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Halo Reach

I’ve never had a meaningful relationship with the Halo franchise.  Having never owned an original Xbox, I missed out on the universe Bungie has painstakingly crafted over the last ten odd years.  I played Halo and Halo 2 multiplayer via friends over the years, but never in a serious way and I never did more than one or two campaign missions.  I picked up Halo 3 because at the time I had just purchased my 360 and was looking for stuff to play.  I enjoyed the game, but felt like I was missing something story wise having not played the first two, so I played through it once, messed with the multiplayer for a few hours, then shelved it.  I share this information because I feel like reviewing a Halo game is a difficult proposition for somebody like me.  There are fanatics (Zealots if you will….I know enough to drop lame puns in this article!) that will enter a state of lunacy at the slightest criticism of their beloved franchise, but honestly, they are probably not reading many reviews anyway, they’re playing the game.  So take this review from a specific perspective:  Is Halo Reach worth buying as a game on its own, aside from all the hype and fanboyism?  The answer is yes, but the game is not flawless as many tout it to be.

I’ll start with two pieces of important information that everybody playing Reach should know regarding the story (no spoilers):

1.  The Covenant is a race of evil aliens that are attacking human settlements throughout the universe.  Reach refers to a vital human world that the Covenant attack that serves as the story for the game.  It has been established in the Halo universe that Reach is lost to the Covenant in their fiercest showing of aggression yet, which makes Reach a prequel.  Knowing that the planet your fighting to save is destined to be overrun was not designed to be a spoiler and actually helps the story greatly.

2.  Knowing the above, the story of Reach can be enjoyed as a self-contained game even without any other knowledge of the Halo universe, though there are of course many references and revelations sprinkled generously throughout the game for those who know the Halo Lore.

Concept Art: Reach is going to fall.

The story has you in the shoes of Spartan warrior (human super soldiers, outfitted with badass armor and the awe of those around them) designated Noble Six.  The newest recruit to Noble team, you are replacing the former Noble Six, who apparently was killed in a prior engagement somewhere.  So, of course, the five other members of Noble team treat you a bit harshly at first and you must earn their respect.  While Noble One through Five all have real names behind the iconic helmets, you as Noble Six do not.  Bungie has employed the Chrono Trigger style of making you as a faceless protagonist (though you do have a voice) which probably is a result of being able to totally customize the look of Noble Six (I’ll get back to that).  Reach does an excellent job of making you feel like a member of Noble Team, and even more so of conveying that the ongoing war that rages around you is populated with many others.  The sense of epic scale is done well.  Working as a team is encouraged (and hell, REQUIRED if your playing on Legendary difficulty, which I’m trying to work my way through right now, jesus christ) and is a departure from the previous Halo games.  Reach even makes a small joke about this as your commander remarks, “I’ve seen your service record, no more of that lone wolf stuff, you are part of a team now.”

The working as team is done well because it uses Noble team to set up different styles of play throughout the ten missions of the campaign.  You’ll engage in large-scale conflicts with all of Noble team present which have an excellent chaotic rhythm to them.  This is aided by “normal” human soldiers that help you at points throughout the game (although to be fair, it is usually you showing up and helping them).  Walking near these friendly soldiers will add them to your fire team, meaning they will follow you and engage whatever enemies you do until they are killed, which is usually pretty quickly.  I enjoyed the reaction of these normal troops to the presence of Spartans, which was a mix of hope and awe most of the time.  It actually makes sense for them to follow you into battle given the uber soldier status.  This goes a bit overboard sometimes though, such as the ability to demand a friendlies weapon (in what I thought was a nice touch, this is impossible to do with fellow Spartans).  I always enjoyed running out of ammo on my current weapon, approaching a “normie” soldier and trading him for his.  His response of “Thank you!’ as I handed him a useless weapon always made me chuckle.  The same humor showed up in vehicle use.  As a soldier and I approached a Warthog (jeep with turret gun in the back, for those who may not know) he remarked that he was driving and hopped behind the wheel.  I walked up next to the driver side door and held X, which made him yell “I’ll get the turret!” and left the steering wheel for me.  Like I would let the AI drive.

Again, the missions vary though.  One mission has you working with Noble Team’s sniper, and actually starts as a straight stealth mission, showcasing the fancy new assassination animations Bungie put in, which is usually snapping the neck or stabbing somebody through the heart.  Good times.  You clear room to room with the munitions expert who sports a huge chain gun.  A later mission has you and the close quarters combat specialist, touting a shotgun and insanely large knife, blazing through Covenant to reach an important objective.  This splitting up of whom you work with lets you get to know all of the characters a little bit throughout the game.  None of them are very deeply developed, but they serve their purpose.  Hints are dropped about potentially interesting things they have going on, but then those plots are largely ignored.  An early mission reveals that Jorge, the munitions expert, is the son of a scientist whom you interact with throughout the game.  This is mentioned maybe two times and never goes anywhere.

You will get to know Noble Team well.

Given my lack of Halo knowledge, I was impressed with how into the story of the game I was.  As the first mission has you discovering the presence of the Covenant on Reach, it added a desperation and melancholy that I felt as a the player even though the characters did not.  Knowing that Reach was screwed added a ton, as I felt so much for Noble Team as the situation turned more and more desperate.  The foreknowledge of humanity’s eventual defeat  made the later battles carry weight, as I was just waiting for the hammer to drop.  The very last mission was a poignant display of that tone and very well done.  The actual ending left me sort of confused, as I felt like I was missing something due to my lack of Halo knowledge, but I can forgive that.

So this brings me to the actual game play, which I’ll admit I’m having trouble trying to decide how I feel about it.  This is going to sound strange considering I am saying you should play this game, but the game play is the weak link here.  It is not *bad* by any means.  I just felt like this is basically the same style of play that was in Halo 2.  I’ve seen many touting the new armor abilities as the evolution that puts Reach ahead, but while fun, I didn’t feel like they were doing anything I hadn’t played before.  They include things such as jet packs, the ability to sprint, temporary invincibility, or an energy shield.  I’m reminded of something I heard one of the reviewers for IGN say on a podcast once (yeah, I’m referencing another gaming site….we’re three dudes running a blog DO NOT JUDGE OK GAMING COMPANIES ARE NOT CALLING US TO GIVE PREVIEWS….YET).  I’m paraphrasing, but the idea was that a review of a game you love is easy to write, a review of a game you hate is easy to write, but a review of a game that falls in the mid range is difficult.  That is how I feel about the mechanics of Reach.  They are serviceable but never mind blowing.  I realize this is vague, and many will freak out that my criticism has nothing to point too in specific as to why this or that wasn’t working, but it’s more of a feeling I didn’t get while playing.  Modern Warfare 2’s combat just had an edge or punch that made it really visceral and satisfying, while most of Reach’s combat left me detached from the proceedings.

Even I will admit, jetpacks are super fun.

One thing that most definitely did work here is the crazy amount of customization that can be done on Noble Six.  The main character as proxy for yourself does well here, as the iconic Spartan armor worn throughout the game has an almost limitless number of looks.  The armory gives you options for helmet and chest plate sure, but left shoulder and right shoulder also have their own categories.  Wrist?  KNEE PADS?  Throw in the ability to change the color of everything and you can easily craft a unique Noble Six.  The brilliant part of all the playing around in the armory is that it applies to both the single player campaign and any multiplayer action.  While team games put you in the traditional red vs blue armor to differentiate, any ffa match results in the look you’ve created being seen by other players.  If you want to be decked out in shining white armor, done.  If you want to look silly and be peach and sea green, done.  All of these options are purely cosmetic, so there is no advantage or disadvantage to be had from wearing a certain piece of armor.  Aside from the obvious of if I see a peach and sea green spartan, I will spend the whole game attempting to kill him.

I think everybody knows the kind of multiplayer a Halo game brings to the table at this point, but Bungie had some cool ideas to add some extra zip to the proceedings.  First and foremost, the Firefight mode that Halo ODST had is now fully featured and has its own playlist.  The co-cop Gears of War Horde mode style is actually the most fun I’ve had in my short time with the multiplayer.  The waves of enemies become increasingly scary, but I’ve pulled off a couple of spectacular killing sprees by hijacking a tank and using the target locater (basically, calling in an air strike).  Much like the single player campaign, sticking together and working as team is the way to go for success.  Speaking of, for the record, the entire campaign can be played co-op as well, a well received tradition for any Halo game.  I’ve heard awesome things about the new invasion mode, which gives objectives for each side and slowly expands the scope of battles as the match goes on, but I haven’t yet had a chance to try it.  One thing I have tried and is a nice addition is the daily and weekly challenges.  The challenges are goals to work towards on a given day, such as kill 50 people in multiplayer, or kill 10 enemies while using the jetpack on the campaign mission that features it.  Doing these challenges (and for that matter, I should mention, doing basically anything in the game) earns you credits, which count as both an experience meter and currency for all the shiny armor pieces.  Spending credits does not drain your xp, so buy as much as you want.  Certain pieces are only unlocked as you move up the ranks (think Call of Duty, although again, these are all cosmetic).  The challenges give an excellent reason to spend a little bit of time with the multiplayer and are a welcome addition.

There was a FIREFIIIIIGGGHHT!! (Willam Dafoe is bleepin crazy)

Reach also offers a full featured in-game theater, which saves your last eight or so odd games as movies, then enables you to edit them into bite size chunks or full-scale machina and upload them to your own little Bungie server space.  So, if you pull off an insanely awesome kill in a team slayer match or are trying to show a friend how to get a certain achievement, it’s very awesome you can craft that into a movie and have your friend download it to his machine and watch, all from within the Reach menus.  It’s kill cam social networking and I’m all for it.

To wrap this up, I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say about a Halo game.  Play this one for the campaign and story.  Anybody obsessed with the multiplayer already has the game, but newbies can also have fun and work their way toward ranks and completing challenges.  I purchased the game expecting the story to make no sense but hoping the game play would elevate it to the next level (I’ll call this the Modern Warfare 2 theory).  In fact, it was the opposite.  The game play did its thing and served its purpose, but the lasting impression will be the planet Reach itself.  As Noble Team gradually moves from confident to desperate, I feel their pain.  Bungie has put together their most emotional and cinematic story to date.  While they no longer have control over the Halo Franchise (that goes to Microsoft, oh boy) they are on record saying they already have a huge project in development.  As someone who appreciates a game story more than anything else, they’ve converted me from not really caring to be being thoroughly excited.  Even if you’re not a Halo fan the compelling story and display of some of the things Bungie is capable of make Reach a game worth the money.


One Response

  1. Good choice on not letting the AI drive. I like to shoot so I jumped on the turret. The AI drives like a 90 year, cross-eyed man. It took forever to get anywhere and that was when we weren’t running into walls or getting caught on pebbles in the road.

    I was really into Halo up through Halo 3–I even read the books. I love the story,but part 3 kind of lost me. Honestly, I forgot much of what happened in the previous games since my memory sucks, but this game story-wise was a lot of fun to play through. I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, even though I have a few buddies on there every freakin night. I probably will finally try it out this weekend, though. My gamertag is Orko if you ever want to play.

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