Review – Halo: Reach

The beginning is the end.

After spending more than ten years making Halo games, Bungie has released their final game in the series. Having signed a long-term publishing and distribution agreement with Activision back in April, Bungie will be moving on to new multi-platform projects. Although 343 Studios is expected to carry the Halo franchise forward, Halo: Reach is Bungie’s swan song to the series.

Gameplay:

Halo: Reach is clearly influenced most heavily by the original Halo: Combat Evolved. Dual-wielding of weapons is out, heralding a return to the “Holy Trinity” that defined the first game: Grenades, Gunfire and Melee Attacks. The so-called “30 seconds of fun” that was so addictive in Halo: CE is back in fine form, with the tightest controls and most interesting selection of weapons yet. Old favourites like the scoped pistol, assault rifle and needler are back alongside new armaments such as the Grenade Launcher, Dedicated Marksman Rifle, Plasma Repeater and Needle Rifle. This list is hardly exhaustive, yet despite the wide variety of weapons, everything feels more or less balanced. Reach also introduces animated assassinations, which provide a visceral payoff when you manage to sneak up behind someone. They do leave you vulnerable, however, so you also have the option to simply bop your victim in the head and move on.

Halo 3‘s equipment system has been done away with, replaced with new Armour Abilities. Where equipment offered single-use tools that had to be scrounged from the battlefield, Armour Abilities provide a single benefit that runs on a recharging energy source. Thus, your chosen Armour Ability will remain available to you until you swap it out for a new one (in multiplayer, you usually have the option of changing your armour ability every time you die). Abilities range from the useful but subdued Sprint to gravity-defying Jet Packs to the spectacular but situational Armour Lock – and that’s not even half the list. All are useful in their own way, and the campaign provides opportunities to switch up as you go along.

Armour Lock can save your life in a pinch.

Get the drop with a jet pack. Pull!

Enemy AI has been substantially improved, most especially in the case of the Covenant Elites, who have never been more challenging. Not only are they incredibly tough, but they are also crack shots who remain constantly on the move, ducking, weaving, rolling and strafing, making it very hard to get a solid bead. The gigantic, tank-like Hunters have been fitted with additional armour covering their most vulnerable sections, and even the lowly Grunts have to be dealt with swiftly lest they overwhelm with sheer numbers. You’ll often find yourself facing large numbers of mixed enemies: it’s not unusual for a dropship to deposit eight to ten Grunts, a trio of Jackals and an Elite or two in your path.

While you’ll often have to deal with these situations yourself, you will spend a fair amount of time in the company of AI teammates. Some are the UNSC marines we’ve come to know and love over the last decade, but you’ll frequently be backed up by the SPARTANs of Noble Team. These guys are useful not only for the firepower that they contribute, but also for the fact that they are totally invincible – a useful advantage when things get hairy and you need a breather.

Noble Team (L-R): Jorge, Carter, Emile (bg), Kat, Jun

The friendly AI can be problematic, however. They get stuck on level geometry, won’t fire at enemies who are not within a certain range (usually DANGER CLOSE) and are absolutely dreadful drivers. They are also obnoxiously slow to get into vehicles driven by the player, grinding against the sideboards for a couple of seconds before finally hopping in – a delay that can be costly in the heat of combat. Trading weapons with them is also annoying, as they insist on stopping and slowly turning to face you before making the swap. Again, when you’re looking for a rocket launcher to deal with the advancing alien hordes, a few lost seconds can make all the difference. The game also makes the mistake of taking its audience for granted and assuming that you are familiar with the setting, weapons and vehicles. For example, although Reach‘s campaign features six or seven Armour Abilities, only two have their functions explained in-game. Vehicle controls are likewise neglected.

These problems aside, Halo: Reach is an enjoyable and compelling shooter that ranges across a variety of environments (including a short foray into space for some Ace Combat-style dogfighting). There is only a very small amount of the backtracking through earlier levels that has marked previous games in the series and the time you spend in urban environments versus open spaces is about equal. As you struggle against the unstoppable Covenant armies, you’ll be dropped into some outstanding set-piece battles, and these are where Reach really shines.

Story:

The Halo series is odd in that the story told behind the scenes is much more interesting than the one presented in the games. Little touches like Halo 3’s Terminals hint at the much deeper story behind the gunfire and explosions, but it’s a tale that is not explored very deeply in-game. This is probably a function of the FPS genre, but it’s still a shame. Reach does little to change this, though for once the plot of the game is not a confounding muddle; for the most part, things are as straightforward as they seem. A valiant effort is made to breathe life into the other members of Noble Team, but frankly there are too many of them to really get attached to in the time we’re given. We do get at least one mission with each of our fellow SPARTANs, but we get little insight into who they are beyond Merciless Killing Machines.

Graphics:

Halo: Reach is lovely. If you can drag your eyes away from your scope and take the time to look around, you’ll be treated to some gorgeous and expansive vistas. Character, vehicle and weapon models are highly detailed, and lighting effects are top-notch.

Noble Team on the move.

There is a cost for all this, however. Bungie seems to have pushed the Xbox 360 to its limits, and it shows in cutscenes: character models blur along their edges, a distracting visual effect that detracts from the cinematics. This is apparently a deliberate attempt to hide ‘jaggies’ and cover up a substantial framerate loss during these processor-intense sequences, but the end result doesn’t feel much better. It’s hard to get into a scene when the characters seem to be ghosting around, leaving blurred after-images of themselves in their wake.

Sound:

Sound design is impeccable, as we’ve come to expect from Bungie. Sound effects are visceral and voice acting is convincing. The music is excellent, though I have not yet noticed a marquee piece like Halo: CE‘s Rock Anthem for Saving the World. The Covenant also no longer speak English, and instead jabber at one another in their own languages – a nice touch that makes the enemy even more alien and threatening.

Multiplayer:

You want it, you probably got it: Reach supports 2-4 player co-operative campaign play on a split-screen, over a LAN and through Xbox Live. Firefight, the “Horde Mode” introduced in Halo: ODST is also back, and has the same multiplayer options. And of course, if you prefer to shoot your friends, you can get up to 15 of them together (max 4 people per Xbox) and go to town.

To that end, Reach ships with a number of multiplayer maps, most based on locations that you visit in the campaign. On top of that are the Forge World maps, including a few remakes of classic Halo multiplayer maps like Blood Gulch, Sanctuary and Ascension.

Finally, if none of those appeal to you, there’s Forge World itself. As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, there’s basically no limit to what can be created in Forge World. Need proof? Check out this player-created map:

Yes, that is the inside of a colossal Cube constructed entirely from Forge pieces.

Customization:

Halo: Reach picks up where Halo 3 left off by providing access to a number of armour permutations to allow players to individualize their appearance. Even cooler, your choices affect your appearance in all game modes: campaign, firefight and multiplayer. And while Halo 3 only allowed you to alter your helmet, shoulderpads and chest, Reach has thrown helmet accessories, knee guards, wrist-mounted PDAs, visor colours and more into the mix. Items are purchased using “Credits” which are awarded for playing any game mode (even Forge). Earning Credits also advances your rank, which is a prerequisite for many armour pieces.

Lookin' good.

Reach also tracks all manner of in-game accomplishments, and awards ‘Commendations’ for reaching certain milestones – scoring a certain number of headshots in campaign, for example. Earning Commendations (or just working towards them) is also worth extra Credits. On top of all that, the game also offers daily and weekly Challenges that are worth additional bonus Credits. Examples:

  • Finish every level of the campaign on X difficulty
  • Kill X Grunts today in campaign on Normal or higher
  • Complete X online matches
  • Kill X enemies in online matches
  • Get X Assists in online matches

This is all very cool, but there is one small issue: it seems that if you are not connected to Xbox Live (a free Silver account will do), the game will not track your accomplishments, award credits or advance your rank. I base this assessment on my own misfortune: after spending hours powering through several levels on Heroic, I discovered to my dismay that none of my Challenge progress had been tracked and that I had earned no Credits for my efforts. The next day, after connecting to Xbox Live and playing through those levels again, my progress was duly noted and credits were awarded. While I understand the desire to promote the online features of the game, and while I appreciate efforts to combat cheating, it does kind of suck for those who aren’t interested in Xbox Live.

Also irritating is the fact that your Commendations aren’t listed anywhere in game – you have to sign up on Bungie’s website and link your Gamertag in order to view that information. But while potentially inconvenient, these issues aren’t game-breakers.

Ultimately, Reach is a finely polished shooter that offers a challenging and enjoyable campaign and nigh-infinite replay value through Firefight, Custom Games and online Matchmaking. With clever enemies to fight, beautiful locations to explore, fun guns to shoot, nifty vehicles to drive, and awesome new maps to build and explore, there’s a lot to like. If you’re a fan of the Halo games, Reach is a must-have.

Pros:

  • Tight controls
  • Sweet weapons
  • Slick graphics
  • Cool locations
  • Awesome battles
  • Strong enemy AI
  • Robust online component
  • Considerable customization
  • Forge World

Cons:

  • A few “Bullshit!” moments on higher difficulties
  • Friendly AI is dumb
  • Inadequate tutorials
  • Connectivity to Live is required to enjoy all features
  • Though vastly improved, Forge World is still complex and intimidating

Bottom Line: A great shooter and a worthy addition to the Halo franchise. Check it out.

8.5/10

This Week In Miscellanea: “Going Cyanobacterial”

1. How long has it been since the last “Miscellanea” post? Ages, but like a long dormant virus, Miscellanea keeps coming back. Want to know how? Play Phage Wars 2. Imagine you’re a biochemist, recently hired by the Betz Biosystems metanational. Your objective? The creation of the most lethal virus imaginable. While soothing and vaguely eerie background music plays, test your virus against those created by the geniuses who came before you. Discover new proteins by analyzing your creation’s performance, and carefully re-sequence those genes into your virus to meet the threats presented by advanced testing environments. Can you make a virus strong enough to thrive in a living system?

2. William Gibson, one of my absolutely favorite writers, has concluded the Bigend Trilogy with the recently released Zero History. Check out Gibson’s site for review blurbs, a synopsis, and a quick video that includes the author reading from his work. Now you all know what to buy Rusty for his birthday.

3. Soundgarden are getting back together. I’m not sure how much I care, but having a new video directed by Brendon Small doesn’t hurt.

4. updated: this animated movie is really awesome.

Galgun

Even I Get Boarded Sometimes

Daniel L Smith recently won the “Best Animation” category of the Star Wars Fan Film Movie Challenge, which is run yearly over at Atom Films and sponsored by Lucasfilm. To see this properly you’d need a pair of red/cyan anaglyph glasses, but my eyes got used to it pretty quickly.


I liked it! Not perfect… but you have to admit that the guy who aped Harrison Ford’s voice was eerily good. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch the thing that George Lucas chose to win the whole contest – I threw up in my mouth and then choked to death on vomit and bilious rage. The fanfilm that should have won – the trailer for A Light in the Darkness, which you probably saw a few months back – was only nominated. While a lot of the fanfilms are junk, most of them have their hearts in the right place; luckily for you, you beneficent master Pale Horse has saved you the trouble of fishing through the rest of the nominees:

1. Best parody. The only thing that disappoints me about “Most Interesting Man in the Galaxy” is that he didn’t punch George Lucas in the dick.

2. Best droid. N1-X1 should also win “Best Actor” for this. Boring movie, I-wish-I’d-thought-of-him-first comic relief.

3. Best Animation. It’s depressing how easy it is to more visually interesting than the Clone Wars.

Enjoy, chums.

EDIT: I saw the Light in the Darkness trailer a couple of months ago, and it was new, so I just assumed that the movie wouldn’t come out for ages, or ever. Lo and behold, it turns out that the first part of the movie was released on August 12th, and you should go and check it out right fucking now.

*Fist Pump*

Weekends are a special time, and everyone spends theirs a little differently. Here at O514, we spend many weekends watching movies, playing video games or gathered in someone’s living room for pen-and-paper RPGs.

These guys do something a little different with their down-time.

Forge 2.0: Forge Harder

Halo: Reach hits stores on September 14th, and in addition to a new campaign and more of the frantic multiplayer action we’ve come to expect, Bungie is also building on the Forge map editor that they introduced in Halo 3. We here at O514 haven’t done much Forging, but we might just have to give it a try now that there are improved controls and better tools.

 The new Forge isn’t just easier to use; it also includes an expanded palette of parts and pieces for map builders to play with.

 In classic Halo style, there will be a few remakes of old favourites, and Bungie knew just where to start:

 But what do they mean, “outside the canyon”? It turns out that in addition to all the multiplayer maps that will be available for editing, Bungie has also created a truly massive sandbox area for people to build and play in. The canyon represents about 20% of this ForgeWorld.

 The big reveal was at SDCC:

ForgeWorld started out as several distinct and separate areas that were eventually put together to create a single enormous world for people to build and play in. The five original maps have become marquee areas of ForgeWorld, such as the Rock (the island in the background is another marquee area, big enough for “Sidewinder” or “Avalanche”-type maps):

 

 It may not look like much right now, but with a bit of plywood and a fresh coat of paint, I bet we could turn it into something great.

 Look familiar?

Of course, you won’t be limited to only building in the marquee spots. You’ll be able to create maps anywhere you like. Thanks to new tools, you can fix objects in space or ‘phase’ them into each other. Want to channel Tribes and make all your structures float 500 feet in the air? No problem. Would you prefer a series of platforms jutting out of a cliff face? You can do that, too. And unlike “Foundry” and “Sandbox” (the current ‘blank slate’ maps) it’s no longer necessary to carefully box in your play area to keep people from getting to places they shouldn’t be: ForgeWorld allows you to define the boundaries of your map; players that wander out of bounds can either be given 10 seconds to get back to the play area, or be killed outright.

 One of the Bungie guys is trying his hand at ForgeWorld and is chronicling his progress. Check out the evolution of his map, “Riptide” over several days:

The glowing red dudes are spawn points and demonstrate the size of a Spartan on the map.

Maybe this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to finally recreate some maps of ages past: “Prisoner”, “Boarding Action”, “Hang ‘Em High”?

The Field of Honour

If you enjoyed the trailer for The Goon (and really – who didn’t?), you may also enjoy these shorts by the same studio, Blur: