Reach defines Halo franchise

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I’ve always been a Halo fan. Seeing Halo: Combat Evolved in action convinced me to give the original Xbox a try, and the Halo 3 launch pushed me to upgrade to a Xbox 360.

I played Halo: Orbital Drop Shock Tropper (ODST), and while I gave Halo Wars a pass and haven’t read any of the books based on the games, I had a pretty good time with the Halo Legends anime compilation.

That said, I have always felt that the franchise is overhyped and often overrated.

While the gunplay has always been exquisitely balanced, the graphics good and the music superb, the series just hasn’t been very innovative (aside from the revolutionary Combat Evolved).

The same is true of Halo: Reach too, but if you have loved, or even enjoyed earlier installments in the series, Reach may feel like a revolution because it is the definitive version of Halo.

Bungie has pulled out all the stops for its farewell to its beloved brainchild. Everything has been refined, streamlined, polished and sharpened.

You may have heard about the space-combat sections and the new class-like armor abilities, but for all its new toys, Reach is a return to the series roots, both in terms of gameplay and narrative.

Halo: Reach is a prequel set on the planet of the same name that serves as the training ground for the United Nation’s Space Command’s (UNSC) Spartan super-soldiers. Rather than playing as the iconic Master Chief John-117, you step into the cybernetic armor of Noble Team’s sixth member, creatively named “Six.”

Like Master Chief and ODST’s Rookie, Six is a man of few words with lone-wolf tendencies and a blank-slate personality. Frankly, this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity given Bungie’s talent for developing memorable characters. However, Six’s squadmates all make up for his stale personality.

Jorge is a genuinely lovable, gentle giant. Emile is a cynical smartass. Jun is an ice-cool sniper. Kat is a badass woman warrior with a knack for tactics. Carter is the level-headed boss man.

While none of these characters have particularly deep histories or complicated relationships, they all have enough of a personality to inspire camaraderie as you fend off the invading Covenant forces.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Reach’s story is that you are a soldier fighting a losing battle. The good guys don’t win in Reach and any Halo fan knows that. All the same, Bungie manages to tell an engaging, triumphant tale about sacrifice and duty.

As far as the single-player campaign is concerned, the thing that makes Reach truly shine is its direction.

Bungie has taken pains to make sure that you are almost never fighting in a typical Halo gunfight, if such a thing even exists.

They sprinkle explosive set-pieces like Combat Evolved’s seminal beach landing in “The Silent Cartographer” throughout each mission.

For example, a typical sniping/stealth/night-time mission is complicated by a run-in with two of Reach’s more hostile fauna, and later on in the same mission, you have to defend a teammate from a pair of Hunters while he “sets you up the bomb.”

Other notable set-pieces include a brief stint as a helicopter gunner and a well-done space-fighting sequence.

Ground-based skirmishes are spiced up even further with Reach’s new armor abilities, which are a welcome refinement of Halo 3’s hokey disposable equipment.

The drop-shield is a fusion of the Regenerator and honeycomb shield equipment that allows players to act as a medic.

Active-camo has been tweaked so that characters become more visible as they move.

There are some unique and new abilities too, like Armor Lockup, which turns you into an invulnerable, immovable object for a few seconds, and the Hologram, which allows you to project a decoy to dupe foes.

Then there are the guns. Reach introduces several new tools to the already considerable Halo armory including UNSC grenade launchers, Covenant plasma repeaters, plasma launchers, needle rifles, concussion rifles and focus rifles, each featuring unique quirks to master.

While we’re speaking of rifles, the too-powerful battle rifle has been replaced by the designated marksman rifle, a single-shot weapon that falls somewhere between the Covenant carbine and the sniper rifle in terms of damage and stopping-power.

All of the game’s existing firearms have been re-adjusted as well to accommodate the biggest change, and in my opinion the worst omission, of Reach: No more dual-wielding.

This absence is explained handily by the fact that the technology had not been developed yet (it was introduced in Halo 2).

Reach brings a bag of new tricks to online competitive and co-operative play. First off, players earn credits which can be used to buy pieces of Spartan armor that customize their appearance.

Next, ODST’s much-loved Firefight mode now supports online matchmaking, and it can be played with custom rules and special modes like “rockets only” and “base defense.”

Finally, players have the option of filling out a Psych profile to gauge their preferences on things like chattiness, politeness and motivations for playing. This profile then helps matchmaking system try to find like-minded players in multiplayer.

If you could never really get into Halo, or always found the franchise disagreeable, Reach won’t change your mind. If you enjoyed Combat Evolved and have given the past few Halo’s a pass, however, give Halo: Reach a shot.