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Video Game Review: Halo: Reach
Posted By William Bibbiani On September 16, 2010 @ 9:49 am In Games,Video Games | 23 Comments
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Designer(s): Marcus Lehto (creative director)
Genre: First-Person Shooter
It’s time to say “Goodbye” to the Halo franchise. No, I don’t believe that this will be the “last game in the franchise.” Do you? Of course not. It’s time to say goodbye to the Halo franchise because, if nothing else, Halo: Reach proves that even Bungie can run out of ideas. Halo: Reach has the most lackluster campaign so far in the First-Person Shooter series, a ho-hum series of skirmishes with no point, no characters of consequence, and of no real significance to the rest of the series. It’s the worst game in the franchise, but that’s relative isn’t it? It’s still Halo, and it still technically plays well, but aside from the robust multiplayer offerings there’s nothing new in store for players in this mediocre prequel.
Halo: Reach takes place immediately before the events of the original Halo. The planet called Reach is home to an enormous human colony which has heretofore been kept safe from The Covenant, a group of alien religious zealots intent on destroying mankind. You play Noble Six, a Spartan (i.e. super soldier) assigned to a squad of badasses with names like… um, the big kindly guy, the girl… the guy with the skull on his helmet and… someone else. Was there someone else? It’s an interchangeable squad of badass space marines who get sent to the front lines when The Covenant inevitably attacks Reach. Yippee.
Frankly, that’s about all there is to it. The game’s plot is a sequence of one simplistic objective after another: Defend this position, then go here and press this button. The impact of your actions has little to no effect on the war surrounding you, except perhaps when you assist in civilian evacuations. Part of this problem stems from the fact that Halo: Reach is a prequel, and avid fans (as indeed many of us are) already know that the planet Reach comes to a… shall we say… unpleasant end. But that should have led to a feeling of dread, of horrifying inevitability, like Titanic with more explosions and slightly better dialogue. No, there’s just this sense of ambiguity to the whole plotline. Characters die tragic deaths, blow up enormous spaceships and find one MacGuffin after another, but we don’t care. So what went wrong?
The Halo franchise never had the most original story. Humans = Good. Aliens = Bad. Even the twists weren’t terribly unique, but they were originally presented in a compelling manner. The first Halo had a fantastic sequence of events: On the run from an alien armada, forced to crash land on a strange alien artifact the size of a planet, but ring-shaped. Rescuing survivors, rescuing your kidnapped captain, discovering the true nature of the Halo ring, and then discovering the true nature of the Halo ring… This course of action was not only epic, not only memorable, but also very easy to follow. You always knew what you were doing, and why you wanted to do that thing. I remember huge swaths of the original Halo game, and I haven’t played it in several years. In contrast I finished Halo: Reach less the 24 hours ago and can barely remember a third of my objectives. They usually weren’t based around characters we knew and cared about, but rather a series of tactical needs that had little to no impact on my actions in the campaign.
It doesn’t help that the characters are stock archetypes with no interests outside of their main personality trait (compassionate, heroic, sassy… take your pick). Master Chief was a largely silent protagonist, a man of action. One got the sense that as Spartans went, he was special. His characterization was minimal, but the strong plotting (of the first two Halos, at any rate) and occasionally memorable supporting cast carried him through the original franchise. Now that we learn that Spartans were mostly just normal space marines with augmented physical abilities, poor Master Chief just seems like a boring guy. The guy at the party who doesn’t talk to anyone and eventually just sits down in the corner and reads a magazine. The protagonist in Halo: Reach, Noble Six, similarly suffers from being a cipher. You’re sometimes told that you have something interesting in your backstory (always five seconds before it becomes relevant to the plot, making it ring false), and late in the game are praised for being so very, very awesome, but you’re a non-entity no matter what they say. Aside from a few cameos, nobody in the cast makes much of an impression. Even when they die (as many of them shall), and the game clearly wants you to cry to the heavens, you’re response is likely to be limited to a disappointed, or even ambivalent shrug.
But to hell with the plot, how does it play? It plays well. As always the controls are seamless in the Halo franchise, and as always there are things missing or altered from previous iterations in the franchise. Dual-wielding still refuses to make a comeback, but there are a number of different armor effects – like a temporary force field, a sprint mechanism, even jetpacks – that rarely make the campaign feel fresh and new but add limitless possibilities in multiplayer. They also raise another plot-based question: How come Halo: Reach takes place before the events of the first Halo game and yet its characters have access to superior technology? Has nobody learned anything from the Star Wars prequels?
Ironically, while Halo: Reach claims no fealty to weapons continuity, it remains paralyzingly committed to the continuity of Halo’s antagonists. Every enemy but The Flood makes an appearance in Halo: Reach, and occasionally our protagonists act surprised to see them because the game predates their suppose first appearances, but with the exception of a few minor variations to Grunts and Jackals (and an all-too-infrequent occasional attack from the indigenous wildlife) they’re all familiar threats to the player. As a result, Halo: Reach rarely reaches a dramatic crescendo in the action.
By now even the dreaded Hunters, who for most of the installments in this series could be relied on to convey a sense of heightened danger, are familiar and almost pathetic foes. Run around them, shotgun in the back twice. With the new sprint functionality in particular you will find that Hunters are easier to defeat than your average armored Brute, if slightly more time-consuming. Without new threats to introduce there are very few opportunities to escalate the tension of the game, leaving a very monotonous campaign filled with familiar experiences. Even the eagerly-anticipated outer space combat is relegated to a single, brief level, and plays exactly like every other airborne sequence in the Halo series. If you’ve flown a Banshee, you might as well have flown in space. Whoop-de-Doo.
Halo: Reach does present a significant visual upgrade from the rest of the Halo franchise: bright, colorful and easy on the eyes. But even that becomes a detriment in Halo: Reach. The environments are increasingly realistic now, which makes the fact that many of them appear to have been designed by Nerf even more distracting. Halo is a colorful universe, full of pastel, oblong shapes and ray guns that look like Super Soakers. Making it look realistic was not the best plan. In contrast, Halo: ODST (for all of its flaws) had a more novel presentation, evoking gloom with its nighttime hub and melancholy score, and while it too suffered from a uninspiring series of objectives the game’s flashback structure and brisk duration kept that from becoming too obvious. Halo: Reach is a step backwards, narratively. Even the ending, which finally ties the game in to the original Halo, feels unnecessary. It doesn’t change our knowledge of the Halo universe. No, it just answers a question nobody really asked, and with good reason. There’s not a particularly compelling story behind it.
Like Halo: ODST, this installment often feels like an elaborate bonus feature for Halo’s much-lauded multiplayer content. As always, these offerings are plentiful, functional, and endlessly playable. (For those concerned, the multiplayer offerings add an entire star to Halo: Reach’s CLR Rating.) Matchmaking is simple, and new options like requesting casual or hardcore matchups, quiet or loud teammates, and your choice of loadouts are all welcome additions. Players are often given options to vote on which variation of the game to play during a given match, but the choice of games is often inconsistent, which is frustrating when you’re only in the mood to play one type of game and don’t always have the option to do so. There are also a lot more options available for character customization, including a choice of voice-overs, but most of the armor possibilities cost a lot of points for what amounts to a very limited change to your appearance. Aside from the helmet and a few of the more compensatory shoulder pads, most armor choices result in the same basic overall appearance when you’re all running around like idiots trying to Gravity Hammer each other to death.
But as the supposedly last full Halo game from Bungie, Halo: Reach falls short. It’s a tired sequence of repetitive levels with an uninspired narrative that makes no attempt to tell a compelling story for new or even existing fans, or even disguise said narrative’s failings with flare or gusto. If you’ve never played a Halo game before, you’ll find Halo: Reach a perfectly functional, albeit perfunctory gameplay experience. If you’re a fan, you’ll find nothing new to challenge, inspire or even particularly entertain you. More of the same might be enough for some of us, but if this is really all that’s left to be done with the Halo franchise then I say “Goodbye.” And perhaps even “Good riddance.”
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