Review: Halo: Reach
It’s not often that I play a game knowing that I’m going to die. I’m usually the Marine that jumps into a helicopter at the last second, the genetically-engineered subject with that last-ditch power, or the Cop who can sure take a lot of bullets, the chosen warrior, the fallen god. I usually know that my preferred- protagonist rewards card will almost always see me through even the most irradiated, explosive, contagious, undead, psychological, high caliber, caramel-filled, and existential disasters possible, but never have I fought a losing battle. Where as in the previous chapters of Halo, where victory is only possible because you’re Earth’s most highly trained super soldier, your armored hands barely holding everything together, in Halo: Reach it seems everything can’t help but fall apart around you.
My first thought when I started playing the campaign was, “wow, Combat Evolved 2!” I mean that sincerely and as a compliment. I loved the hectic sense of several objectives on the same field provided by Halo: Combat Evolved. It just felt realistic at the time, when most shooters were “follow the yellow-cut-scene-triggering road.” The following Halo chapters unfortunately fell into this sequence, making me wonder why the covenant liked putting their bases on linear paths. Reach revisits the objective based roots of Combat Evolved. I might be sent to investigate a comms station but then suddenly have to take a detour to save some Marines; these are the type of sudden developments that have to be dealt with on the fly.
Reach also adds new toys to the Halo armory. I’m a sucker for semi-automatic rifles, and Reach finally introduces a proper one. The DMR (Designated Marksmen Rifle) brings a nice change of pace to Halo. Instead of always running the full-auto spray-paint-sprint into squads of grunts, I also got to play classy, popping a few headshots in mid-run from cover to cover, really feeling the impact of every round. It provided for the nice mid-range sense of being in the action without being surrounded yet without the isolation of sniping. And of course, there’s the DMR’s younger-yet-no-less-attractive sister, the M6G, but we all remember this high-school crush as, “The Pistol.” The Pistol is back in all its Combat Evolved splendor. Sniping with a pistol? Definitely. I honestly forgot I had an assault rifle at times. The armor abilities were also a great addition, but I’ll touch more on those concerning multiplayer.
The decision to not include akimbo capability, I feel, does wonders for Reach’s pacing. In previous Halo titles, I would get muddled in the decision of what to pick up. It really slows the pace of a game when you spend time picking around corpses for a good combo of weapons. Without dual-wielding, you can focus more just picking up whatever’s around and shooting. You do find ammo caches, but there are points where weapons are scarce, and you’ll pick up anything in order to survive. This also introduces you to weapons you might not have considered viable on their own. Pacing is also metered nicely with solid vehicle sections. You’re not presented with situations where vehicles are just a luxury in an otherwise foot soldier section; you’re put in situations where you take a vehicle to survive. There are great moments with the warthog, chock full with vehicle combat and lots of things that go “boom.” And of course there’s the Saber space-flight section that in my opinion, can be expanded into its own viable flight combat game. There’s also a great section with the Falcon, the Osprey-esque twin rotor combat vehicle that provides great aerial mobility. In the Falcon stage, you’re not just downing enemies; you’re running a night patrol and assisting with several simultaneous grounds ops. It’s a great change of pace and it allows you that sense of the greater battle at hand outside of Noble squad.
Of course, how can we talk about Reach without mentioning multiplayer? I have to say, this is some of the most fun I’ve had with multiplayer in a long time. The layout of maps, both large and small, manages to somehow provide simultaneously for metered squad-centric ranged combat and split second turning-the-corner face-offs. This keeps the pacing of online battles fresh and satisfying for all preferences. For example, the Saber launch facility called “Countdown” has this huge open center and long catwalks that spur ranged fighting, yet at the same time, there’s a crisscrossing net of hallways on each side where every turn can mean a muzzle in your visor.
The armor abilities also allow for some interesting tactic. Personally, my favorite is armor lock. On one occasion, I had three team members spot me and I quickly rounded a corner on the “Boardwalk” map. Since they were near, they all pursued me and I then initiated armor lock. For the few seconds that they waited for my invincibility to drop, the rest of my team splattered the place with plasma grenades, taking them out right before my ability ended. The abilities add a new level to multiplayer where every encounter feels like a duel and not just an impersonal passing. “I lowered his shields but mine are down too; do I jetpack toward him and turn for a shot, or do I fly back and toss a grenade?” “I was spotted with half shields and turn a corner and send out a hologram; do I run away and reload my shields, or do I take the risk and try to go for the assassination?” There’s a lot of quick decisions to be made during your shield’s length.
Did you know Reach comes packed with 70% more story!? Yes, it’s not Jane Austen, but it’s more than we’ve received in the past. This is where I’d throw out something campy like “loss” and “perseverance,” but I can just say it’s about holding on, and that’s really what the lore of the Spartan is. Everything falls apart: you save six civilians only to see a transport with 500 onboard get shot down. You go through an entire mission and lose a man to blow up a cruiser just to have an armada show up minutes later, but you just reload and plow through because it’s what you do, it’s what a Spartan would do.
And the sense of personality is a nice change too. It was nice to not be the only cybernetically enhanced super-soldier on the playground. The rest of Noble team has their quirks and nuances that make them charming in their own, elite forces way. Jorge has this sentimental side while Emile is your classic “Get Some” grunt. Jun is the cool guy with the French accent (Leon from the specialist) in the way that snipers with cool French accents are; Kat’s Ocean’s 11 savvy-tech suave while Carter is the of course the leader. What it culminates to is bringing more to stake to Reach. You’re fighting with the only group of soldiers who know what it’s like to be a Spartan, and on top of that, you’re the new guy, so you definitely don’t want to let them down.
After a decade’s worth of space marines, cos-play armor, foul-mouthed nine-year-olds, 1:1 Warthogs, ever-delayed movie scripts, Legendary-Edition-cat helmets, and even a themed Mountain Dew, I think it’s safe to say Bungie’s provided us with some great memories. And I’m sure there’s going to be the flood of internet-worthy Reach paraphernalia and antics in the coming months; hey, we already have Reach Mountain Dew. But more importantly, this is definitely Bungie’s farewell piece. What a great way to say goodbye, through a game that really goes back to that 2001 title that changed the FPS genre.