Halo means so much to so many people. This is not extraordinary in the culture of videogames. What's exceptional is how many different things it means to those players. For me Halo has always been a social experience, with lifelong friendships forged over a shared love of the game. Some hop online to randomly test their merit in competitive matches. Others find themselves lost in the fiction, playing through the campaign alone and then poring over the extended story in books and anime. Still others look to Halo for a creative outlet as level forgers or machinima producers. This range in how we play Halo is a testament to how feature-rich development studio Bungie has made the franchise, and Halo: Reach is the ultimate punctuation on a decade's work.
This is the end of the Halo road for Bungie -- the group is set to move on to a new original game next while Microsoft takes over responsibility for the franchise's future -- and that sense of this being a finale is in Halo: Reach. It shows clear reference to past games, refines well-established game mechanics, adds a few exciting twists, and polishes the rest to a glossy finish. The result is one of the most complete, fully-featured packages you'll find in gaming.
Watch the Halo: Reach Video Review
Little here will surprise the hardcore Halo fan, especially if they were among the millions that took part in the multiplayer beta earlier this year. The approach to making a first-person shooter remains the same as it has in the past for Halo. There's a co-op friendly campaign filled with the dreaded Covenant aliens, sparkling online competitive multiplayer, the four-player Firefight mode, and lots of flexibility to allow everyone to tweak settings to their liking. If you've played a Halo game in the past, you'll feel instantly at home.
That's not to say this is just another rehash. There's plenty of new and exciting content in Halo: Reach and it begins with the main character. Master Chief is out. This time you'll step into the shoes of Noble 6, a nameless hero for players to project themselves onto. Noble 6 doesn't even have a defined gender. Thanks to a deep new customization system, you're free to fit Noble 6's look to your personality.
Noble 6's tale begins with an introduction to Planet Reach. This colony is the center of humanity's military might, and home to the Spartan program that produced Master Chief himself. The events of Halo: Reach take place as a prequel to the main Halo trilogy and -- though they take small liberties with the established fiction -- help to tell the story of the events that lead up to events of Halos 1 through 3. The war with the Covenant is already raging, and things don't look good for us humans.
Noble 6 is the rookie member of Noble Team, a squad of Spartans stationed on Reach. You'll get to know each of the other team members through the course of Halo: Reach as you work with them to complete various missions, but the action always follows Noble 6's adventure.
The whole shebang will last you about nine or ten hours on your first play through on the Heroic difficulty (less if you're real good and more if you aren't). During that time you'll find a lot of tried and true mainstays of the Halo formula. That means plenty of big battlefields, crazy vehicles, lots of aliens to fight, and tons of weapons to help make the Covenant pay. Though past Halo games were filled with repetitive landscapes and circuitous, difficult to follow plots, Halo: Reach does not suffer from these problems.
This is the most straightforward and enjoyable tale of destruction the franchise has yet to produce. And don't worry if you haven't played the other Halo games yet – though Reach will feel a lot deeper and more compelling to longtime Halo fans, it can stand on its own as a self-contained story. The tale starts out simple enough, but it quickly escalates to stunning set pieces before pulling out all the stops. The last third of the game is just one big thrill ride, and the revelations that occur during that part of the game are sure to make any Halo buff go ballistic. The ending in particular left a huge impression on me. I don't want to spoil anything, but just know that the space combat Bungie used to tease Halo: Reach is only the beginning.
Now, though the Halo formula is intact and there are plenty of wink-and-a-nod references to past games, Reach is a big step forward. Little successful elements of old Halo games are sprinkled here or there while a newfound sensibility in level design and pacing is wrapped around the core. The action is always moving through one combat scenario to the next, with plenty of gameplay and scenario twists to keep things fresh.
The best new addition? Armor abilities. These are an evolution of the equipment found in Halo 3 and drastically change the way you play in their updated form. These temporary but reusable extra abilities add things like sprinting, jet packs, and invincible armor to the franchise for the first time. The result is a faster, more acrobatic game that affords the player more flexibility in how they'd like to approach each fight. Also, jet packs are awesome. How did we go without them this long?
These new features and refined, classic design work in concert well enough that Halo: Reach often meets that gaming ideal of pure immersion -- the core components that can remind you that you're playing a game are a nonentity while you focus on the action at hand. While playing I found myself slipping into that state quite often, only occasionally ripped out by nasty difficulty spikes. Halo: Reach is a tough game on the harder settings -- easily the most difficult in the franchise -- and it only gets more challenging as you add co-op players thanks to a scaling difficulty.
That sense of immersion is helped along quite a bit by the amazing audio work and the new graphics engine built for Halo: Reach. Marty O'Donnell, the lead sound guy at Bungie, has once again delivered an epic soundtrack that is so good that it elevates the entire game. That's no small feat.
While that music pummels your ear drums, your eyes get to feast on one gorgeous looking game. The alien vistas and color palette are striking, and the sense of scale is oftentimes off the charts. You're fighting amidst a war that rages across an entire planet, and Bungie doesn't let you forget it. Even so, there are times when the epic battles don't quite feel so incredible thanks to a lack of detail or the occasional framerate stutter while the engine can't keep up with what's happening.
It's difficult to separate out the core components of Halo: Reach because they all sort of blend together into one massive experience. The campaign can be played alone or with up to four-players on a split-screen or online. Likewise, you can play the Firefight mode, a single map test of skill and endurance against waves of Covenant enemies, with a few friends cooperatively. All of those great additions that made it into the campaign? Well they're here too. This mode was introduced in Halo 3: ODST, but has finally met its promise thanks to online matchmaking and a more robust set of options. One of which is a competitive versus mode where you can compete for points while one or more players take up the side of the Covenant.
Or you can just go all out in a fight against other players by joining the competitive online multiplayer game. Like Firefight, the core concept remains the same as past Halo games while new features, weapons and modes have been added. Armor abilities and tweaked physics make the game that millions have poured hours and hours into feel fresh once again. It doesn't hurt that the new modes like Headhunter and Invasion are a ton of fun. The format is warmly familiar, but it all feels so new after digging into the competitive game and learning new tricks and skills.
Wrapped around all of this is an addition that Bungie calls player investment. Everything you do -- be it play the campaign or complete an online match -- earns you credits. Rack up enough and you can unlock customization features to make your Noble 6 look elite, and that look carries through all modes in the game -- even cut scenes. Don't be surprised if you find a goofy, pink-and-blue Noble 6 invading your game like IGN editor-in-chief Hilary Goldstein did. If you make your character look dumb, it's your own fault.
Likewise, Xbox Live members can take part in daily or weekly challenges created by Bungie with an eye towards compelling players to come back again and again to prove their skills. This, for me, is the kicker. I don't think I'm going to be able to stop logging on every few days for a new challenge, followed by a little message to a friend taunting them about how I did it faster.
The one aspect of Halo: Reach I found lacking was in the multiplayer map selection. There are 13 total for competitive games, but four of those are either direct copies or retreads of maps from past Halo games. Everything plays quite differently with all of the gameplay tweaks, but I can already see myself looking forward to the first map pack. It's tough to complain about a lack of content in such a feature rich game, but I was left hoping for more.
That issue is mitigated to some extent by the incredible amount of flexibility built into Halo: Reach. The Forge, where players can lightly edit the competitive maps, is back and now much more user friendly. Most won't take advantage of that tool, but they will benefit from the new map and game variants that the hardcore create and share with the community.
It's also incredibly simple to just hop in and edit the rules of the game, both for Firefight and in normal multiplayer games. You can tweak everything from which enemies you face in Firefight to how much damage weapons do, and a whole lot more. Think of a crazy game variant -- even one that doesn't have anything to do with shooting -- and you can probably make it and share it with your friends in Halo: Reach. The whole system is incredibly powerful and equally impressive. The only downer is that there is no way to search for a custom game. If a game type isn't in the predetermined matchmaking hoppers and you don't have friends online, you're out of luck.
All told, the multiplayer suite is one of the best ever. The Halo multiplayer game has been expanding since the early days of the original Xbox, and now it's hit a point where the amount of , flexibility, number of modes, and potential for fun is just out of this world. Very few other games can compete with this level of polish, presentation, and attention to detail. And just when you think you've seen it all, don't forget to hop on to bungie.net to find extra stats, shared in-game screenshots and movies, and a vibrant community ready to help you extend the life of your game for months and months.