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Nine years of doing one thing will make you a master of your craft, so it should be no surprise that Halo: Reach is Bungie’s best Halo game to date. One thing you wont expect though is how much better it is in comparison to previous Halos. Bungie’s last attempt at the Halo universe has them crafting the most sophisticated gameplay you’ve ever played in a shooter, while adding their best story yet. My gripes about the series were ALMOST all resolved.
What else could you ask for in a sequel?
It is almost redundant by now to praise Bungie for having intuitive gameplay; it’s fast, tense, and incredibly well thought out in terms of level design and set piece battles. The addition of the armour abilities and the incredible AI make the game challenging and frenetic in terms of minute-to-minute action. While it was frustrating at times to die from random airborne plasma blasts, it turned the game into a trial and error, pathfinding exercise that created an interesting tension that hung on every decision you make on the battle field, which are markedly more vast than previous Halo games. While that does sound overly forgiving of me to say, the reason Reach gets the benefit of the doubt was the fact that replaying a battle never felt monotonous. Approaching a situation is a dynamic task that is made all the more interesting with the constant barrage of lateral events happening at once, and it takes careful planning to learn exactly where you should run in Rambo-style, and where you should take your time.
The most compelling aspect of Reach was the emphasis on making you feel outnumbered and outmatched, which was accomplished largely by the ruthless AI covenant forces. The enemies themselves look a lot more intimidating than previous Halo titles, and with regards to elites and brutes, they are bigger and stronger than your character. There is a moment I specifically remember where I high jacked a Ghost ship and tried to run over an elite four times, back and fourth, to no avail – he would roll just in the knick of time, every time. It is precisely these one-to-one matchups that require the player to completely disregard any preconceptions of AI behaviour. Often enemies will flank, roll, take their time, and even bait in an attempt to expose you to multiple enemy fire at once. It’s the little things like that make me wonder in awe exactly how much is going on under-the-hood.
In terms of story telling, I was disappointed with the first half of the game. It seemed to me, as it did with Halo 3:ODST, that there was a large mistranslation from the storyboard to actual implementation. The content of cutscenes in the early parts of the game seem so far disconnected from the gameplay itself – the characters are half realized, and the weight of their fates early on are largely meaningless. Although there is a lot of variation throughout the game, the first half seemed to be varied-for-the-sake-of-variety, if that makes any sense. In isolation, all the disparate parts are fun and interesting to play, but not very cohesive as a story. The narrative is saved, however, by a consistently morose tone and a flawlessly realized, last half of the story. The action crescendos well into an incredible ending segment after the credits that underlines the forgone desperate conclusion to the planet Reach – one of the best endings for a game I have played so far.
Overall, Halo: Reach is a first-class example of a science fiction shooter, plain and simple. The universe is fully realized, the gameplay is high-octane and implemented flawlessly, and the story is relatable enough to which anybody can understand what is at stake. The latter point I think is what transcends Reach from other Halo games because an evocative tone is the difference between a mechanically well-designed video game and an interesting, interactive experience. For all of the ridiculousness of purple aliens fighting manly-men (and woman) in motocross outfits, Bungie squeezed a lot of substance out the universe, one last time, and crafted a fun, evocative experience that any shooter fan will enjoy.