Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reach for the Staa-aaars! -- Halo: Reach

It started on November 15, 2001. I was visiting my friend Luke in Missoula, and he had just bought Microsoft’s first game console: the Xbox. He was at Best Buy, trying to decide which game to get, and before long picked out a racing game by Bizarre Studios called Project Gotham Racing. I suggested that a racing game’s appeal might be limited (read: it would get super repetitive after a while), and he decided to go with his other choice: a shooter by Bungie called Halo.

So began my experience with Halo. We both did not go gently into that good night (sky) alone, but instead joined each other in campaign co-op, resulting in what is still one of my most vivid, memorable gaming experiences ever. Over grass, snow, and repetitive corridor (damn you, “The Library”) did we wage war, capping fools and showing The Covenant what the human race was capable of. We had the technology. And we shoved it right up their ass.

I open with this vignette illustrate what Halo means to me: good times with buddies, where shooting at each other is fun, and shooting with each other is even better. Halo: Reach, Bungie’s final title in the Halo universe, captures this spirit perfectly, with a tight, focused single player campaign and a robust multiplayer mode—Reach takes everything I loved about the first game and polishes it to a mirror shine. I started the franchise with a buddy back in 2001, and put the franchise to an end with a buddy in 2011. The circle is now complete, and it rocks.

How epic is this game? Pretty damn.

The plot of Halo: Reach (which 87.3% of gamers will not give a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys about) concerns Noble Team, a group of Spartans on the planet Reach. You play as Noble Six, a last-minute replacement for a recently-deceased commanding officer in the group. In the beginning, Noble Team is called to investigate why a relay station went offline. It turns out there are Covenant on Reach, which is bad news bears: Reach is humanity’s big military force in the galaxy, and if anything happened to Reach, it would probably mean curtains for the entire human race.

The rest of the game’s narrative follows Noble Team as they attempt to defend Reach from The Covenant, watching as the threat grows from small groups to a full-on invasion force. Reach will fall (if you think this counts as a spoiler, you’re about ten years late to the party), and watching it happen is much more exciting than I thought it would be. It’s like a movie about a famous disaster: you already know what’s going to happen in the end, but the characters and small twists help propel the story along. All’s not entirely predictable, though—in true Back to the Future Part II form, your behind-the-scenes actions have a huge impact on the rest of the series.

Unlike previous games, your teammates are actual fleshed out characters.

Reach’s single player campaign is, for my money, the best in the franchise. It spins a tight narrative, and strikes and almost-perfect balance between Covenant slaying, tension-building downtime, and clever diversions (manning a chopper turret, piloting a spacecraft, etc.). The Covenant have been stripped of their ability to speak English, and their alien grunts and yells make them all the more strange and terrifying. Level design is beautiful and far more intuitive than in the past; no longer will you need arrows on the floor to know where to go next. Also (SPOILER ALERT), there are absolutely no Flood in this game, mercifully kicking my least favorite part of the series to the curb.

Reach also simplifies the gameplay to a great extent, removing almost all unneeded game mechanics introduced in subsequent entries in the series (read: almost all game mechanics introduced in subsequent entries in the series). Rather than juggling four grenades, add-on equipment, dual-wielding, and who knows what else, you’re back to the original trilogy of guns, grenades, and melee, and the game plays much better for it.

Reach does introduce one new mechanic, though: the equipment-replacing Armor Abilities. A nice diversion in single player, and absolutely essential in multiplayer, Armor Abilities are perk-like skills players can activate to shake things up on the battlefield. They range from the basic Sprint (which I’ve been wanting since 2007) to the useful Cloak (invisibility ON!) to the tricky-but-awesome Armor Lock (an ability that makes you invulnerable for a set period of time while standing still), and each of them is useful in their own special way.

Rain death from above with the Jetpack ability. It's as awesome as it looks.

Multiplayer is incredibly bitchin’. The matchmaking in Reach is absolutely top-notch, with filters for almost everything, including for those jerks that can’t stop using the microphone. Players can vote on which map to play on between rounds, giving the experience little bits of variety, as well as democracy. Maps are well-balanced, and don't repeat as often as they did in Halo 3. Moreover, the matchmaking from Halo 3 has been streamlined, and players no longer have to experience 2+ minute waits between matches while the game finds different people to play with. Lastly, Halo: Reach allows for split-screen online multiplayer, allowing you and three of your on-the-couch buddies to duke it out with the world on Xbox Live. As someone who was reared on GoldenEye 007, local multiplayer is what it's all about, and Reach allows for the same smashmouth, social gaming that got me into shooters in the first place.

The game's not entirely perfect, though. The campaign can feel a little short sometimes (though, make no mistake: it's EXACTLY as long as it needs to be), and it's easy to feel like you're being shuttled from one battlefield to another. Also, there's no way for friends to join an already in-progress multiplayer match, putting a slight kink in the social multiplayer hose. Finally, Reach's tone is fairly somber compared to the rest of the series; fans of Halo 3's humor and antics will be disappointed (that said, I was never a fan of said wacky antics, so this decision suits me just fine).

These small quibbles aside, Halo: Reach still stands as one of the best games of last year, and everything you would expect from Microsoft's little space marine that could. As casual as it needs to be, or as hardcore as you want it to be, Halo is one of the rare One Size Fits All franchises in gaming, and Reach is easily the finest entry in the series. Bungie may be leaving for the more Helghastian shores of Activision, but they've left us a hell of a parting memento with Halo: Reach.

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