Reviewing Halo games is hard.
See, you aren't judging just one experience – this is the rare franchise in which campaign and multiplayer are equally popular, and must be considered with equal weight. You aren't judging for just one audience, either – the franchise is too popular for too many unique reasons. There are those who only want an epic solo saga, and those who only care about online competition. There are those who enjoy a Halo game once every couple years, and those who devour the entire Halo universe through comics, novelizations, anime and more.
And you know what? Each type of fan will have a very different reaction to Halo: Reach. Some will be thrilled. Some will be disappointed. To help you predict which end of the spectrum your opinion will fall, therefore, we're splitting this review into two parts. On this page, our review – and score – for the single player campaign. On the next page, our review – and score – for the multiplayer. On the third page – closure.
This is it. This is the beginning of a story, but more importantly, this is the end of an era. This is the last Halo game from Bungie. This is the developers' final contribution to a series that, over the past decade, made them legend.
As such, we were expecting a true epic. A true evolution. A go-for-broke, no-holds-barred, don't-look-back curtain call for the ages. Instead, we get…
Now hold on – that description isn't meant as an insult. We liked Halo 3: ODST. We enjoyed playing as protagonists with faces and personalities for once. We appreciated the more intimate scale, the more evocative mood and the more conclusive, comprehensible narrative. ODST was a refreshing change of pace from the familiar Master Chief formula. And as we'll describe later, that "2.0" is no joke, either. This is a much grander adventure than last year's semi-expansion pack.
Still, you can't escape the feeling that Reach is a sequel to ODST and not a prequel to Halo. Again, you take control of an elite insertion squad, tasked with entering a hopeless battle as everyone else is exiting. Again, the hero is a quiet rookie with zero characterization. Again, the teammates are defined entirely by their roles and accents: the American-sounding leader, the Russian-sounding heavy, the Asian-sounding sniper. Again, you meet a mysterious female scientist who provides you with controversial new orders. Again, the story has a single, fan-servicing connection to the previous Halo trilogy and, again, everything until that point is spinoff – exciting yet ultimately non-essential to the larger saga. Again, you will miss Master Chief.
What should have been
We could forgive this sense of deja vu if Halo: Reach didn't promise – within its very concept – such obvious, franchise-changing potential. Remember when you first heard that you would play as another Spartan? And, because the game took place before the training program was destroyed, that you would be assisted by a whole team of Spartans? Our imaginations soared, and we pictured a sci-fi shooter version of the Justice League or X-Men, a gallery of multi-talented superheroes kicking alien ass across the doomed planet until they were finally brought down by sheer numbers or overwhelming bosses. Or perhaps a campaign take on Team Fortress, with different Spartan skills being required at different moments.
Alas, no. You can still die easily at the glowing hands of a kamikaze Grunt, your toughest opponents are still Hunters or Wraiths and your armored, specialized friends – outside of cut scenes – don't offer that much more help than the Marines or ODSTs. In fact, the only time we saw any of them utilize the new Armor Abilities was when we accidentally drove a Warthog in their direction, forcing the automatically programmed use of an Armor Lock shield.
Flashes of the future
Like we hinted at earlier, however, Reach's campaign is better than ODST's. Not as much as we all had hoped, and not as good as the campaigns in the main Halo trilogy, but definitely an improvement over last year's installment. The story is a bit more meaningful. The characters are a tad more memorable. The scale is a lot more impressive. Most importantly, the levels are longer… you could finish ODST in 5-7 hours. Reach will last you the usual 8-10.
And every once in awhile – maybe three or four times during the entire campaign – Reach will surprise you. Show you something you haven't seen in a Halo game before. Show you what a real evolution to the series could be. Show you the possibility of a Halo 4. The highly anticipated Sabre battle – a brief yet beautiful starfighter battle through outer space, with dogfights and carrier defense worthy of Wing Commander – is one example. An almost open-world mission later in the game – in which you fly a Falcon across a neon-soaked city, taking out enemies in the sky, then repeatedly landing on different rooftops for intense, interior combat – is another.
Next page: Our review of Halo: Reach's multiplayer
This is it. This is the final draft. This is the last time Bungie, who revolutionized console multiplayer with Halo, will have a chance to edit, hone and perfect that multiplayer. As such, we were expecting big changes, big improvements, big risk taking and big callbacks to the past. We were expecting the developer to try something majorly new, while simultaneously staying true to the formula that's worked since 2001.
Perhaps we expected too much… but Bungie delivered. This is the most fun Halo's multiplayer has ever been.
New ways to play
If you participated in the Reach beta earlier this year, you already understand why the multiplayer is so satisfying… and so refreshing. Bungie didn't merely add more maps or more modes this time around. With the debut of "Armor Abilities," they added some more of everything.
Halo move too slow for you? You want extra speed? Choose the Sprint ability in your pre-match loadout, and your Spartan can blast forward like a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare soldier, escaping dangerous situations with doubly quick ease. Or choose the Evade ability if you're controlling an Elite, and you can leap or roll in any direction to dodge incoming fire. Still not enough freedom? The jetpack is the most exhilarating addition to Halo multiplayer since the man cannon, lifting you off the ground and enabling you to not only snipe (or be sniped) from hundreds of feet in the air, but also to reach useful, hard-to-find areas and weapons.
Or maybe Halo is too straightforward for you? You wish the multiplayer required and rewarded more strategy? Select the Active Camo ability, which makes you invisible and gives you the chance to sneak up on unsuspecting foes. Or the Armor Lock, which can temporarily protect you from any attack and, with its electromagnetic pulse, instantly destroy a charging vehicle. Or the Drop Shield, which is a healing version of Halo 3's bubble. Or the Hologram, which sends forward a doppelganger of your avatar to bait and confuse the other players. Each of these armor abilities encourages a different style of play and complements a different type of player. Each, in its own way, transforms Halo: Reach multiplayer into a new (enough) experience.
New ways to create
What really sets Halo games apart from the competition – and what really secured Halo 3 a "10/10" review from us – is the open-source nature of the multiplayer. Other shooters let you shorten a match, or switch a weapon location, or change the color of your armor. Halo does all that, then adds Custom Games for players to invent their own modes, Forge for players to construct their own map variants and Saved Films for players to direct their own stories.
Halo: Reach goes even further. Before, Forge was merely a tool for placing and moving around objects on existing maps. Now, with the spectacular and sprawling new Forge World – a map that is five times larger than normal and infinitely more customizable – you can more or less create your own multiplayer environment from scratch. The Rube Goldberg suicide machines that come out of this thing are guaranteed to blow all of our minds.
If the latest modes aren't to your liking – personally, we can't get enough of the frantic skull collecting in Headhunter, the constant ebb and flow of flags in Stockpile or the epic three-tiered mini-campaign that is Invasion – you have new options for editing your own. Want the Spartans to have Elite powers? Possible. Wish you could turn back time, lose the armor abilities and play a round of Classic Slayer on Blood Gulch? Done.
The little stuff
Then there are the less publicized touches and tweaks that may not catch your attention at first, but have a surprising impact on your overall enjoyment of the multiplayer. Like the option to request opponents who speak the same language as you… or prefer "polite" trash talking… or have the securest online connection. Like the improved Firefight co-op, which automatically scales the number and difficulty of enemies to match your party. Like the nooks and crannies of the new Armory shop, where you won't just find fancy helmets and shoulder pads to purchase, but also avatar voices (Steve Downes as Master Chief, anyone? Jen Taylor as Cortana?) and special death animations (we're saving up for the valentine heart explosion!)
Next page: Is Halo: Reach better than Halo 3 and ODST?
So the Halo: Reach campaign is "good." And the Halo: Reach multiplayer is "awesome." What does that make the game as a whole? Well, scroll down and see – since both halves are of equal importance, but not of equal quality, we've split the difference on the score.
Please use the structure of this review, however, to gauge your own personal score. If you're in search of an amazing single player adventure this fall, and don't plan to spend that much time competing online, then you'll probably be somewhat disappointed with Halo: Reach and want to subtract a point. If the campaign is usually nothing more than an appetizer to you before devoting endless days, weeks, months and possibly years to the multiplayer, you should go ahead and add a point. This is the Halo game you've waited for since 2007.
Halo 3? No. While Reach excels at multiplayer, the campaign surprises – and soars – only occasionally. Halo 3, meanwhile, was the entire package. Epic missions, filled with a ton of epic moments, and the best, most robust multiplayer we'd seen so far this console generation. In fact, some of the most innovative stuff in Halo: Reach, like Forge World, has just been built on the foundation of what Halo 3 already innovated.
Halo 3: ODST? Yes. Okay, so Reach feels a lot more like ODST 2.0 than Halo 4, but trust us, that "2.0" is not awarded lightly. The single player is at least two to three hours longer, with meatier missions that are far more memorable. The story is still a spinoff, but the connection to Halo's original trilogy is stronger. And the multiplayer is way, way better. Armor abilities, experience credits, Invasion, a full set of brand new maps and modes. Even if you really liked Firefight… well, that's been improved here, too.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2? Depends. The two franchises are now surprisingly similar, with single player that is good, yet instantly forgettable compared to the outstanding multiplayer. Both offer specialized classes. Both include a fleet of diverse vehicles. Both reward you with experience points. You could always choose based on your preference for realistic modern warfare or escapist sci-fi slaughter… or based on how much you like coordinated team combat. That's all Battlefield offers, but it's near-perfect. Halo: Reach is a little less polished in that department, but has plenty of new and old deathmatch modes as well.
Do you buy Halo mostly for the multiplayer? Then Reach is everything you'd want and expect from Bungie's final contribution to the franchise – perfectly polished familiarity with exactly the right amount of fresh features and bold risk-taking. If you're counting on an epic, sweeping and satisfying campaign story, however, you might want to keep waiting for Halo 4.
Sep 11, 2010
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