After a decade of games, the Halo franchise comes to a close with Halo: Reach.
Game trailer: Halo: Reach
Halo: Reach marks developer Bungie's last entry into one of the most successful franchises in video game history. A prequel to the original Xbox's Halo: Combat Evolved, Reach takes place a few weeks before the events of the first game.
The best way to describe Halo: Reach is an all-star game. Developer Bungie has once again crafted a blockbuster title, this time by incorporating every detail that worked in all of the previous Halo games and adding a few new tricks here and there. The end result is a never-redundant, action-packed romp that manages to stay fresh and engaging throughout.
Working with a new graphics engine has rendered some of the best-looking visuals we've seen in a Halo game. Reach finally gives Halo that much-needed graphical bump--something critics of last year's ODST felt hadn't been properly upgraded. The visual improvement also gives the game a grittier look, perhaps because of the additional textures and particles onscreen. We think it delivers a sense of maturity and class to the title, and what better time to do so than in the series' final chapter?
Though we've never regarded the storyline in a Halo game to be groundbreaking, the narrative in Reach certainly stands out as the franchise's best. Of course knowing the ultimate ending makes any story that much easier to comprehend, but Reach does a better job at establishing characters and plotlines than any Halo game to date.
Fans of the Halo series know what they're getting themselves into here: an epic campaign, tons of customization and cooperative play, and arguably the most challenging campaign in the franchise. We'd be doing the game an injustice by not mentioning the multiplayer experience. It's tough to even scrape the surface of such an impressively fleshed-out mode, but Dan will touch on the vitals.
For more on Halo: Reach, be sure to check out preGame episode 19 where Bungie Community Director Brian Jarrard stops by the studio to show us some game play modes including Firefight and dogfighting live!
The problem with prequels is that you already know how the story is going to end. In the case of Halo: Reach, it's especially notable in that we've already seen the big beats of the story to come, and none of the characters you're supposed to bond with in this game plays a particularly important part in that. One need look no further than the ill-fated "Star Wars" prequel trilogy to see the potential pitfalls of turning back the clock on a popular mythology.
That said, Halo: Reach displays the typical sky-high production values and attention to detail the series is known for, and is, for fans of the genre, genuinely fun to play. The amount of play testing that goes into a Halo game must be seen (or at least read about) to be believed, and every corridor and bottleneck is vigorously analyzed by what we imagine to be white-coated lab techs watching human test subjects through one-way mirrors (the reality is somewhat more sedate, but we like the imagery).
The story, for those not only concerned with the game's multiplayer component, is surprisingly mature and cohesive, especially compared with the Bourne-like pastiche of flashbacks in Halo: ODST or the blink-and-you-missed it shifting alliances of Halo 3. In so much as you can become intellectually or emotionally involved with a collection of characters that spend 90 percent of their time under masks, it works. But, there's also a reason Peter Parker gets more screen time than Spider-Man. An interesting byproduct, perhaps intentional, is that players rarely feel the absence of iconic series hero Master Chief, who has now been out of as many Halo games as he's been in.
But the real reason fans will wait out in the drizzling rain for the midnight release of a Halo game isn't the Tom-Clancy-meets-George-Lucas space opera, it's the full-contact multiplayer. Along with Madden and Call of Duty, Halo has been fortunate enough, through a mix of expertise and good timing, to become one of the few must-play multiplayer games for nearly everyone.
It's not that the warthogs and needlers of the Halo universe are necessarily so much better than those of other online games (although the carefully honed multiplayer mechanics are arguably unmatched), it's the far more important concept of the online community. The social utility derived from players around the globe having a shared experience, even if they're doing it at different times and in different places, mirrors the best aspects of social networking, with Xbox Live as the modern equivalent of the office water cooler.
That's unique to Halo and a handful of other games, because as anyone who has played a less-popular online game can tell you, it's hard to form an online community if you're the only one playing.
In a holiday season that feels a little short on big-budget games, Halo: Reach looms large. Halo's "halo" has decreased somewhat from the days when the franchise's sequels were treated like summer movie releases, but that's also because the franchise has splintered into a world of spin-offs since Halo 3. Last year's ODST was a side trip, and Reach is a prequel that might appeal more to series completists than newcomers. Still, if you crave holiday games like you do summer movies, it's a big-budget release to savor.
Unfortunately, Halo: Reach isn't much of a risk-taker. It doesn't need to be: like Grand Theft Auto, players come to the franchise for what they expect, not for reinvention. Reach is Bungie's last game in the series, and it feels like the right time for an exit. As much as the game's cinematic scope and occasional added extras such as dogfighting modes in deep space can reach out and wow, there's not a lot that feels fundamentally different from Halo 3. Multiplayer and single-player experiences are more of a comforting final visit, a final lap around the franchise.
One point about the Halo franchise that we can appreciate is its sense of its own finitude--that it is a story arc to be completed, and then moved on from. Shooters and franchise sequels can get so iterative that we stop experiencing the joy of what made them unique experiences in the first place. Hopefully, shooters in the future will reinvent themselves, and become something new, surprising. Halo is the granddaddy of the current-gen shooter, but as the Xbox 360 starts to grow significant gray hairs, it's time we found new directions. Reach is a sure bet, but it's not truly a reach at all.