“Send me out . . . with a bang”
If you’re a big Halo fan (and what Xbox player isn’t?), you probably recognize these as the last words of Sargeant Major Johnson as you complete the campaign for Halo 3. But Johnson’s last words also do a pretty good job of describing Halo: Reach. As many loyal Spartans know, Reach is the last Halo game that Bungie will develop. After almost 10 years, the beloved developer decided it was time to move on to new territories. But before they hung it up, they decided to leave their many fans with something they’d never forget. It’s hard to imagine a better game than Halo 3, but trust me, Reach is. I haven’t played another game since I bought it (9/14/2010). Welcome to Reach, the setting for quite possibly the greatest video game to date.
There’s no “shooting your way out” this time
Halo: Reach may be the sixth game in the Halo series, but it’s actually the second chronologically, taking place about 20 years after Halo Wars and immediately prior to Halo: Combat Evolved. As such, it’s no secret that Reach is about to fall. As you progress through the game, an ominous mood hangs in the air. You can feel the end coming, and yet, this may be the best Halo campaign yet. Instead of having you play as Master Chief again, Bungie has come up with a totally original, interesting story. Don’t worry though — you’re not stuck as the woefully underpowered “Rookie” from ODST again, either. Instead, you’ll play as the spartan known as Noble Six (B312), the Noble Team’s latest replacement. Your character is, for the most part, the strong, silent type, not unlike John S117. He’s a lone wolf whose lethal capabilities are said to be exceeded only by Master Chief himself, but in his latest assignment as a Noble, B312 has to learn to be a team player. However, unlike the games centered around Master Chief’s adventures, Reach does a much better job of trying to connect you to the story. Six may not be much for idle chat, but he’s not working solo like Chief anymore, either. During the game, you’ll be with other Nobles almost the entire time. Interactions between your team give you an emotional attachment to Reach, its inhabitants, and your team.
Ready to meet your team? Carter is a straightforward, no-nonsense soldier handpicked from Alpha Company to lead Noble Team. The second-in-command, Kat, was originally assigned to Beta Company with SPARTAN-B312. Noble Team’s only female, Kat’s boldness is matched only her by her brilliance. Noble 3, Emile, started in Alpha Company with Carter and Jun. Emile is a secretive character portrayed only by the skull scratched into his helmet, an indication of his fierce fighting and no-holds-barred attitude. Jun is Noble Team’s fourth member; his skill with a sniper rifle is unrivaled. Noble 5 is the only SPARTAN II in Noble Team. Jorge, as he’s usually called, is a good-hearted mountain of a man. But Jorge’s friendly nature won’t come between the Covenant and his heavy machine gun. And then there’s you, a mysterious figure in your own right, pulled from Beta Company immediately after finishing training and now assigned to Noble Team to replace a recent casualty. Shortly after you meet your crew, you’re sent to investigate an outpost that has been unresponsive. It’s suspected that rebels on the Spartans’ home planet of Reach are responsible for the lack of communication. However, shortly after your team arrives, you start to notice that something’s not right — evidence of plasma fire is present. Shortly after your initial investigation, your team confirms that the Covenenant have indeed found and infiltrated Reach. Now your team must do everything it can to defend humanity’s military center, or lose the planet forever. You have a pretty good idea how it’s going to end, but I’m not going to spoil your fun with a play-by-play of each mission. I will tell you that the missions are more varied than ever before, with most missions including several different types of activities. For example, you may need to switch from flying to walking and back several times during a mission.
“You will become the best we can make you”
Alright, so the campaign mode is arguably the best of any Halo game. But if you’re like most people, the main reason for buying the game isn’t the campaign, it’s the online multiplayer. Matchmaking over Xbox LIVE is an area where Halo has always excelled, offering hours upon hours of fun. Reach is 100% ready to continue that tradition. There are plenty of fun free-for-all and team-based modes for you to start the killing in. Some modifications have been made to the online portion of the game in addition to the changes to the gameplay itself (which I’ll talk more about later). For starters, the XP-based system has been swapped out for a credit-based system. The more you play and the better you play, the more credits you’ll earn. When you earn enough credits, you’ll rank up — no waiting until you’ve played enough games. Additionally, there are no more playlist ranks, so now if you’re a Captain in Team SWAT, you’re a Captain in Rumble Pit. As you rank up, you’ll unlock more armor variants and effects (as opposed to earning them through campaign feats), which you can then purchase with your hard-earned credits. The interface has been re-designed to be easier to use, particularly if you’re trying to play with friends. You can also set matchmaking to look for certain types of players (like respectful, or quiet) without slowing down search times. And now, instead of being able to veto the assigned game, you get to vote on three different game/map combos or vote for none of the above. If enough people choose the last option, a new round of voting is brought up, although in the second round there is no “None of the Above” option. The specific playlists that are available have been changed a little bit, but the biggest playlist change is about the general categories. Now, instead of Ranked playlists, you can play in Arena mode. You have to play a certain number of games for a certain number of days during a “season,” and then at the end, you get compared to other players with the chance for in-game rewards. Finally, the medals you can earn have been expanded to include some fun new additions, and commendation rankings have been added as a career record of certain accomplishments. And rest assured that this game ships with more than enough maps and modes to keep you entertained for weeks on end.
Well . . . “Finish the ‘fight” already
If you enjoyed Firefight on Halo 3: ODST, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s back, and even better than before. In ODST, you could choose your level and difficulty. In Reach, you can choose . . . just about everything. Firefight games are now available as a custom gametype, so you can choose from several base game types, then modify the bejeesus out of it. Change your loadouts, base characteristics, scoring, shields, type of enemies, physics, and pretty much anything else you want to. There are all new maps to fit with the rest of the game, and just for fun, Bungie added some new modes. For example, there’s a gametype where other players play as Elites trying to make your life difficult, or another mode where you not only have to kill covies, but defend objectives at the same time. In addition to keeping Firefight around as a custom game option and adding new modes, it’s now online. Want to play 4-person Firefight but none of your friends are online? No problem — the game will find you some other players to help you take on the Covenant. There’s even a new Score Attack gametype in Firefight Matchmaking that lets you compete with friends’ scores against wave after wave of enemies. One other neat feature is the ability to customize the voice of your character in Firefight. Save up enough credits and you can choose from a wide variety of Halo characters, present and past, each with their own custom lines for Firefight.
“Mixing things up a little”
“Let’s talk gameplay. Reach has a familiar feel, and yet at the same time, it’s different than any Halo game you’ve ever played. For starters, this game introduces special abilities. Instead of being able to pick up objects like a Bubble Shield or Radar Jammer, you have a special ability built-in to your suit. These can be swapped out when you find alternate abilities during the course of the Campaign, or chosen before each spawn on Matchmaking, Firefight, and Custom Games. Abilities can only be used for a certain amount of time, and then need to be recharged. How long your ability lasts and how long it takes to regenerate both depend on which power-up you’re using. Choose from Sprint (running fast), Drop Shield (similar to a Bubble Shield that can be destroyed, but has healing powers like a slower Shield Regenerator), Armor Lock (which allows you to temporarily shield yourself from all damage and begin healing at the price of being able to move; additionally, a charge is released when you exit Armor Lock, damaging nearby enemies), Cloaking (which combines Active Camo with a Radar Jammer so the motion tracker doesn’t betray your position, but be careful — move too fast and you’ll become visible), Jet Pack (which gives you a fully-functional jet pack), Holographic Decoy (which creates a holographic “dummy” of the player to confuse enemies) and Evade (the Elite replacement for sprint; allows you to quickly dive-roll out of harm’s way). Other new gameplay features include new weapons and new tweaks to familiar weapons. And, now, if you have an opponent’s back to you, instead of just a quick melee to the back of the noggin, you can use the knife on your armor to perform an “in-your-face” assassination sequence. The motion tracker has been upgraded too, showing you elevation of other players in addition to direction. Two other changes you should know about: dual-wielding isn’t possible in Reach, and after your shield is depleted, your base health has only limited recovery abilities. But trust us, rather than that destroying the experience, with the new Armor Abilities, you’ll have a hard time returning to older Halo games. Oh, and one other thing: As if you would need another reason to play Reach every day, there are 4 challenges every day and another weekly challenge you can complete for extra credits if you’re up to the challenge. These range from getting a certain number of kills to performing special feats in specific modes.
“This place will become your home”
One of the really cool things about Halo 3 that few, if any, other games had was the Forge Mode. In Forge Mode, you could make major adjustments to maps, adding or removing structures, weapons, vehicles, spawn points, and more to make the map your own. The ability to turn a map into essentially a blank canvas and build a new one from scratch, combined with unparalleled customization options for gametypes allowed creativity to flourish on Halo 3. Whole new gametypes were created with their own custom maps, like racing games with custom racetracks (which are now their own gametype in Reach) or challenging obstacle courses. The Sandbox map was especially useful, given its large size, three levels with unique properties, open space, and nearly unlimited number of pieces to build with. Of course, with Bungie’s File Share feature, players could not only make those maps and gametypes to use on their console or with their friends on LIVE, they could share maps, games, or even screenshots or gameplay clips with the rest of the world to show off their proudest accomplishments. By what people placed in their File Share, Bungie could tell Forge mode was even more successful than they imagined. So, never content with just being awesome, they improved on it. Any of the maps can still be edited, but this time around, the controls are easier to build with. And, on top of that, your editing options are more in-depth than ever. With the new Forge mode, you can even edit the major buildings on a map — Imagine being able to move, add, or remove the bases on Valhalla from Halo 3. But perhaps the biggest new addition to Forge mode is the replacement map for Sandbox. It’s called Forge World, and it’s absolutely huge. Consisting of multiple different islands and areas, Forge World is by far the biggest Halo map ever. Each area can be totally customized and built just the way you want it to, and if you want to keep the fight in one area, that’s easy to do, too. Get out your hard hat and carpenter’s pencil; you won’t be leaving this awesome map any time soon.
“Don’t make a girl a promise . . . “
It happens . . . you get caught up trying to get just one more checkpoint on Legendary, and next thing you know, you completely missed your movie night. Pretty soon your girlfriend, your wife, or your friend is showing you the cold shoulder. Fortunately, with Reach, you can enjoy Halo AND watch a movie with the significant people in your life — at the same time. Reach has a built-in theater similar to Halo 3 that allows you to replay entire matches, whether from Campaign, Firefight, Custom Games, Matchmaking or even Forge. It’ll automatically save your most recent games, and if you want to keep them around for longer, all you have to do is manually save them. You can adjust the camera to be first- or third-person, choose which player to follow, and even move it around and zoom in or out when in third-person view. (Try getting that from your standard blockbuster!) In that respect, you’re both the director and the viewer (and possibly even the “actor”). But here’s where things really get cool: you can record clips or screenshots from your game. Want to capture just the ten seconds where you got your Overkill Extermination in your last SWAT game? Feel like saving the exact moment your Perfection medal popped up that time you were really “in the zone” playing Slayer DMRs? No problem. Finding your feat and capturing it either as video or a still is a cinch with the intuitive Theater controls. Better still, you can share your moment of brilliance with all of your Xbox LIVE friends by uploading it to your file share. Your friends can easily view or download screenshots, or download and watch film clips in the theater. One new feature in Forge is the ability to recommend files, so if your buddy really is impressed by your Sticky Spree, he can recommend it. Then, when any of his friends check out the files he’s recommended, it’s right there waiting. This also works with maps and gametypes. Oh, and one final note: I was joking at the beginning; Seriously, don’t try to pass off watching you complete your last mission as “going to a movie” with anyone you’d like to ever talk to again.
“The soldier we needed you to be”
Look on the cover of Halo: Reach and you might notice that only Noble Six’s five teammates are there, and not Six. That’s because, as in previous games, you can customize your character. You can choose your armor, buying upgrades as you rank up and earn more credits. You can also adjust the colors of your armor, and, as before, create a custom logo with your choice of colors. There are even special armor effects you can add with enough credits (Think Grunt Birthday Party every time you die). Furthermore, you can adjust your character’s gender, choose which armor set to use when you play as an Elite, or even set your preference to playing as an Elite whenever possible. Most of this was available in Halo 3, but there are plenty of new variants of armor, effects, new logo options, new color options, and best of all, your character is now the same in campaign as (s)he is in any other gametype.
“Spartans never die”
What do you get when you put all of this together? You get the best value in gaming, period. Halo: Reach doesn’t cost more than other new games, but it packs a lot more into the game. Between all the creative fun you can have in Forge World and Custom Games, the challenging yet fun Campaign, watching your games in the theater and posting files to your File Share, and of course, the online Multiplayer, you’ll probably never get tired of playing Reach. Halo: Reach literally offers thousands of hours of replay time because it has so many different fun features. If you could only have one game, this is the one to choose; it’s well worth the money.
“There will be a great deal of hardship on the road ahead”
There’s one more thing you should know about this game if you have kids. The ESRB, the group that gives all video games in the U.S. an age rating, has given Halo: Reach a rating of “M” for “Mature.” This means that it can’t be purchased, and in their opinion, shouldn’t be played by anyone under age 17. The reasoning behind this is because the game features (read: centers around) violence, and has blood, both alien and human. Many people, including me, believe Halo games are pretty tame compared to most “M” games, but if you’re the parent of a teenager, you should still review the game before letting your kid play. Along with this, Reach has online multiplayer and supports voice communication and file sharing, so anyone with a mic can say anything, or write anything using objects in Forge. Because of this, you really want to be cautious about letting anyone under 18 play online. Some of the things I’ve heard playing Halo on LIVE would make Ozzy Osbourne blush, so seriously, think twice before letting children play unrestricted online. Tip: You can adjust your kid’s ability to use and hear voice, or to play online, or even adjust what game rating they can play using Parental Controls built-in to the Xbox.