attempts at creativity fell flat, but most were quite playable.
One of the more memorable matches had us defending a small outpost in the woods, near a river. It was standard stuff, at least until the first Wraith showed up. We barely managed to survive the mortar shots before taking it out. When another Wraith arrived with the next wave, we sent over someone to take out the gunner. It was a desperate move, but it worked. Suddenly, the tide had turned. With a Wraith under our command, we made short work of the remaining waves.
Not every match was so lucky, however. More than a few had us on the brink of defeat — the entire team down, only one man standing — before our last man finished the wave, causing everyone else to respawn. It is in those moments that you see the brilliance in Reach's multiplayer design. Even when you're losing, the game keeps you invested in the action. There's never a dull moment.
In addition to the expanded Firefight mode, Reach provides a plethora of multiplayer modes including, free-for-all, team deathmatch, capture-the-flag variants, the season-based arena and the 8v8 Invasion mode.
An objective-based mode, Invasion requires a full complement of 16 players to properly enjoy, but once you've given it a go, you're going to want to keep coming back for more. The 16 players are broken into two teams, with one group on defense as the Covenant and the other attacking as the Spartans. Since Invasion is time-based, the goal for the Spartans is to complete the objective list as quickly as possible. At the end of the round, the teams flip sides. The fastest team wins.
Aside from the various game types, the biggest change to the multiplayer competition is the addition of the class abilities, such as armor lock, active camo, the jetpack and more. Each of these offers up a distinct advantage in-game and allows players to game to their strengths. They are especially useful when players team up and choose complementary abilities. For example, a player using armor lock can easily provide instant cover for a teammate. A player with the health restoring shield can throw that down just before a teammate's armor lock is about to expire. Yes, they are similar to the items that could be carried in Halo 3 multiplayer, but here, the abilities are fully integrated into the game experience.
Those same abilities make an appearance within Reach's single-player campaign mode, though their availability is limited by the story and level designers.
For as much as the multiplayer modes of Reach shine for their polish and ability to build new innovations on top of what has come before, the single-player campaign feels like a rehash of old ideas rather than an exploration of something new. There is a little experimentation, but it is tentatively done and never really pushes boundaries.
Given that Reach is destined to end with the loss of the planet to the Covenant forces, the story writers should be given kudos for producing a tale that reveals some key points of series backstory without making the whole thing a depressing soap opera. Unfortunately, by focusing their efforts on the series history, the writers overlooked the very characters they choose to relay those events.
Ultimately, every member of Noble Team is simply there for the purposes of advancing the plot. Unlike Halo 3: ODST, which focused heavily on character development and gave us team members with distinct personalities and motivations, here in Reach, there is very little reason to care about any of the team members. Even in death, it is difficult to care about the virtual characters on-screen. Though the game hints at some depth to the personalities, it is never revealed in-game, and that's a shame.
On that same note, Reach features a small cameo appearance by Nathan Fillion, starring as Sgt. Buck. As the star of Halo 3: ODST, Fillion's Buck could have been used to present a stronger tie between the two games and bring some much-needed personality to Noble Team. Even playing alongside Buck for a single level would have been great. Instead, his appearance is limited to a few lines of radio chatter. It's a wasted opportunity, to be sure.
Gameplay-wise, Reach suffers from some pretty poor AI, both on the Covenant side and on the UNSC side. Your teammates will often make some inexplicable moves during combat, saved only by their inability to perish (unless the story calls for it). Attempting to set up a flanking maneuver is almost impossible; they'll just follow you around the map like lost puppies.
Another oddity is the way in which the game cheats with ammo. The AI opponents always have unlimited ammo. However, whenever you take one down, you're lucky to get even a half-full clip. It's an odd disparity that makes it seem as though the game is cheating to make up for a lack of decent AI combat routines. The game should be challenging because your opponents genuinely put up a smart fight. It shouldn't be challenging because the computer can just sit there and unload a constant stream of rounds in your face.
Combat is more or less centered at specific points in the campaign levels. Rather than fighting your way through enemy-occupied territory in a strategic manner, you're more likely to move to a location, fight a few waves, get a short breather, move to the next location and repeat. It's the kind of thing that was impressive in Halo: Combat Evolved, but now it just feels like you've seen it all before.
Visually, Reach looks good, but it isn't a huge jump in fidelity over Halo 3: ODST. At a distance, everything looked great, though when you get in close, jagged edges quickly become visible. The game engine really shines when a large number of enemies are on the screen. Jaggies may be inevitable, but facing off against a horde of Covenant all at once is a great way to get the adrenaline flowing.
In the end, deciding whether or not to buy Halo: Reach depends on the kind of player you are and what you're looking to get out of the game. If multiplayer is your thing, it's a must-have title. If you're a hardcore Halo fan looking to flesh out the story and really just want more of the same, then pick it up. If you're looking for an innovative FPS that pushes boundaries and helps define the genre, though, you may want to look elsewhere. Reach is fun, but it doesn't provide the same kick in the ass as your first time through the original Halo.
More articles about Halo: Reach