Review: Halo: Reach

Halo: Reach demonstrates how a design concept can – after years of development – be iterated and refined to the point of near-infallibility. Though to say it’s the pinnacle of the first-person shooter is perhaps straddling the realms of fanboyism, Reach, and its expansive feature set, should be a go-to case study for anybody looking to develop a first-person shooter. And in particular, anybody willing to develop within the confines and limitations of a specific platform.

Whilst Bungie’s final iteration of its seminal first-person shooter doesn’t quite reach for the stars in terms of originality – which is understandable given that it’s surrounded by pre-established lore – it’s a game that, if taken within the context of its parents, does almost everything right. It’s not a perfect game, granted. But to describe Reach as a ’greatest hits’ compilation of Halo’s mechanics wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

Fall damage, for example, has returned. This, to those who have yet to play Combat Evolved, is a game changer. Players seeking out the advantageous high spots run the inherent risk of falling from said high spot, and, of course, tempt the re-spawn timer in the process. Furthermore, it deters the most immobile players from camping, forcing them to navigate their way back to earth (well, Reach) should the opposite team abscond with their poled prize possession.

A few things have changed, though. As Reach’s poster child, armor abilities are undoubtedly the most fundamental change in Bungie’s biblical formula. Not knowing how each player is kitted-out makes the opening seconds of any given encounter particularly tense – it’s difficult to formulate a strategy until they revealed their chosen ability. The sooner they did, the sooner I could devise a tactic to bolster my ability and simultaneously mitigate theirs. Better yet, the ability to switch to a different class keeps a particular game from becoming stagnant and overwhelmed by a one-trick pony.

Although utilizing these abilities is as simple as pressing a button – and then awaiting the ability to ‘cool down’ before re-use – it’s deciding which is the most appropriate for the map and the moment, that, to a certain degree, transforms Reach into a game of chess. It’s about choosing the piece most suited to effectively navigating the layout of the board. Is the map vertical? Use the jet-pack. Does the game mode require defending a flag, or other such object? Use armor lock. The latter grants a Spartan a fleeting moment of invincibility, and, as it’s proven itself to be time-after-time, is the ultimate wild card. It also happens to demolish vehicles on an intercept course.

Technical enhancements aside, nothing demonstrates Bungie’s iterative process more than Reach’s weapon set. Moreover, it demonstrates the developer’s willingness to revisit old ideas, and, of course, old weapons – Halo: Combat Evolved pistol is back, scope ‘n’ all. New additions, too, round-off the already substantial weapons locker. The grenade launcher, for example, forgoes the instability of the typical grenade, allowing them to be utilized in a far more deliberate, far more intentional manner.

There’s one glaring flaw, though. The battle rifle, a three-shot burst-fire weapon, has now been replaced by the Designated Marksman Rifle. Although the weapon retains the ‘spirit’ of its predecessors, in that it essentially fulfills the same role, the gun is now a single-shot, as-fast-as-you-can-fire rifle designed, as Bungie claims, for medium to long distance. One problem: the weapon, again, like its predecessors, still retains its ‘one size fits all’ advantage. Meanwhile, the standard assault rifle struggles to get its arse out of bed in the morning. Ultimately, it’s a weapon used if nothing else – not even the pistol – is available.

Bungie’s attempts at an evocative narrative are savagely cannibalized by Reach’s relatively short length. Its efforts to humanize those exclusively devoted to the carnage of war afford each Spartan just enough personality to distinguish themselves beyond varying permutations of their Mjolnir amour. It struggles, though, to dispel much of the apathy induced by weapon wielding, armor-wearing warriors. Had Bungie invested more time into the exposition of each character, then they could have demonstrated themselves to be an interesting and substantial bunch.

Reach is good. It’s great, in fact. Entirely to its testament, it’s difficult to comprehend how the formula could evolve without radically redefining what makes Halo stand-out from the vast majority of its contemporaries. To that end, the inevitable fall of Reach coincides with the inevitable end of Halo’s present form, and, if this proves itself to be that end, demonstrates itself to be a fantastic way to finish the fight.

9/10

Halo: Reach was reviewed on Xbox 360. The game was played to completion on ‘Legendary’ – the game’s toughest difficulty. Campaign, co-operative play, multiplayer matchmaking and firefight were played. Halo: Reach launches exclusively for Xbox 360 on September 14th, 2010 for an MSRP of $59.99.

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