Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
In many ways, Halo: Reach was up against it. Much like Titanic or a John Lennon biopic, we knew it wasn’t going to end well. So if the tale itself would not be a revlation then the journey to its grim conclusion would have to be strong. With Master Chief otherwise engaged, it’s up to Noble Team to push back against the Covenant.
It’s a slow start, too. With Reach being humanity’s military stronghold in the stars, the planet’s leaders assume their world is impregnable to off-world threats and Noble is charged with no more than routine patrols to investigate a comms failure. Upon arrival, they discover the grim truth: the Covenant have not only found Reach but are planetside.
Noble Team consist of classic military archetypes, from Jorge the hulking Spartan II who has a softer side, to Kat the hardened, cold sniper. During your time on Reach, the other five members of your team will attempt to endear themselves, however they never come across as more than walking clichés, with the possible exception of Jorge. Though it is disappointing after the characterisation seen in ODST, these are Spartans, after all; bred to be intergalactic badasses, and that’s what they do best.
On most missions, you – Noble Six – will be accompanied by one or more of these walking battle fortresses. Their presence lends an air of being attached to a combat unit. Nonetheless, whilst they are effective and will aid you in dispatching everything from Grunts to Hunters, they are not so powerful as to allow you to put your feet up with a Sweet William cigar. They will cause distractions and take out obvious targets, but as combat has always been Halo’s strong point Bungie would not want to take that away with an infallible sidekick.
And as ever, the fire-fights are exceptional. At the very base level there is still the ability to only carry two weapons at a time, causing you to think and balance effectiveness and practicalities against simply wanting to carry your favourite boomstick in your back pocket. Those elements alone can allow a situation to play out in any number of ways depending on what you bring to the party, but on top of that you have the extremely cunning AI, the broad levels that encourage outflanking and outmanoeuvring, and an understanding of the “thirty-seconds of fun” mentality that continually pits you up against different scenarios and forces you to adapt. For me, the stop-and-pop nature of Gears and the monster closets of Call of Duty pale in comparison to this fluid gunplay.
From the first time you encounter a group of Elites you know that Bungie has moved its aliens back towards the original Combat Evolved. There’s no pithy one-liners from the Grunts as they stand over your body firing a plasma pistol mercilessly into your corpse; you understand that these are spry, vicious races intent on your destruction. They’ve toughened up since Halo 3 and should provide a challenge for most even on modest difficulty settings.
In many ways it’s the large and varied combat arenas that makes such a spectacle. Hunting down Jackals through a vast, abandoned water station or scurrying through rocky outcrops in search of an elusive Elite may still objectively be linear as everyone will encounter such a situation, but it is the width and quality of the corridor you are being lead down that elevates Halo above other shooters. Each is designed with the intrinsic understanding that battles aren’t just a back and forth, they are about outflanks, edging to get to just the right position, and using copious amounts of cover as the drop ship pummels your position to deliver reinforcements. There are very few mundane settings, and though they may not necessarily reach the heights of previous entries in the series, all without exception are well crafted.
As an addition to a Spartan’s arsenal, there are now loadouts that enhance the capabilities of the Mjolnir armour. The default is Sprint, but also on offer are Armour Lock, the ability to project an invulnerable shield about yourself; Hologram, generating a digital copy of yourself to distract Covenant forces; and Jetpacks, allowing a Spartan to take to the skies. All prove useful, and most can be utilised in the same situations to vary how combat is approached. Should you sprint round the back of an enemy tank? How about slowly progressing, shielding yourself at intervals from its onslaught? Or distract it with a hologram before removing a startled driver?
Rather than allow a player to specify a load-out however, they are only available as pick-ups at certain points. Though this is understandable in the case of the possibly map-breaking Jetpack, the ability to assault a level in a myriad of ways using a different load-out each time is somewhat of a missed opportunity; a feature that would have no doubt created some very interesting single-player and co-op approaches.
As a whole, Reach appears to be a considered attempt to pick the best bits of previous Halo’s. Whether this is coincidence or simply a reaffirmation of Bungie’s style is hard to say, but there’s that night-time sniper mission, that tank mission, and the obligatory assault along the coast that’s already a trademark. Individually, each section is high quality, pitching the player against a series of interesting set pieces, though personally I found at times it lacked the spark found in previous titles. This is never more evident than in the concluding portions. For the entirety of the tale, tension has been ratcheted in a slowly building spiral that promises an epic culminating battle… which never arrives. I can assure you now that there is no manic Warthog drive to safety at the end, instead it takes more of a cue from Halo 2, cutting the action when it promised something so much greater.
Had this review been penned immediately after such a disappointment, it would not have fared well. Since then however, I have wandered once more through Reach, and on the return journey the quality of the product shines through. The portrayal of epic battles, the hugely varying situations of strife you find yourself in, and the willingness to mix pitched battles with quick and dirty skirmishes kept reminding me of what I originally found so great about Master Chief’s adventure all those years ago.
It will divide opinion; some will rue the seemingly recycled environments and familiar backgrounds, but that’s like condemning the use of pipes in games featuring plumbers. Halo is what it is, and that’s a slick refinement of sand-box combat. 343 Industries have a mighty task ahead of them to keep up the standard.