It’s hard to really understand the appeal of Halo. Its success as a pop culture phenomenon may have had a lot to do with the rather vacuous quality of its game world. A low-involvement shooter for an attention deficit age. It wasn't for a lack of trying either, as Bungie have put in the time and energy to flesh out the fiction in a variety of different media. Books, anime, comics, short films; they've tried it all. In fact, the fiction comes off stronger in these ancillary outings than it does in the core video games. Unfortunately, the blame for this inability to translate a decade worth of rich lore into a tangible and believable game world lies on Bungie themselves. The gameplay may have been thoroughly enjoyable, but everything around it was very ordinary.
There was nothing there to invest in or care about after you turned our console off. Therefore, the most significant question on the eve of Reach's release was whether it would finally redeem the series, and not feel like a by-the-numbers Bungie-patented shooting gallery with candy-colored aliens and environments, tied together by a barebones story involving another uncharismatic super-soldier to tie it all together.
This just happens to be Bungie’s last Halo game for Microsoft before they move forward on their multi-platform publishing deal with Activision. Fans and non-fans alike are hoping for Bungie to deliver something special: A Halo for the ages. Something we’ll remember them by. With expectations so high, you have to hand it to them for not taking the easy way out and falling back on Master Chief for security. They’re also due kudos for setting the game during the same timeframe as Eric Nylund’s Fall of Reach novel (a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved). Anything that helps up the complexity of the game world is fair game for idea-pillaging, and a step in the right direction. Familiarity is also an enemy more formidable than the Covenant. Could Bungie build an interesting experience based on a planet whose fate most Halo nuts are familiar with, or at least know the end of? Will they finally come good on all the promises?
Note: Multi-player is an essential component of the Halo: Reach experience, but due to time limitations, this review is based solely on the game’s single-player campaign.
They have, and in style no less. First impressions are overwhelmingly positive. The menus are high on usability and unusually clean, while the cutscenes are well directed and gritty, utilizing a lot of handheld and documentary-esque camera work. It isn’t that the game isn’t fun, mind you, but the mood is more somber and introspective than any Halo title thus far. You’re also treated to a beautiful portrait of Reach from orbit as the game loads up, the calm before the storm as it were, and one that sets the tone for a story that can only end badly for our species. This is also the first game in the series that lets you bring a custom Spartan into campaign mode (either male or female). Your well-rounded squad mates, who make up Noble Team, are a bit less generic. Not only are they fully voiced, but they also have distinct characters, names and identifiable ethnicities. The game also makes it a point to show you their well-rendered faces as often as it can, especially during cutscenes and downtime between firefights.
The writing is also a lot tighter than previous games in the series. There is no bombast or bravado; only a quiet realization that the best way to go down is to go down fighting. The common citizenry also make more than a few largely ill-fated appearances. They show enough emotion to make you care about their fates as well as that of Reach. Martin O’ Donnell’s score is even more sweeping and memorable than usual. There are quiet contemplative moments in the game, where the score lets the poignancy of the events happening around you sink in. It’s a shame that the score wasn’t included with the game as a bonus CD. The voice cast loses the B-list celebrities that were in last year’s ODST and is all the better for it. You’ll know your team by name by the end of the game and it’ll break your heart when some of them eventually fall in battle.
The art design has seen the most work though, and the art style has gone from goofy to realistic thanks to the use of muted color tones and richer, more detailed textures. The levels also feel more lived in, with buildings that actually seem habitable with well designed and fully furnished interiors. No more identikit structures that only exist to facilitate combat. New Alexandria, in particular, is a marvel. Reach also has some of best looking skyboxes in gaming. They truly are a sight to behold; so much so that you should at least play through the game just so you have a chance to see the matte painting like quality of some of them. The levels have also been opened out vertically, and for good reason. This verticality has allowed Bungie to pepper environments with magnificent natural features such as mountain ranges and valleys, as well as futuristic man-made structures that really sell the universe.
The level design also conveys scale incredibly well despite the number of freeform sequences being much lower here than in previous games in the series. If you do decide to hang back and take in some of the vistas, you’ll find that not only do the battles stretch into the horizon, but also that both sides seem to be actively engaged in well orchestrated conflict. This is the sort of game you’ll be showing off on your HDTV. As good as it is, there are still a few minor niggles with the graphics. The frame rate does drop during some of the larger battles, and some of the cutscenes have an unusual blur about them, possibly caused by similar frame rate hitches.
Bungie could probably make a Halo game in their sleep by now, so it isn’t a surprise that the four-player online co-op-ready campaign plays like you’d expect it to. There have been some changes, such as a new armor abilities system that allows you to equip buffs you pick up in the field. The most memorable of these abilities is the jetpack (put to good use by the verticality mentioned earlier), which you’ll use for a bit of platforming in the middle of the game. Other variations to gameplay see you piloting both a space fighter and an UNSC Falcon. Both sequences are very atmospheric and the Falcon in particular lets you view the city of New Alexandria in the aftermath of the covenant invasion, red skies and all.
Dual-wielding has been jettisoned, but it isn’t something you’ll miss. It also wouldn’t be a Halo game without vehicles. The warthog is back in the thick of it, and you’ll also see the obligatory Scorpion tank sequence. It really is your well oiled Halo gameplay experience, the only caveat being that it’s been distilled of all the filler. Speaking of filler, you won’t see any trace of the flood, with the game being all the better for it. The enemy AI is as good as it’s always been (although the friendly NPC driving AI is as broken as it was in the first Halo). You’ll find fighting the Brutes and Elites a challenge even on the normal difficulty. You’ll also curiously be able to sidestep a lot of battles and run straight to your objective. This clearly isn’t a design flaw, as the NPCs actively encourage you to skirt around clusters of enemies at particular points in the game. There are also scripted assassinations you can perform on enemies, but it isn’t something you’ll see yourself using often (if at all). The campaign on normal should last you 8-10 hours, and there isn’t a boring moment in it.
A lot of you will already be playing this game by the time this review is out. For anyone still on the fence, this is the best Halo game, period. We can only hope that with Bungie moving on, Microsoft’s 343 Industries will take the cue and continue pushing the series down a more character-driven and realistic path. When you include the extensive multiplayer suite with fully customizable match types, firefight mode, a replay theater and the enhanced Forge world builder, there’s enough content here to last you a year. Add in the challenging higher difficulties and campaign achievements and you’ve got one of the best gaming packages in the market today.
You’ll care for the planet, its inhabitants and your comrades, and that more than the gameplay is what makes Reach stand out. This is a surefire recommendation if there ever was one. Noble 6, out.
Title: Halo: Reach
Genre: First-person shooter
Price: Rs 2,599
Platform: Xbox 360
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