During the opening forty-or-so minutes of Halo Reach, it’s quite possible that many fans are going to come face to face with the frankly distressing realisation that Bungie may have, as a coarse fictional teenager once exclaimed, gone and screwed the pooch. It is not that Halo Reach‘s beginning is a damp squib – it absolutely isn’t that – but it’s so familiar, so measured and so lacking in that patented brand of awe-inspiring spectacle that it feels like it’s been made by a team who are trying to disguise the fact that they’re running on empty.
Bungie have talked so much smack about Reach that you can’t help but wonder at this point if the pressure has finally gotten to them, and they’ve completely lost sight of what made the Halo series so special in the first place. But immediately after that slightly worrying episode, Halo Reach gets better. And then better. And then even better than that. In fact, its quality progresses at such an absurd rate that the entire final tier of the game – which clocks in at well over four hours of gameplay time on the Normal difficulty setting – maintains an incomparably consistent level of intravenous excitement that easily surpasses everything that has ever come before it in the Halo universe.
The musical score is richer, the cutscenes are more cinematic and more involving, and one of the things that Bungie have always excelled at – creating worlds of daunting scope that they then adeptly precede to guide you through, without leaving you feeling as if your hand is ever being held – is more in evidence here than it ever has been. Halo Reach is an utterly gigantic game in every conceivable department (even if it doesn’t quite begin that way) but Bungie have once again ensured that their vision, which has always included gentle and idiosyncratic humour as well as numerous sly nods to projects past, plays as much of a part in proceedings as the gameplay does.
As usual, the AI has been much improved (enemies are now far fonder of leaping away from grenades than they were previously) a few new weapons have been introduced (including the punchy Concussion Rifle and the Target Locator, which enables a form of artillery strike) and there are countless examples of warm-hearted homage; for example, one of the environments that appears very late in the campaign is a remake of one much-loved Halo 2 multiplayer map. And whilst the ability to control discarded forklift trucks throughout the main story mode seems like Bungie being eccentric and flippant, this only lasts until you realise that you can actually use them to shift cover around.
In some quarters, 2004’s Halo 2 was deemed to feature a story that was perhaps a little too ambitious, and ironically enough Halo 3 was similarly griped about by a small few for not being ambitious enough. Halo Reach however, with its esoteric plot machinations streamlined by a classic action movie arc, strikes the perfect balance. The behind-closed-doors political decision-making of the UNSC forms a large part of the narrative once again, but the main focus is kept on the straightforward, action-heavy adventures of Noble Team, which means that anyone who has always been disinterested in the former is free to get swept up in the outright exuberance of the latter.
The biggest change to the core gameplay comes in the form of the new armour abilities, which completely re-shape multiplayer bouts, but are initially drip-fed to you throughout the campaign, giving you ample time to experiment with each of them (in perfectly suited story-based situations) before frequently offering up the option to exchange them, at quiet locations that you’ll encounter between lulls in the action. You’ll also pilot a spaceship during one level, to defend an allied cruiser against a Covenant attack. Like all vehicle-based sections in any Halo game, control is effortless and oddly individual with it.
But of course, despite the inordinate strength of the single-player campaign, it merely represents (at best) half of the overall package. There isn’t much that’s left to be said about Halo’s multiplayer component, except that Halo Reach represents the very best example of it. The new armour abilities really do completely alter the pace and aura of each bout, and if you thought that there were an almost infinite number of ways for a skirmish to play out in Halo 3, then prepare to be utterly flummoxed by this. However, if these new dynamics are not to your liking, then classic games are an ever-present choice online too.
As with both Halo 3 and ODST, the campaign supports four-player co-op, and anyone who hasn’t experienced a Halo game like this before should definitely dip their toes in here. Firefight returns from ODST in an immeasurably more extensive and confident fashion, and looks to have almost as much life in it as the online multiplayer does. Forge has been similarly upgraded, and at a recent Microsoft press event, we saw some classic Halo maps being recreated to an almost pitch-perfect degree in mere minutes.
So appropriately enough, Bungie have truly outdone themselves this time. They’ve given the franchise that thrust them into the premier league the ultimate send-off, and whether you’re someone who hasn’t touched a Halo game since the glory days of the original Xbox, or someone who’s been patiently waiting for the release of Reach since it was first announced at E3 in 2009, both parties are whole-heartedly encouraged to get involved immediately. Because Halo Reach is quite simply the definitive Halo experience, and very possibly Bungie’s masterpiece.
Watch the Halo Reach trailer here…