On paper, Halo: Combat Evolved read like it was destined for obscurity: In the future, a cybernetic super soldier defends humanity from an alien horde. It’s the sort of logline that reminds you that you need to take the rubbish out tonight.
The developer, too, was hardly of a pedigree that could turn heads. Bungie’s Marathon was a solid foray into the first-person shooter genre but one that was stymied by its Mac (Apple) exclusivity. That game was released in the years before the iEverything explosion, an era when most tech journalists busied themselves penning obituaries for the company.
In part a case of information bias kindled by Microsoft’s woeful inability to highlight the game’s strengths, in part that it was simply the strongest title in a limp launch line up, Halo: Combat Evolved proved to be an unprecedented success on Xbox.
Foremost among those strengths was the game’s multiplayer. Halo brought LAN gaming out of the computer library and into the frat house. In doing so it sold millions of copies and launched a billion dollar franchise.
Master Chief has become one of video gaming’s most iconic figures, not by virtue of his character – Peter Jackson probably dodged a bullet when he announced that he would no longer be creating a movie about the faceless monosyllabic husk – but by his sheer ubiquity.
Thus, while the Halo universe has spawned numerous books, comics and spin-offs detailing a rich and complex lore for the franchise, the premise turned out to be the least important ingredient in the game’s success.
Halo: Reach, Bungie’s final spin of the franchise wheel, comes full circle by concerning itself primarily with premise. Preceding the events of the original game, Reach recounts the downfall of the titular planet, which also serves as humanity’s main military facility, to the Covenant – a theocratic coalition of alien species.
The campaign attempts to wrap itself in the dramatic cloak of human tragedy but fails to deliver on that emotive promise. A meagre handful of civilians and non-combat personnel only feature in a few levels and none are given enough of the stage to induce empathy from the player. The result is the inclusion of curiosities, a smattering of assets with poor AI.
Instead, we’re asked to invest in a handful of wooden military clichés. You control a Spartan named Noble Six, the latest unwanted addition to Team Noble. The team is composed of no-nonsense leader Carter; the tomboyish intelligence and tech specialist, Kat; the reserved sniper whose name you’ll have forgotten by the end of the campaign (it’s Jun); the smack-talking knife fetishist Emile, and the rough diamond heavy weapons specialist Jorge.
This two dimensional cast attempts to relay the calamity befalling Reach with predictable exposition between missions and their poorly scripted deaths fail to deliver the intended punch to your emotional solar plexus. Rather, the experience is similar to discovering that the goldfish you bought yesterday is now floating upside down in the bowl.
Fortunately, planet Reach’s turgid panoramas and expansive levels do much more to engage the player. Some of the most moving moments Reach delivers are when the silent protagonist surveys the turmoil and we’re left to insert the emotions ourselves. Harking back to another highlight of the original, the game’s levels easily transition from expansive outdoor areas offering multiple approaches for success to more frenetic corridor combat.
You’ll also find yourself revisiting locations as the story develops. These occasional returns never feel like lazy level design but play out more as homage to the original’s A to B and back to A structure, albeit without the chaotic three-way combat served up by The Flood.
The Elites also return to fill the top echelon of the Covenant ranks, a gap that the Brutes of Halos 2 and 3 never comfortably occupied. Their AI is as pleasingly unpredictable as you’ll remember – hitting one with a plasma grenade or performing a stealthy melee kill carries with it that familiar sense of a small but satisfying victory.
Reach also trims some of the series’ accumulated fat by doing away with dual wielding and, largely, with detachable gun turrets. The humble yet highly effective scoped pistol from the original makes a welcome return as does the more traditional assault rifle.
The design and function of the Covenant’s arsenal is a little more hit and miss, offering larger variety but less value. It’s a disappointment as in spite of the fact that you’re standing on humanity’s primary military resource, man-made arsenal is occasionally scarce and salvaging weaponry from your fallen enemies is necessary to keep things moving along.
A little superfluous alien tech aside, Reach’s other additions are unanimously positive. Get used to hearing the name Long Night of Solace. Reach’s ship to ship space combat was much discussed in the months leading up to the game's release and it could have gone terribly wrong. Many games include such unnecessary accessories to their main formula to the frustration of the player. Reach’s piloted combat level is long, intuitive and most importantly, relevant. By the time you disembark your Sabre ship at the end of the level and take the fight to the Covenant inside one of their massive Corvette class ships – itself another homage to Combat Evolved’s Truth and Reconciliation level – you’ll be pining to do it all over again.
The game also introduces exchangeable armour abilities. Instead of being expendable, aerial jump packs, holographic decoys, immunity, armour shields and sprint – modest, perhaps, but extremely useful – are tied to a short cool-down. Holographic decoys in particular are sure to feature heavily in multiplayer vanity clips in the months ahead.
In some ways, the changes made to multiplayer reflect that the once indomitable Halo has lost a lot of ground to its competitors – and none more so than Modern Warfare 2. Unlockable aesthetic upgrades to your Spartan strongly mimic Infinity Ward’s hamster wheel.
Additional game mode customisation options and ODST’s Firefight mode all promise to diversify the online experience and make multiplayer more palatable to wider audiences but, LAN-favourite Capture the Flag aside, all will doubtless be shadowed by Slayer frag-fests.
Halo 3’s Forge map editor also makes a much-improved return as Forge World. A large editable landmass, players are given a user friendly tool box to shape and define levels as they see fit. These can be uploaded, shared and rated by the community.
Forge World also includes the basic layouts of favourite multiplayer maps from the franchise's previous installments, such as Blood Gulch and Ascension. It’s a telling touch on Bungie’s behalf. Microsoft owns the Halo franchise and there will be more games in the series developed by mercenary studios under license, but for all intents and purposes, Reach closes the books on Halo.
The inclusion of Ascension, Firefight and the Elites peg Halo: Reach for what it is: A collage of the best parts of the series, a tribute to ten years of development and its loyal followers. Halo: Reach is unlikely to win over any new fans to the franchise, but when your fanbase is as large as Halo’s, that’s a passing concern.