Video gaming is still a very immature medium, both in terms of its age and the audience to which it primarily caters, whether literally through machines like the Wii or figuratively, through juvenile and crudely-executed play mechanics (for example, collecting nudie magazines as a side quest). Every so often a game will come along that truly tries to stand out, to break the mould and try something new, be it story (Psychonauts), atmosphere (Shadow of the Colossus) or gameplay mechanics (Guitar Hero), but most of the time anyone trying any of the former two will meet with mediocre sales at best. For this reason, most improvements tend to be incremental rather than radical, building on established themes and methods and tweaking them, sometimes in ways that would be, if not imperceptible, then certainly unimportant to anyone but ardent fans of the medium.
Looking objectively at the new Halo game in this light, it is very difficult to argue that it, or even the wider Halo series, represents anything special in video games: after all, the tale of a grizzled space marine shooting aliens with laser guns is possibly the least original premise that exists in modern video gaming. But the Halo series is all about those little refinements, about a game-playing experience that really is the leanest, most efficient and distilled version of the art in so many ways that set it apart from its contemporaries. Reach isn’t perfect by any means, but Bungie are nudging ever closer to perfection with every iteration in the series, from both a single- and multiplayer point of view, and also getting quicker at doing it (the last entry, the excellent but brief ODST, came out only 18 months ago).
For all but the last game in the series (with the exception of the RTS Halo Wars), you have controlled Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, last of the cybernetically-enhanced Spartans of the UNSC human forces, fighting the group of alien races collectively known as The Covenant. Reach takes us back to before the first Halo game with a prequel, largely to get round that problem of him being the last one so they could give him a team of similarly-sized super-soldiers to work alongside. This time you play Noble 6, the sixth member of the Noble team (straightforward enough, right?): different name, nigh-identical character. To hide this slightly, from the beginning you’re encouraged to personalize your Spartan with different helmet types, knee pads, colours and other things that A: make no difference to the gameplay, B: you’ll very rarely even see, what with it being a FIRST PERSON shooter and all, and C: most of which you won’t be able to afford at the start of the game anyway. That said it’s a nice little touch that helps you connect to your character, especially if you happen to be female, as for the first time there’s a gender option available for the fairer sex to kick some alien butt too (though I can only imagine the sort of reactions you would receive if you should enter an Xbox Live deathmatch with a female character model, judging by the general standard of politeness and restraint that Halo players usually display online).
The story itself is actually one of the weaker points in Reach, and is really a lot more straightforward and unexciting than previous entries such as last year’s ODST. They retain from that title some of the squad-based banter, which is definitely welcome from the point of view of drawing you in to the flimsy story, the cutscene interactions between squad members being by far the best part of a plot that is basically ‘go there, get that thing, kill anything between you and it’. OK, it’s an FPS, I’m not expecting Shakespeare, but compare this to any previous Halo and you can’t help but be a little disappointed. Another slight letdown is the voice cast; with last year’s sci-fi nerd fanservice of the ODST cast being basically that of Firefly reunited, the cast of nobodies employed to voice Noble Team in Reach really shows.
One thing that is as good as ever is the awesome score, with a nice mix of the now-standard choral chanting and hard, catchy guitar riffs as the situation warrants. This is another area in which the Halo series stands head and shoulders above its peers, but although there’s a lot to commend about the soundtrack to Reach as an exercise in using cinematic techniques to set an emotional tone, nothing here beats out the classic Halo themes established and perfected in earlier entries in the series (some of which make a very welcome, if unnecessarily remixed, return).
With the rich mythology and reputation for story quality that Bungie have built up with the Halo series over the years, they are often required not to innovate wildly in order to keep their fans amused year after year, but rather not too deviate too far from the established ‘feel’. In other words, just don’t fuck it up. One area where they gamers will always give them free reign to improve, however, is in the quality of the graphics, and this is certainly the prettiest looking Halo game yet. Over the years the Halo world has gone through multiple enhancements, with subtle improvements on textures and models as the advances in technology allow, and the subtle new character designs on the standard enemies and weapons, which never feel out of place or jarring, a tradition they carry through here.
The flipside of having a built-in fanbase, and especially when you’re doing a prequel, is that you can’t change things too much without raising questions such as ‘why haven’t we seen this vehicle/character/enemy before; especially as this is a prequel. Generally they manage to sidestep this restraint admirably, either by introducing new vehicle sections in settings not previously seen in Halo games. The only thing that we do see for the first time here that is not present in the other Halo games are the new activated armour powers, expanded from the standard sprint to include extra shields, adaptive camouflage (cloaking), and jet packs (sadly nowhere near as fun as they sound). There are also a couple of completely new enemies, but one is only seen in the last level and the other only appears once in the game (though there are two of them at that point), which does leave you feeling that they maybe erred a little too much on the side of caution.
The gameplay mechanics are largely unchanged (i.e. ‘not fucked up’), even if the aim is sometimes a little too generous, almost guiding bullets to your target when one might reasonably expect a near miss, and enemies are a lot more accurate with grenades than ever before- most of the time I died in Reach was because I suddenly exploded from a sticky grenade hurled soundlessly (and unnoticeably fast) from some unseen enemy. Overall if you liked the other Halos, you won’t be disappointed, and it’s a system I much prefer to the hair-trigger twitch gaming of titles like COD: Modern Warfare.
The single player campaign clocks in at around 8 hours, which is not as much as I’d like, but at least it’s more than ODST’s weedy 5-hour affair. The missions are fun and almost nostalgic in their Halo-ness, and they do mix things up as previously mentioned with several vehicle-based sections, though by the end you’ll spend what feels like half the game forced into vehicles rather than on foot, which is a bit too long for my liking. The levels are well designed, as one would expect from Bungie, but there’s nothing really memorable here; the last level and the after-credits sequence is nice, but there’s nothing that you’ll go back to specifically to play with friends: that’s what the multiplayer is for.
In summary then, it’s fair to say this isn’t the best Halo game ever. It’s still an excellent game, with a level of detail, style and maturity rarely seen in games, and even more so in the FPS market. It’s just that if you compare its component parts against other entries in the series, though it might be near the best in some areas, it often comes up short. ODST had better voice acting, Halo 3 had a better story, Reach is the prettiest, Halo 3 had the best weapons, and Halo 1 had more memorable levels. It’s not even as easy as saying that it’s ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than something like ODST or Halo 3; it’s simply as good, but in different ways.