Halo: Reach single-player review
“From the beginning we know the end.” It’s straight from the marketing department, but that’s definitely a good way to approach Halo: Reach.
The first thing we see upon loading the game is the planet laid waste by the Covenant. In the background is a mountain, its entire surface burnt and smoldering. In the foreground is a lone Spartan helmet, its visor fatally cracked. From there our perspective shifts back in time, showing the protagonist (known only as Noble Six) putting his (or her) helmet on while riding across a rugged landscape to join Noble Team.
Your introduction to Noble Team is quick, but effective. Carter is the leader–though at the service of a distant master. Kat is “number 2”, and the one you’ll actually spend the most time with. Jun is a bit of a cipher, but snipers interact at a distance. Jorge is a giant, and the only member of the team who can say he’s met the Master Chief. Emile is a jerk–but the skull looks cool.
That said, the very first shot can be a little confusing. I’m the new “number six”, as Jorge informs me, so I (initially) thought the broken helmet was of the Spartan I’d replaced–and the planet in the background was a previous colony “glassed” by the Covenant. The second time through, however, I’d upgraded my helmet and changed colors in the Armory–and the broken helmet in the cinematic was my helmet, painted in my colors. No doubt there as to whose death we were talking about.
Armor permutations that show up in all modes of the game represent a subtle improvement, but one of the best made in Reach. No matter what armor permutation and color combination I have–including the flaming helmet unlocked by purchasing the Legendary edition–it is all reflected during the in-engine cutscenes. Seeing my character’s death before I’ve played a single second sets the mood: somber, but not the depression of ODST.
Other improvements under the hood for the single-player include a heavily revised graphics engine. Halo fans will see battlefields more detailed–and considerably bigger than any previous game in the franchise. At numerous points in the game, players get to experience the combination of linear direction and open sandbox play that differentiates Halo from other games in the FPS genre.
There are legacy issues which date back to the very first game: framerates drop at regular intervals, particularly when checkpoints load. I’ve also noticed a significant amount of screen tearing in the early cutscenes, though forum posts indicate it might just be my individual setup.
That said, the main interest is what happens truly in the game, and here the franchise has matured. Levels are beautifully detailed and there’s very little repurposing of assets considering the game’s 8-10 hour length. With a couple exceptions, the only time you will ever back track through a level is to find a different weapon, or one you simply failed to pick up when the game offered it.
The music is well-done, and there are a few bits that are particularly memorable. In the first three games, the monk/instrumental track was dominant (the hard rock bits of Halo 2 notwitshstanding), ODST featured the saxophone as a primary instrument, and Reach features a abstract electric guitar vibe that’s done with great effect. The weapon sound design is also improved: I particularly liked the whip-crack reverb of the DMR (the Battle Rifle’s replacement) and the shattering-glass of Covenant needles exploding.
Sadly, that’s about it when it comes to the game truly shining. Nothing is particularly bad about the rest of the game–it’s just a mixed bag. This includes both story and general gameplay.
I’m going to skirt around the story without spoiling too much. A more detailed plot analysis may be in the cards, but this is not the place. Here’s my take: considering the end is certain, the story has a lot of neat bits and details that I never saw coming. The way the game dovetails into the very beginning of Halo: CE is also a nice touch, and it will surprise even people who have read The Fall of Reach. Where the story fails is that, unlike ODST, which developed its characters and a sense of team quite well for a short campaign, some characters are really well done and others are totally overlooked.
The two best characters in the game, thankfully, are the ones you spend the most time with: Kat and Jorge. Both have unique accents that let their voices stand out, and both feel like they belong in the slightly alien sci-fi setting. Jorge is a “child” of Reach, and while is connection with the Spartan-II program is merely hinted at, he gives Noble Team some, well, nobility. Kat is intelligent, beautiful yet scarred, and a skilled warrior. Game designers looking for a strong female character that’s believable in a military setting should take a long look at her.
Noble Team is lead by Carter. He has none of the depth of Buck from ODST but his voice commands with authority. Considering his presence is typically over the radio, that’s acceptable. Jun, the sniper, is given more than entire level for you to play with but he never leaps out. And then there’s Emile–you’d think a character with a skull etched onto his visor would be interesting. . . but he’s a total let down. His outfit is sweet, but that’s about it.
Written into the game is the inevitability of death. Surrounding all of your battles with the Covenant will be the thought: when will my teammates die? Two deaths in particular are quite meaningful, a third I can barely remember, and a remaining two feel cheap, pointless. Maybe they’re supposed to be pointless, yes, but I saw them as failures of the plot.
All of the deaths occur out of the game in custcenes. In game, your AI teammates cannot die. Not only that, but you will see them take damage that should be fatal again and again and nothing happens. This is one of the worst aspects of the game.
It was probably a difficult design decision for Bungie, and it’s true that ODST had voiced NPCs that couldn’t die, but at the same time ODST didn’t flaunt that fact in front of the player every few minutes. On the one hand, having to wait for AI members to respawn (like the Arbiter in Halo 3) would get annoying, but seeing members get smacked in the face repeatedly by a Hunter and not going down is totally immersion-breaking.
This could have been improved by offering co-op designed around squad play: i.e., humans replace AI members of Noble Team, something done to great success in Gears of War. Instead, co-op partners drop in as anonymous extra Noble Sixes that join in with the various NPC members of Noble Team (some levels feature the whole team, while others are played alongside only one member). I love the campaign scoring system and innovative campaign matchmaking system for hooking up with strangers, but the members of Noble Team are an accessory to that experience.
Noble Team’s AI-controlled members repeatedly ‘not-die’ on-screen, but that’s not the worst aspect of the game. That ‘honor’ goes to the balancing of the Hunters. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and I’ve hated their balancing since Halo: CE, but they are just ridiculous in Reach. Hunters in the first Halo game were a nice challenge, especially given their two-member teams, and there was a nice ‘dance’ that you got into in order to get behind them to nail a couple Magnum or shotgun hits.
Hunters have lost that ‘dance’ since CE, but Reach makes it even worse by radically increasing the amount of damage they take (even in their ‘weak’ spot). Add in the fact that fighting Hunters is also where players see the immersion-breaking experience of NPCs not-dying, and every time a Hunter comes on screen it is the worst part of the game.
Aside from the Hunters, enemy design on the whole is fairly good and the rest of the Covenant is a lot fun to fight. Fun is key–a sandbox which provides no fun has no purpose. The new Skirmisher sub-variant of the Jackal hits the mark where the Drones of previous games failed to provide a fun factor. The new Elites are really challenging, but like the Hunters, feel a tad unbalanced. I’d take more aggressive AI with a weaker shield. Brutes, strangely enough, make an appearance that’s never explained. They’re revised from Halo 3, particularly the Chieftains, but those revisions put them too similar to the Elites.
The best revision comes in the form of Reach‘s Armor Abilities. While these get a lot of use in multiplayer, expect to use everything from Sprint to Jet Pack frequently in the campaign–and have Brutes and Elites use them against you. In fact, the fact that the enemy gets AA’s along with Spartans is one of the best touches to the combat.
There are negatives, and Reach does little to convert non-Halo fans, yet it’s a lot of fun–particularly if you have a good co-op partner (or partners).
But from the beginning, you knew the end. Halo: Reach is a fun game, and a worthy investment for Halo players.