Review: Halo: Reach

Bungie and Halo: the story of a studio defined by its most popular product. Because of the series' success, few could have guessed that another company would ever be in a position to make Halo games. But Bungie has formally stepped away from its massive franchise after a decade and billions of dollars in sales, finally realizing a 2007 announcement that it would become an independent company free of Microsoft's yoke.

Halo: Reach is the studio's magnum opus, and it unexpectedly recaptures the feeling of cleverness and ingenuity of Halo: Combat Evolved, when Master Chief was a fresh face in the crowd of first-person shooters.

The Halo series is seen as having a unique fan base – one that's easy to joke about. The general perception of a Halo player is of a pimple-faced “he,” a male who's no older than 13 and speaks with a racist and homophobic world view.

That's how I've regarded Halo up until now: ironically defined by stereotyping a unnamed mass of tween and teenaged bigots. In finishing Reach I've had to face the realization that, for the past six years, – since Halo 2 and the original Xbox Live platform allowed gamers to go head-to-head online in anonymity – I've been judging the series by its largely made-up audience, a demographic that exists but certainly doesn't define every player of Halo. The events of Halo 2 and 3 also contributed to my indifference toward the series, a pair of games that did little more than dilute Master Chief into fighting uglier aliens for duty's sake, making friends with the Elites and saving Cortana from an ancient and psychic Flood-king. It's all been absolute science fiction schlock.

Not until Reach have I ever respected a Halo title. Bungie has crafted an experience that fills in the gaping holes of all the non-ODST Halo titles up until now by writing a mature and subtle story depicting the fall of the planet Reach.

The reason Reach is a mature Halo adventure is its use of undercurrents. I'm referring to the use of plot threads and scene-setting techniques that show rather than tell. Sweeping vistas fill the screen throughout the different regions of Reach; each one is unexpectedly gorgeous, distinct and painterly. The use of such complex skyboxes ingrains a sense of tension for Noble Team. When you witness the burning skyline of Reach's capital city you will rightfully feel as though you're fighting on an alien world against a well-organized invading force that's winning the war, battle by battle in the manner of a film documentary. Halo: Reach is cinéma vérité with plasma cannons.

And while Bungie hasn't penned a complex plot for Reach, what's there is charming in its simplicity and affecting in its somber tone. After hidden Covenant invasion forces are discovered on Reach by Noble Team, an all-encompassing attempt to defend, then evacuate, humanity's second home ensues. In the end the UNSC forces fail, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's played the other Halo games. Yet what makes Reach great is its expertly paced progression toward such a bleak outcome, and how Noble Team directly influences the outcome of the entire Halo universe.

By the end of the game I was convinced that Noble Team would succeed and save the day, despite knowing the opposite was true. Bungie presents its missions in a way that engenders slivers of optimism – that if I pulled off this last-ditch objective, Noble Team could rescue enough humans before Reach is blasted into a wasteland. Whether I was dog fighting with Banshees in space or piloting an attack helicopter high above the streets in the best sequence of the entire game, Halo: Reach almost always made me feel like I was having fun. In these moments the game transcends a typical Halo affair and offers glimpses into what Bungie is capable of creating in its future endeavors.

For such a well-scripted experience, it's unfortunate that the characters of Noble Team aren't noteworthy. They're presented as bland pastiches of other film and game heroes. There's the silent sniper, the brooding brute, the reticent rookie and the consummate commander. Kat, the first prevalent female Spartan to my knowledge, is a mighty-tough member of Noble Team, and perhaps the best archetype introduced to the Halo universe since Cortana. She doesn't say much but she loves taking control, which speaks volumes to her character. And that's Reach, simply put: It doesn't have to be vocal to say a lot about itself. A fantastic game in its own right and the best Halo game I've ever played, it never tries too hard to be anything more than an appropriate goodbye to millions of fans worldwide.

If comments from Microsoft are to be believed, new Halo titles will be on store shelves faster than ever. I'd be surprised if any Halo players unversed in the industry's politics will notice a difference between a Bungie Halo and a Halo from 343 Industries, the development team exclusively formed to develop the future of the brand.

However, this game is not a melancholy passing-of-the-torch affair. Halo: Reach manages to, as the culmination of dedication to a single idea for so many years, surpass all the previous incarnations of Halo. I had the best Halo experience imaginable with Reach despite attempts to remain skeptical throughout the campaign.

How bittersweet is it for Bungie, a developer that has come a long way since Marathon and Myth, to create its greatest game ever at the end an important era for video games?

Recommended for:

  • Halo fans, obviously
  • Gamers who have shied away from previous Halo games; Reach has more in common with BioShock than Call of Duty
  • More mature players who recognize the importance of atmosphere over trite plot and gameplay gimmicks

Not Recommended for:

  • Those (very few but loud) 13-year-old bigots -- go away, please

Halo: Reach was developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft. The game retails for $59.99, and is exclusive to the Xbox 360. The reviewer purchased the game himself, and played through the campaign in its entirety in co-op on normal difficulty, and also completed numerous missions on legendary difficulty. He played a lot of Firefight and didn't do too bad in Matchmaking Multiplayer. His Spartan is colored turquoise and brown, which he thinks is an awesome (and overlooked) color combination.

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