Review by SSpectre

"Mediocre campaign, poorly-designed levels, no originality, and hectic multiplayer. Everything this series holds dear."

Halo: Reach

The Good:
+ Extensive and chaotic multiplayer options
+ Largely functional controls
+ Serviceable graphics and sound

The Bad:
- Incredibly repetitive campaign
- Multiplayer is severely imbalanced
- Noticeable lack of innovation – even for a Halo game
- Poorly-designed maps across all game modes
- Erratic difficulty

I have never liked Halo. I've always found the series to be full of monotonous shooters content to cower behind either the one or two important innovations the early games made, or that reeking cesspool that is their online multiplayer. But you know, sometimes I doubt myself. Sometimes I worry that I'm being a closet hipster, and I just dislike Halo because it's popular, or because it ensured that the original Xbox (the worst major console since the ****ing Master System) found success. With this second guessing in mind, I was prepared to be charitable to Halo: Reach. And after playing it more extensively than the other games in the series, I'm pleased to report that my original opinions were almost entirely correct.

To put it bluntly, Halo: Reach is boring. Almost every level consists of shuffling from one area to the next, shooting the same damn enemies with the same damn guns while riding the same damn vehicles we've not only seen for the last four missions, but the last four games. The occasional bright spot pops up near the end of the game – particularly a vehicle sequence where you must avoid the legs of giant robots crashing down from the sky. But these moments are undermined by the many points that should have been bright spots, such as the spaceship dogfight, which is easily the dullest, emptiest setpiece in a game full of dull, empty setpieces.

The entertainment value of many of these sections is also dampened by the vehicles' weightless, floaty controls – a problem that's been with the series since day one. To its credit, most of the on-foot controls work just fine. They're quite intuitive, the hit detection is extremely precise, and the levels are even designed to accommodate the game's lofty jumping physics, which would feel slippery and unnatural in any other game. There are a few quirks when it comes to the use of weapon scopes, but overall, the game's low quality is not a result of poor controls. It's a result of terrible design.

Despite the game's linearity, it's still quite possible to become lost, because the maps are huge and devoid of landmarks or direction. I played through the campaign on co-op, and I found that one of the most common phrases spoken was, “Go down that path, it looks slightly different than the last seven”. I wish I could say this was restricted to single-player, but Bungie somehow managed to screw up the multiplayer maps, too. Many of these arenas are so unnecessarily gigantic that it becomes a chore to even find any of your opponents, and most of the maps that aren't so massive are a simultaneously bland and surreal jumble of metal-textured blocks. Not all the maps are this wearisome, but for a series that prides itself on eclectic multiplayer options, it's pretty sad that most of the content is inadvertently reduced to a single required play style.

Said play style revolves around the jetpack, part of Halo: Reach's main new feature: equipment. This feature allows you to swap out your standard sprint function for other abilities like said jetpack or camouflage. It adds another little dynamic to the combat, but the only really creative one is the armour lock, which gives you temporary invulnerability at the cost of movement. There's actually a staggering lack of new ideas in general. With the possible exception of the first one, Halo has never been a creative juggernaut, so the only other new things you can expect from Reach are some tweaks to the Forge mode (a combination of map editor and multiplayer mode introduced in Halo 3), and the Armory, which is pretty much just the experience system from every other shooter from the past four years. Except it only unlocks cosmetic changes, giving me even less reason to care.

Speaking of cosmetics, the game's graphics are solid, as expected. The models and textures are clean, the animation is smooth, and the sheer size of some of the levels and backgrounds is truly impressive. On the other hand, the environments look a little blocky (a side effect of the series' art style not really evolving beyond its 2001 debut), and there's a noticeable quality drop in split-screen, but overall, visuals are one of the game's strong points. On the audio side, the music still hasn't quite lived up to the surprisingly good score of the first game, but it gets the job done, and the sound effects are excellent. The voice acting is respectable as usual, and this time around, the Covenant enemies speak entirely in their own language, which is a nice way to make them feel suitably alien.

The quality voice acting is especially appreciated, because the dialog is awful. And by extension, so are the story and characters it conveys. Reach is a prequel, set slightly before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, following a team of six Spartan supersoldiers called Noble Team through the destruction of the eponymous planet. Here's the thing: talented, veteran writers have trouble making prequel stories engaging. And since the Halo series up until now has been four games worth of bland, cookie-cutter Starship Troopers ripoffs, it's pretty evident that while Bungie may be veteran writers, they are not talented ones.

At least the other Halo games provided some more complex insight into the inner workings of the Covenant army. Without that, the faction is a very uninteresting enemy, whose blandness is only surpassed by the ostensibly human, yet very mechanical characters we're supposed to be sympathizing with. From both a story and gameplay perspective, at least the original trilogy was livened up by the presence of the Flood and a second playable character who was much, much more interesting than the soulless, faceless, worthless excuse for one that Master Chief and Reach protagonist Noble Six are. Reach's story improves near the end when Cortana is introduced and when the battles start to escalate, but until then, it's a series of small firefights where every character gets a turn to ominously say, “It's the Covenant...”

Another thing that hasn't changed between installments is the inconsistent difficulty. Once again, grenades, vehicles, and melee attacks are all incredibly overpowered, for both you and your enemies. This means that one moment you can be mowing down everything with nothing but the butt of your gun, and the next you'll be a ragdoll on the floor because of a grenade you couldn't possibly see or avoid. Having multiple difficulties alleviates this problem a bit, but stuff like this is still going to happen way more often than can be forgiven.

I can already hear the Halo fandom's the cries of “But multiplayer!” So let me just say that Halo: Reach is a terrific multiplayer experience, on paper. It contains more multiplayer possibilities than it does polygons, and they can range from obvious ones like map changes to obscure, crazy differences like gravity alterations and astonishingly specific damage effects. It can make for a fun, almost cartoonishly ridiculous time, and the extensive variety of modes should allow you to squeeze many hours of entertainment out of the disc. It's also one of the few games to support the fantastic concept of split-screen online, an inclusion I wholeheartedly endorse and applaud.

However, all but the most dedicated players will eventually be turned off Reach multiplayer, thanks to its lopsided game mechanics. I think the best way to demonstrate the game's balance issues is to outline how a typical game of multiplayer plays out in Halo: Reach:

First, pick a mode. Doesn't matter what you pick; people are going to play it like it's a standard Slayer match regardless. Next, choose a map. You'll probably select “None of the above” the first time, because as previously discussed, most of the maps are terrible. When you start your game, you'll quickly find that all of the default weapons, and most of the ones you can find on the ground are useless, so the game quickly descends into a grenade war, punctuated by the occasional two-hit melee kill. Eventually, someone will pick up a rocket launcher, at which point you can pretty much just add four kills to their total. Also eventually, someone will pick up the energy sword or gravity hammer, at which point you should turn to your team and tell them to equip the jetpack. However, you'll soon discover that they've already done so ten minutes ago, because it's the only useful piece of equipment to begin with.

However, Reach does contain one multiplayer mode that's less affected by these problems, and as a result, is actually consistently fun: Firefight. It's a simple endurance mode where you're pitted against wave after wave of increasingly more difficult Covenant. It still contains many of the problems of the campaign, but since it's put in an endurance setting, it removes the abrupt, broken feeling that plagued the rest of the game. Unlike the campaign, which just becomes tolerable when played in co-op, Firefight actually becomes hugely entertaining when played with a friend. The Forge mode is also interesting, partly because like all other multiplayer facets in Reach, it really lets you run wild with options, and partly because Bungie really did make an effort to improve the mode, making it considerably more convenient to use. It also has the potential to alleviate the rash of awful maps that afflict the multiplayer.

While Firefight is great, keep in mind that every other shooter these days incorporates an endurance mode, and some of them have decent full games attached as well. And taking the full game into account, Reach is exactly what I've come to expect from this series: a playable but unremarkable shooter that thinks it's a lot more important than it actually is. While its ludicrous multiplayer possibilities can potentially be used as a crutch, even those are undermined by its shaky attempts at competitive balance. I suppose if you really enjoyed the previous Halo games, I can recommend it, but seriously, if you really enjoyed the previous Halo games...why?

Reviewer's Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Originally Posted: 03/02/11, Updated 12/03/13

Game Release: Halo: Reach (US, 09/14/10)

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