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When Bungie called the first Halo ‘Combat Evolved’ they weren’t pissing about. Eight years after it was released it’s easy to forget just how different the first Halo was, with expansive environments, smart AI, and inventive sandbox combat. It doesn’t feel so different now that every first-person shooter has copied it, of course, but that’s all right because Bungie are coming back to evolve combat one more time and give everyone else something to copy for the next eight years.
“I started working on Reach immediately after Halo 3,” says Reach’s Creative Director Marcus Lehto. “We had the opportunity to see how ODST was developing and we did a lot of soul searching to see what we did right and what we did wrong. There’s always ways in which we can improve and we took a lot of feedback from our fans to find out what they wanted – what they loved about the Halo series, what they’ve never seen, and what they’d love to see happen.”
And so Reach is back on a truly alien world, with genuinely alien enemies, and combat on a scale never before seen in a first-person shooter. Reach is a game of a hundred tiny improvements, but if it has one key back-of-the-box feature it’s the sheer brutal scale of those firefights. Where Halo 3 could handle a maximum of 20 characters or vehicles on any battlefield at one time, Reach’s new engine allows for three times that number – 60 AI characters or vehicles in play at any given moment. “That means we can have 60 AI, or like 40 AI characters and 20 vehicles,” says Lehto, “all of that with weapons firing and explosions going off everywhere. Yeah, we’re definitely gonna have much, much bigger, open battles than ever before.”
Reach is a planet of over 700m human inhabitants, all of which will be dead before the story’s end. It’s also the home of the Spartan III program. As a product of Spartan II, Master Chief was rock hard but his cost was so great only 30 Spartan IIs made it through the augmentation and training process before the program was closed. Where the Spartan II program would depend on abducted children, expensive technology, and brute force on the battlefield, the third generation of Spartans would be orphaned recruits, well-trained, well-equipped, and tactically advanced.
Where every Spartan II was precious, Spartan IIIs were designed to be cheap and expendable, trained hundreds at a time and sent out in entire companies to turn the tide of battle. Reach features Noble Team – a special-purpose squad consisting of one Spartan II and five third generation Spartans who each use variants of MC’s Mjolnir armour rather than the standard-issue light SPI armour (Semi-Powered Infantry armour – a cheaper equivalent of the Spartan II Mjolnir armour, without the shields or quite so many cybernetic attachments).
You are Noble Six – a new recruit to the team replacing a recent casualty – and for the first time ever, Noble Six is your Spartan to modify as you please. “We definitely want to allow a lot more player investment into customising your Spartan,” explains Lehto, “not only just for campaign but for multiplayer as well and we’re taking that a lot further with features that we can’t talk about today.”
Bungie’s Community Lead Brian Jarrard interjects: “I think the first thing people think when they hear these things is ‘oh, we’re introducing perks’, but no. The fundamental philosophy is not to introduce elements which start to throw off the balance of the game so for the most part the customisable options are aesthetic. Reach will never be a matter of ‘I can do something because I’ve played more than him.’ That’s not true to the core of Halo.” Lehto agrees: “Yeah. That would break that golden nugget at the core – that foundation that our fans have come to know and expect from us. Player customisation is a visual upgrade.”
Built to fight together, you’ll rarely enter battle without another Spartan at your side, and with another 59 enemies on the battlefield you’ll need the help. Halo 3 was a return to the sandboxy and open-ended combat of Combat Evolved but Reach is aiming to take that sandbox world and push it forward with an all-out war rendered onscreen. You’ll participate in up-close battles while distant firefights can be seen kicking off outside your immediate play area – and that fighting’s not just garnish. All of this, paradoxically, plays out in the best-looking Halo ever.