Halo: Reach Reader Review
If history has taught us anything, itís that nothing lasts forever. Not diamonds, not Batman, and certainly not Duke Nukem. Sooner or later, even the most beloved of all things great and small reach their expiry dates, making way for the tantalising innovations and lifestyle changes of the future. What differentiates the great from the puny, then, is how you mark your farewell. Do you bow out in a blaze of thunderous glory, forever cementing your legacy at the forefront of the zeitgeist of your era, or do you fizzle out in a stagnant stream of mediocrity?
In the case of the Halo franchise, those questions remain unanswered. Yes, Reach was touted to high heaven as the swansong of one of the most popular gaming franchises of the last decade, and Bungieís departure from the series that launched them into the entertainment stratosphere certainly marks a turning point in the landscape of the industry. To say that Halo has reached its coda, however, is tantamount to idiocy, and Reach epitomises not only what has made the brand so popular, but also why its inevitable continuation smacks increasingly of an outstayed welcome.
On the surface, Reach is likely to strike most players as a quick cash-in, a rag-tag bundle of meagre gameplay consolidations dressed up in a superficial new coat of paint. In fairness, itís an argument that isnít entirely without merit. Experienced Halo players will take to Reachís smooth-flowing interface and mechanics like a Marine to water, with the manic, run-and-gun formula remaining very much the crux of the interactive experience. Melee attacks, grenade assaults and vehicular romps still pepper both the single-player campaign and the competitive multiplayer throwdowns, and objectives still amount to little more than mowing down hordes of alien riff-raff in a modest variety of sprawling open-world playgrounds.
Deeper down, however, Reach represents a subtle return to the seriesí roots. Gone are the dual-wielding abilities of the second and third games; back come medpacks and suspiciously overpowered pistols. In short, Bungie made the curious decision to take the axe to some of the gameplay refinements that once formed focal points of its pre-release advertisement campaigns, instead settling for a simpler, more conventional set-up, one akin to that of the original 2001 release. OK, so melee attacks are now powered by the right shoulder button, but, by and large, itís all a strikingly familiar affair. It might all seem like a case of regression, but that really isnít the case at all. In fact, in removing some of these superfluous additions to the core shooting mechanics, Bungie has managed to recover much of the seamlessness and fluidity that drifted away in the second and third iterations of the series, re-focusing the emphasis on the raw, balls-to-the-walls combat that appeals to so many paying customers.
But thatís not to say that Reach is completely devoid of new features. Among the most talked-up of the gameís new bells and whistles is its armour ability system, which grants players access to a variety of different in-game perks, ranging from momentary bursts of speed to jet-packs and invisibility. The result is something of a mixed bag, given the worrying manner in which certain abilities, such as the much-hounded armour lock, tend to threaten the overall balance of the game, particularly during online deathmatches. On the other hand, though, many of the powers add an intriguing new tactical dimension to the fold, offering a plethora of new ways in which to lay waste to both human and AI foes. Naturally, the juryís still out among the gameís enormous online community, but donít be surprised if this feature establishes itself as a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come.
But how does all this come together? After all, isnít it true that, regardless of any tweaking and tinkering, it all means nothing if there isnít a compelling reason to invest time into the product? Well, thankfully, thereís more than enough content buried within Reachís towering underbelly to keep FPS fans of almost all types engaged for at least a reasonably significant length of time. Firstly, the single-player campaign, whilst not as lengthy as those seen in the likes of Half-Life 2, offers slightly more bang for the proverbial buck than many other modern shooters, serving up a relatively satisfying adventure through an array of terrains and environments.
This time round, the anonymous, faceless Master Chief is replaced by, well, a team of six other faceless drones. This, unfortunately, is where the game begins to unravel slightly, with the cutscenes and dialogue failing to break the mould and build upon Bungieís conservative, ho-hum approach to interactive storytelling. Although the gameís premise as a prequel, a foreshadowing of the tragic events that taint the emanating world of the first three games, offers promise of grandeur at the start, things gradually go downhill as the narrative takes an increasingly marked back seat to the running, piloting and slaughtering. Characterisation amounts to little more than bombastic demonstrations of clichťd bravado on the part of the playerís obnoxious allies, whilst the poignancy of many of the gameís nods to the seriesí expansive lore arelikely to be lost on all but the most dedicated of Halo aficionados.
Itís lucky, then, that the in-game action itself works so well; otherwise, the online multiplayer would have been doomed from the very start. Thankfully, Bungieís reputation as the pioneers of the console-based online FPS domain hasnít yet got to their heads to the extent that theyíre above pumping their latest title with enough compelling competitive content (say that three times) to match that of several other of its rival games combined. All of the seriesí most wildly popular and celebrated features, including regular deathmatches, team deathmatches, objective-based showdowns and vehicle races, make appearances as part of Reachís hugely impressive catalogue of activities, along with community sharing tools and video capturing features to rival those of any other online console experience. Returning from Halo 3: ODST, the well-received expansion to the third game in the franchise, is the Firefight Mode, pitting a team of up to four human players against endless swarms of AI-controlled alien forces of increasing difficulty and of various shapes and sizes. Add to that the solid network code and the rapid efficiency of the matchmaking servers and youíve stumbled across a treasure chest of goodies.
If Halo: Reach is such a satisfying end to Bungieís tenure at the head of the franchise, why, then, should fans be concerned? Well, look at it this way. The gaming industry has displayed a potent tendency to accept the steady refinement of working formulae for significant lengths of time, allowing developers to focus on the incorporation of re-worked, re-balanced nuances in order to strive towards perfection. Basically, itís the age-old theory of ďIf it ainít broke, donít fix itĒ coming into play.
Eventually, though, the next step towards genuine innovation needs to be made and, sadly, it seems wholly doubtful that Halo can ever hope to lead such a charge. Having taken the safe route for an entire decade without ever offering anything significantly new, Bungie has set a precedent for its successors, 343 Industries, to do exactly the same thing. And, with the frightening rate at which games studios are collapsing these days, can you blame them? The games industry is, first and foremost, a business, and it only seems realistic to expect an imminent slew of generic, prototypical Halo releases to keep Microsoftís wallets happy.
Bungie may have jumped forth to pastures new, but, as far as the Halo series is concerned, a much greater concern is the increasingly realistic prospect of jumping the shark.