First, a brief introduction to the Halo series for those emerging from cryostasis: It's the 26th century and mankind is frolicking happily across the galaxy, colonising planets here and there when they come across a conglomeration of highly religious and genocidal aliens known as The Covenant. Interstellar war breaks out and mankind's losing battle for survival begins.
Are you gonna let some alien punks blow up all your nice stuff and kill all the people you like to hang out with? I didn't think so. Grab your controller and let's see if we can't teach these ugly suckers some manners.
Oh, did I mention there are literally billions of them? Hey! Where are you going?
In case you missed it, Halo: Reach is a prequel. The story which unfolds during the campaign is set on the planet Reach before the events of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Fun Fact: The Bungie guys wanted to call the first game just plain “Halo”. The “Combat Evolved” part was spawned by some marketing goon who thought that without it people might think Halo was just some religious game. Idiot.
In Reach, you play a nameless Spartan super soldier who has just become the newest member of a squad of fellow Spartans known as Noble Team. This makes Reach the second Halo FPS not to star the Master Chief, and the first to actually team you up with other Spartans. Since you are the sixth member of the team, you are creatively referred to as Noble 6.
You've barely met up with your team when you're sent on your first mission: Investigate suspected insurrectionist activity. It seems a communications dish has gone offline and human rebel forces are the most likely cause. Of course, it's not long before you discover that the situation is far more serious.
Reach is primarily a first-person shooter, however, gameplay changes from one campaign mission to the next. You'll get to be a foot soldier, wheel-man, gunner, assassin, tank commander and even a pilot.
Now you may be an armoured Spartan with a recharging energy shield, but you still need to keep an eye on your health. You'll only lose health if you take damage while your shield is depleted, but it won't regenerate on its own so keep an eye out for health packs.
All of your favourite foes have returned to be mercilessly destroyed once again. You will carve your way through Grunts, Jackals, Elites, Hunters, Buggers and Brutes. The roster also includes two new enemies: Skirmishers and Engineers. Technically, Engineers aren't “new” since they appeared in Halo: ODST, but seriously no one I've spoken to has played that game.
Skirmishers are the same species as Jackals, but instead of carrying energy shields or sniping from afar, they rely on speed and agility to delay your wrath. Like Jackals and Grunts, they'll go down with a single headshot. They're just a hell of a lot harder to hit.
In contrast, Engineers barely move at all. These floating, blue, armoured slugs with tentacles won’t even attack you, but they will assist close by covenant comrades with individual overshields which are twice as resistant as regular energy shields. Even typically unshielded enemies like Grunts and Jackals become a massive ammo drain when Engineers are nearby, so always take out the blue blobs first.
There are different types of enemies within the various covenant species, among which are: jet-packing Ranger Elites, cloaking Spec-op Elites, Grunt Heavies with plasma cannons and grav-hammer wielding Brute Chieftains.
It's especially nice to be fighting against Elites again after they sat out Halo 3. They are way more fun than Brutes. To kill a brute, all you have to do is keep your distance and plug rounds into him until he drops. Elites are little trickier. They'll frequently seek out cover to give their energy shields a chance to recover. If you don't aggressively pursue an Elite and finish him off, you'll be tussling with him for eternity/forever.
The single use equipment from Halo 3 has been replaced with reusable armour abilities which spice up gameplay in much the same way only far more effectively. Equipment was deliberately balanced to provide the same advantage or disadvantage to everyone in the vicinity, be they enemy or ally. Sure, as the carrier you could decide where and when to use it, but for the most part it was pretty useless.
In contrast, the armour abilities found in REACH give a distinct advantage to the user. At the bottom left of a player’s HUD, just above the radar, is a circular meter which is depleted each time an armour ability is activated. The meter is automatically replenished over time. Just how quickly the meter empties and fills will depend on which armour ability you have equipped.
Jet Pack - Exactly what it sounds like. Very handy for vertical shortcuts and surprise attacks. Just don't hang in the air too long or you'll get rifled out of the sky. Also, fall damage is in effect so save some juice to soften your landing. The hands-down favourite at a recent office Halo LAN was a game type we dubbed Rocket Man. Everybody gets a jet pack, a rocket launcher and nothing else. Fun.
Sprint - Situation getting to hot for you? Sprint lets you leg it out of harm’s way lickety-split. Got a shotgun, but your target's at mid range? Close that gap and peel off your enemy's face thanks to the good folk at Sprint Co.
Armour Lock - Activating this ability renders you impervious, but immobile. It's best used to survive explosive attacks such as plasma mortars and rockets or avoiding splatters. And if some schmuck tags you with a sticky, armour lock will pop that plasma off like it ain't
Drop Shield - Just like the bubble shield from Halo 3, the Drop shield is a protective, transparent sphere which blocks projectiles but not vehicles or infantry. It's great for shutting down mid to long ranged attacks and it will even restore your health while you stand inside it. The drop shield is NOT impervious. If it takes enough damage, it'll collapse.
Active Camouflage - No locker room is safe. Active camo grants you the power of invisibility, but it's also a cone of silence. You won't be able to hear what's going on around you while you're cloaked. For some reason, the boys in the lab saw fit to include a built in radar scrambler which causes phantom pings to appear on all nearby radar, including your own. Not only does it alert enemies to your presence, but it'll also make them harder to track. More bad news: the more you move, the more visible you become. If you want swift, flawless invisibility, you'll just have to complete your ninja training.
Evade - Where Spartans sprint, Elites evade. This ability enables you to perform a swift diving roll to either dodge enemy fire or get all up in their grill. Handy if you happen to be packing a sword. One such tumble will drain your armour ability meter by half to ensure you don't make yourself dizzy and fall over.
Hologram - Activating this ability will spawn a holographic clone of yourself which will run to and stand wherever your target reticule is pointing. The hologram will persist for ten seconds, but will dissolve if it takes too much damage. Using the hologram is a great way to waste a sniper’s ammo and have him reveal his location.
The most important aspect of a game where you kill things is the stuff you get to kill things with and between Halo 3 and Reach your means of dealing death have had a significant injection of fun - fun being a solution comprised of one part old, one part new and two parts awesome.
Dual wielding is dead. There are no more underpowered weapons that need to be paired up in order to be effective. I don't know if it was because it was fresher at the time or if the selection of weapons worked better together, but dual wielding in Halo 2 seemed more fun than it did in Halo 3. I think its departure is for the best.
It's back to basics for grenades too. Spike and flame grenades have been dropped leaving only the frag and plasma grenades. Just like the old days. I can't say I'm disappointed since I found four grenade types too many to manage in the clutch moments of a frantic battle anyway.
Both the Covenant and UNSC arsenal has undergone some reconfiguration. The major changes are as follows:
The sentinel beam and beam rifle are now one weapon known as the focus rifle. It scopes like the beam rifle, fires a continuous stream of foe frying energy like the sentinel beam and is capable of microwaving a burrito from half a kilometre away.
The carbine has been replaced with the needle rifle which behaves much the same as the carbine except is shoots jumbo needler shards. As with the needler, burying enough rounds in your enemy will result in the satisfying pink spectacle that is a super combine explosion.
The concussion rifle makes its debut, firing slow moving balls of plasma which explode on impact. It's pretty much the brute shot without the bounce. The plasma rounds are explosive, but pretty weak so it makes them a great alternative to rockets and grenades for explosion assisted jumping.
Ever wanted to lob four enemy tracking plasma grenades in one barrage? Introducing the plasma launcher. Hold the targeting reticule over your victim briefly to get a lock and then hold down the trigger. For each moment the trigger is held, a ball of plasma is added to the launch queue which maxes out at four. Releasing the trigger sees a rapid burst of plasma fuelled doom home in on your enemy and make them wish they'd selected a loadout with armour lock.
The new plasma repeater is very similar to the plasma rifle, but there are some noticeable differences. Firstly, the plasma repeater never fully overheats. As the weapon gets hotter, its rate of fire slows from super soaker to dripping tap. Also, the repeater cools more slowly than the plasma rifle when idle, but this can be hastened by holding the reload button to manually open the weapon's cooling vents.
The pistol sized shotgun known as the mauler and the grenade launching brute shot are absent, leaving the spike rifle and gravity hammer as the only brute weapons in Reach.
What about some new weapons for the UNSC troops? Well I was just getting to that:
The magnum has its groove back. Finally. Since it is now a single wield weapon it's much more powerful and has a higher rate of fire than the dual wieldable version from Halo 3. Throw in a 2x scope and the pistol is deadly again.
Goodbye BR, hello DMR. The designated marksmen rifle is a powerful and accurate replacement for the battle rifle with an improved 3x scope. The DMR only fires one shot to the BR's three, but it's more powerful. "Hang on", I hear you interrupt. "The pistol and DMR sound virtually identical." Well, they're not. The pistol is effective at close to mid range, where as the DMR is effective at mid to long range.
The grenade launcher just might be my favourite new addition to the arsenal. Not only does it launch grenades which explode on impact with the enemy, but it also allows you to manually detonate grenades. Keep the trigger held as you fire off round and the grenade wont detonate until you release it. You've essentially got remote mines. What's more, manually detonated grenades give off an EMP blast which can disable vehicles.
The rocket launcher is back with an interesting difference. You may remember how deadly rockets proved to be in Halo 2 with the ability to lock on to vehicles and how that ability was absent from in Halo 3. Well, vehicle lock-on is back, but only for aircraft. This balances the rockets quite nicely now, in my opinion.
Which brings us to the show stopper: The target locator would have to be the most powerful wieldable weapon in the Halo series. Simply paint the target with this laser and within seconds an orbital strike will rain devastation upon the area you've highlighted with your red ring or death. Effective against: Everything.
The quad-bike aka the Mongoose is back along with the Warthog. The hog's turret, gauss and troop carrier variants are all here as well as the snazzy new rocket hog which fires six rockets in a single salvo. Its rate of fire is quite low, but that's a small price to pay for unlimited rockets.
Another new UNSC vehicle is the Falcon which exists somewhere between the now absent Hornet, seen in Halo 3, and the Pelican. The Falcon can carry one pilot, two gunners and three passengers. It has a high-calibre, pilot operated machine gun mounted under the nose and, depending on which variant you're in, either an auto-fed grenade launcher or machine gun turret mounted on each side. Although a close relative, the Falcon is much easier to pilot than the Hornet and even has the ability to lock altitude, allowing you to strafe and fire without accidentally falling out of the sky.
The Revenant is a new covenant vehicle which combines a Wraith style plasma mortar with speed and manoeuvrability comparable to that of the Ghost. Its cannon isn't quite as powerful as that on the Wraith, but it still packs a wallop. There's no turret, but a single passenger can ride shotgun and fend off close range infantry attacks. The Revenant might not be as powerful as a wraith or as fast as a Ghost, but it's a good all-rounder which makes it preferable to both.
As with any decent FPS most of your gameplay hours will be spent in multiplayer (multiplayer makes up the bulk of the Reach experience). Halo faithfuls will find all of their favourite game types are all here as well as some new ones. The most significant new addition is Invasion, a three phase 6v6 battle which pits Spartans against Elites. Each phase sees heavier weapons and vehicles come into play, creating a satisfying big team battle experience.
When kicking off a multiplayer match, you'll have to select a loadout. Your loadout determines what armour ability, weapons and grenades you begin with. Loadouts vary from game type to game type and for some, like SWAT, you won't be given a choice.
One of the features that has given multiplayer a real shot in the arm is the progression and reward system. At the end of a match, you are awarded a certain number of credits (cR) depending on your performance. Credits are not only used as exp to determine your rank, but also as Halo fun bucks which you can spend in the armoury. The armoury is full of trendy gear which you can use to customise your Spartan including helmets, shoulder guards, chest plates and much more. Don't get too excited though, armour additions are purely cosmetic and don't provide any increased protection. You can also boost your credits by earning commendations which are awarded for reaching various skill based milestones, much like the challenge system in the Call of Duty games.
There's more to Reach multiplayer than just going head to head. You can team up with three friends and play through the campaign, fend of endless waves of covenant in firefight mode, or even build your own multiplayer spaces and game types in the level editor, Forge. This game has longevity to spare.
Reach multiplayer is fun, rewarding and the best in the series.
While the campaign is loads of fun, I found the story to be just ok and not great. I put this down to the characters. I much prefer the more disciplined Spartans from the novels. Noble Team is full of bickering, back talking brats. Spartans are supposed to be almost robotic in their professionalism. Their many years of punishing training and combat creates the type of bond that only soldiers share. None of this comes through in any of the cinematics. They all seemed to hate each other and barely acted like friends let alone brothers in arms. Kat and Emile came across as outright jerks while the rest where tolerable, but bland.
The story takes place on an epic scale and generates a healthy dose of excitement, but I didn't find the characters as engaging or as likeable as those in other great games like Modern Warfare.
There are other story related disappointments, and some parts which I thought were very cool but I can't discuss these due to spoilers.
On the other hand, the gameplay is fantastic. It continues Halo's natural progression of taking what was great about the previous games, removing what few things weren't and injecting new hotness. The campaign missions are huge, fun and look fantastic.
I don't agree with claims that the campaign is too short. If you find you're progressing too quickly, make use of the higher difficulty settings, that's what they're there for.
Multiplayer has been shaken up enough to give matchmaking veterans a decent amount of change without losing what they love.
The range of multiplayer modes, both competitive and co-operative, will keep social players happy for many, many hours.
If you haven't liked a Halo game yet, Reach isn't going to win you over as it's just the same thing only amplified. Halo fans, like myself, are loving this game.
Although no Halo game can ever have match the impact of the first, Halo: Reach is the best yet. Thank you, Bungie.