Halo: Reach multi-player review

Halo: Reach, like Halo 3 before it, possesses one of the most replayable campaigns in gaming. Sure, there’s no RPG dialog trees or choices to make, but the various difficulty levels, skull permutators, and the all-important meta-game scoring gives new life to the same story. The new addition in Reach–matchmaking on campaign levels with complete strangers, not just Xbox LIVE friends–is a great thing for people like me with few (if any) friends that play Halo.

The quality of the campaign, both in terms of gameplay and narrative, is something of a mixed bag that I covered previously in my campaign review.

As for the quality of the multi-player, I can unabashedly say that this is the best Halo game yet. Everything else is in the details. Reach won’t convert many (if any) of those who haven’t liked previous titles in the franchise, but read on if you’re interested in those details.

Some people don’t like fragging friends or strangers, but working together. For those folks, or die-hard adversarial MP players just looking for a break, Firefight is back and better than ever. First introduced as part of the ODST expansion for Halo 3, this is Halo’s take on Gears of War‘s Horde mode. The basics remain unchanged, with the maps still being based off of certain spaces from the campaign.

Where it gets better is in the details. First, for local or online custom games with friends, Bungie has introduced a large number of customizable options.  Want to fight only Grunts with snipers, invisibility, and infinite ammo? Why not!

One of the problems with Firefight in ODST was that, for those of us who not only don’t want to frag our friends, but don’t have any Xbox LIVE friends into Halo, it wasn’t much use. While a certain amount of progression is possible solo, it’s really designed around four players–and Reach gives players like myself the ability to use public matchmaking to enter Firefight matches. These won’t be marathon affairs (yet), but Bungie did recently raise the time limit on the matches to 30 minutes. This gives a much better experience than the brief 10 minute matches that Reach first launched with.

The netcode Bungie uses to back-end the campaign and Firefight is more prone to lag than the multi-player back-end, but serious issues have only cropped up occasionally. The public side of Firefight is probably going to see a lot of tweaking, since it’s one of the few things in Reach that’s truly brand-new.

For those who just want to kill/out-think the opposition. Here the core of Halo remains, with a strong emphasis on the classic Team Slayer that has served the franchise so well. Not only are the slightly more ‘social’ playlists back, but Bungie has added the new Arena mode to keep the hardcore fans coming back on a regular basis. See, instead of ranking up in skill level on a permanent basis, players now have to be rated every month. Getting into the Onyx division last month means nothing this month if you haven’t played at all.

One part of Reach that really shines, though, is the Team Obective playlist. Though currently sparsely populated, Bungie has taken my least favorite part of Halo 3 and turned it into my current favorite haunting spot online. New gametypes like Stockpile and Headhunter add some spice, and armor abilities add a number of new tactical approaches to the game. The maps, too, play a big role.

For instance, my favorite map on the game disc is Asylum, a symmetrical map built inside Forge World that is very small just a touch bigger than Foundry from Halo 3. The layout is damn near perfect, because a central structure gives very few direct sightlines from base to base, but there are numerous ways for teams to attack flag spawns and other objective locations. Add in two turrets, two snipers, and an energy sword on such a small map, and stalemates require skilled play to break. It plays well in straight up Slayer, but it really shines in Objective play.

One of the big disappointments in Objective initially was the remake of Blood Gulch, called Hemorrhage. Here each side got a Scorpion tank–but unlike Valhalla from Halo 3–there were virtually no power weapons to combat the tank. So, whoever won the initial tank battle at the start of the match controlled the game from there. Bungie quickly acted to remove the tank and the map now plays quite well.

It’s precisely this kind of tweaking that makes Halo games safe buys–Bungie will stick around to provide support long after launch.

Despite a few rare balancing issues like the tank on Hemorrhage, the core gameplay retains its famous level of balance and polish. Power weapons are placed on the map in strategic locations, but the combination of grendades, armor abilities, and standard weapons that are more than effective gives players good tactical options in most every situation. Those new armor abilities really change gameplay, particularly the Jet Pack, but I haven’t noticed any one AA that could be considered overpowered.

Jet Pack adds an incredibly amount of mobility, but its recharging “fuel” is rather limited and flying around many of the maps makes players a rather easy to hit target because opponents have clear sightlines when you’re flying up in the air. The ability to Sprint is also a big addition–how did we survive three games without it? The other AA’s have their place, but it’s really a matter of experimentation for players to find the one that works for them.

Discussing armor abilities brings us to the armor itself, particularly the return to a shield/health-bar combo from the CE days. Once the shield pops, you will take damage–and that damage is more or less permanent until you find a health-pack on the map. While having a health-bar is better than the seemingly arbitrary number of hit points I could absorb in Halo 3, I hate having to take myself out of the fight and find a health-pack just because my health is in the red.

Speaking of shield-popping, though, Bungie has done an excellent job of showing players with visual and auditory cues exactly when an opponent’s shield evaporates. Once that shield is down, a single headshot or melee will do the job. Until it’s down, though, only a handful of weapons will one-hit kill: direct Rocket Launcher hits, very close grenade detonations, very close shotgun hits, and headshots with the Sniper Rifle. These improved cues–combined with the fact that melee strikes will only kill if the shield is already down–have removed many of the ambiguities that plagued combat in Halo 3. It’s a lot clearer what will kill someone when.

The tools to get the job done. It wouldn’t be any fun to kill strangers online without an impressive armory. Here I’ll focus on noteworthy changes to both human and Covenant arsenals, though many of the nuances are best left for another article–or simply for your own experimentation.

Before I do that, I have to note one large change that affects nearly every weapon. Whereas all weapons, especially the BR, fired with a fixed rate of fire in Halo 3, players can now push that rate of fire faster at the expense of accuracy. Bungie accomplishes this by the way the targeting reticle “blooms” after each shot. It’s a nice touch that gives players a choice. It also makes the DMR more effective in CQB than the BR was.

Human weapons:

  • The biggest change for overall gameplay, because it affects every playlist, is grendade behavior. Human grenades not only have a large blast radius, but they have a lot more ‘bounce’ to them before they detonate. That detonation is now also on a longer, stricter timer.
  • Another big shift is the introduction of the DMR–a replacement for the beloved Battle Rifle. Essentially, each round from the DMR equates to the damage of a three-round burst of the BR.
  • Keeping with the trend of returning to Halo: CE, the Magnum finally gets its scope back. This is another weapon that you can really push the rate of fire up, but it’s only a six round clip. Unless you land every shot, you’re stuck reloading–and probably will die.
  • The reticle bloom gives poor snipers like myself a boost, because you can spam two shots to the body rather than having to go straight to the head.
  • The shotgun appears to have a ‘touch’ more range, but it’s not the obscenely long range weapon of Modern Warfare 2.

Covenant Weapons

  • The biggest change here is the removal of the Beam Rifle, replacing it with what’s called the Focus Rifle. Think a Sentinel Beam meets sniper weapon. It’s not as over-powered as you might think, but in the right hands it’s quite effective.
  • The carbine from Halo 3 gets the axe in favor of a Needle Rifle. Think the human DMR with a shallower clip and explosive needles. It will give supercombine kills like the standard Needler, but the rounds do not home. My favorite part of the weapon are the exploding glass sound effects when getting shot by it.
  • Everything else is tweaked, but mostly carryover. And yes, the plasma pistol is as worthless as ever.

Vehicles are mostly unchanged. The only big addition here is the new Covenant vehicle called the Revenant. It’s just as fast and maneuverable as the Ghost, but it fires a weaker yet faster version of the Wrath’s plasma mortar. It’s also a two-seater–which makes it really nice in CTF matches. Whereas a ‘Hog can get the job done, it requires three people (driver, gunner, and flag-carrying passenger). The Revenant is a touch weaker, but it only needs a driver/gunner and the flag-carrier.

The one lone disappointment with Reach is the rather uninspired Invasion mode. This is a phased objective mode along the lines of Rush from Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and while it’s a nice addition to the franchise, it doesn’t stack up well against DICE’s style of play. For instance, the maps and objectives rely on a handful of chokepoints for the variety of play, so tactics are relatively limited–unlike the wide open (and destructible) battlefields of BC2.

Moreover, while Bungie does introduce the ability to spawn on location or on a randomly selected ‘squadmate’, it’s typically not much of a choice. If your squadmate is dead, it’s back to the beginning of the map–which means a long run before you can get back in the action on offense. An even worse flaw is the fact that there is only one spawn point for each squad–so a wily enemy team can work their way across the map and spawn camp. One match that this happened to me I ended up with a K/D of -25 all because of spawn camping that I had no option to avoid.

That said, where the tiered/phase concept does shine is when Bungie applies it back to a deathmatch form in what’s called Invasion Slayer. Though it’s currently stuck in the same hopper as the faulty Invasion mode, the escalating power of weapons and the ability to capture “reinforcements” (power weapons and vehicles) makes this gametype not only tactical but also fun in a way that Invasion itself isn’t.

Invasion’s blemish aside, Reach‘s multi-player makes it one of the best offerings available on consoles today. Moreover, the inclusion of a fully customizable Forge map on the disc ensures that polished community (and developer) maps will make it out to everyone for free, not just those who purchase the DLC. This gives Reach a lifespan far beyond many shooters outside of the mod-heavy PC realm.


  1. Good review, and I must try the objective games more. I’m a big fan of Firefight but the lag in online play is awful. I played with a friend who only lives 20 miles away and we had lots of stalling and “waiting for player” pauses. Grrr.

    • David

      Bungie does have an online article about optimizing networking settings, and there is a menu setting in-game that tracks network performance. But, yeah, the sync model they use is not as good as straight up MP and much more prone to lag.

      Are your/your friend’s consoles on WiFi? That can often have a big latency impact versus straight harline cat5e.

      • My xbox is tethered to a cable, but chances are my friend is using wifi. He’s a beast at multiplayer so there’s a huge difference between lag in multiplayer and firefight. What’s so frustrating is that Firefight is an enjoyable mode to play when I don’t feel like battling human players.

        Both of us have fairly fast broadband but we’re using DSL with it’s rubbish upload speed so that probably doesn’t help either.

  2. David

    The very first night I played Firefight, I had a ton of lag. What’s weird, though, is that you do adjust to it after a few minutes. It’s not the ideal experience, but it’s workable.

    The other nights I’ve played, though, the lag is barely noticeable despite using the public matchmaking servers.

  3. Nice review,

    I’m not a sufferer of terrible lag in Firefight it’s the usual suspect Big Team Battle that really gets me twitching about how long my full strength team will last.

    One thing I will say about the mulitplayer though, and I am a fan of Halo, is that the matchmaking is, in my opinion, not as sensitive to your personal settings as it could be; I’m set up for chatty but hardly ever seem to get other people with mics which arent already in privuate chat.

    You have inspired me to try out a few more objective based games too, so that should be interesting 🙂

    BG xx

    • David

      I’ve gotten sucked into CoDBlops right now, but when I’m on Reach I typically live in the Arena or Objective hoppers. Objective has some duds, but most of the modes work really well.

      The mention of Big Team is something I’d forgotten–thanks! Not quite as atrocious as it was in Halo 3, but it’s pretty close. Maybe now that Bungie is part of Activision they can have the CoD devs teach them how to back-end matches that allow people (other than the host) to drop in and out invisibly 🙂

      Or, heck, talk to DICE and have some absolutely crazy maps and player counts.

  4. Some new interesting ways to manage the difficulties of lag and quitters (dont even get me STARTED on quitters!) would be a great way to support Reach, at the moment there is more betrayal and quitting than I would like, but still… it cant be perfect!

    Invisible drop in, drop out would be awesome, except for me as I’ll bet I’ll get dropped into someone’s sights!

    BG xx

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