Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hands-on With Halo: Reach, Series' Swansong

ReachCampaign_m10_NobleTeam02 It’s autumn 2001. Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie’s first-person shooter, has just hit shelves. You’re a space marine encased in a shell of powered armor and marooned on a giant ring-world, an angry alien horde before you. Halo’s blockbuster success secures a place for the Xbox in the console-gaming firmament, and erases any doubt that shooters can be as good on a console as a personal computer.

It’s autumn 2004. Halo 2 is advertised on novelty cups at Burger King. Once more, you are a power-armored space marine, and once again, you’re decimating wave after wave of grunting, snarling aliens. The game’s success, festooned with words like “unprecedented,” creates the Xbox Live experience as we know it.

It’s spring 2010. Halo 3 and Halo: Orbital Drop Shock Trooper have both moved millions of units. Halo: Reach, Bungie’s last game in the franchise, is in its final stages of development. In an effort to iron out bugs and hype an already hyper-hyped audience, the developer treats millions of fans to a preview of the multiplayer component.

In no significant way is Halo: Reach different than Halo: Combat Evolved. But a few important tweaks make this iteration feel smooth and refined like a good scotch. From what I can see, Halo: Reach is the franchise at is absolute best; and for once, in a market saturated with shooters like Modern Warfare 2, running and gunning with the space marines feels like a breath of fresh air.

If you’ve been paying close attention to the narrative in Halo, you’ve been wasting your time. Long story short: there’s an alien alliance known as the Covenant. They want you and all your pasty, fleshy friends dead. A few of the more zealous alien chieftains want to fire a circuit of universe-ending bombs, known as halos; they preoccupy the first three games. Reach centers around, well, Reach, a fortress planet where the United Nations Space Command trains Spartans, surgically-enhanced super soldiers wrapped in power armor.

ReachCampaign_m30_Noble6 In their predictable, plodding quest to conquer the universe, the Covenant invades Reach. Here’s the thing: they win. The battle for Reach precedes the Halo trilogy – Combat Evolved begins with the player narrowly escaping the planet’s orbital bombardment – so we know this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Reach centers around Noble Team, a handful of battle-weary Spartans determined to put their all into a lost cause. Designers at Bungie have referenced Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as an influence, and knowing the developer’s storytelling strengths and weaknesses – a flair for operatic drama; a good, if predictable, march to the narrative – I expect a solid single-player game from the final product.

But it’s the multiplayer on show, here. The Reach open beta allows players to sample two maps, Swordbase and Powerhouse in a variety of modes. Team Slayer pits red and blue squads against each other in a no-frills deathmatch; Stockpile tasks teams with gathering as many flags as possible within the allotted time; modes like Invasion and Generator Defense were not available at press time. Community director Brian Jarrard said modes will become available as the beta progresses over its two-week span.

halo reach spartans Halo: Reach finally ditches the tired-looking Halo 3 engine and takes full advantage of current-gen hardware. The assault rifle alone has more polygons than an entire Marine from Halo 3, and the enhanced physics and particle effects are visible within a few minutes of playtime. Finally, Halo gets the polish it’s been screaming for.

Halo is a slower multiplayer experience than Modern Warfare 2, which is fine by me. In MW2, I had an knack for dying seconds after spawning, fragged by a wayward grenade or sniped by a Call of Duty veteran. Spartans are equipped with personal shields, giving firefights their own unique cadence: wear them down with an assault rifle, then lob a grenade for the kill; or rush headlong into gunfire for a kill from the butt of your gun; or stick ‘em with an adhesive plasma grenade, sit back and watch the fireball. Shooters in the MW2 school demand knife-edge reflexes; Halo is more forgiving of gamers like me.

Historically, Halo titles have always been well-balanced, rewarding experience while making sure to give newbies their time behind the rocket launcher. Even in its beta form, Reach exhibits the expert mapmaking and weapon design of past titles. The assault rifle, a jack-of-all-trades gun, is suitably lethal for the casual player, while the designated marksman rifle demands more foresight and finesse. Players won’t need to scrutinize charts to tell which weapons are better than others – they’ll know immediately which weapons fit their play styles. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to weapons like the gravity hammer, a giant alien sledge that scatters foes with a gratifying whooomping sound.

09642-0_powerhouse_8p_stockpile_lm-13_WM While Reach is very much the child of its elders, it introduces at least one important change to the multiplayer game: armor powers. When players enter the game, they can choose to equip their suits with a speed enhancer, a armor-locking shield boost, a cloaking device or a jetpack. The sprint option puts a little spring in your step, but that’s it; armor-lock gives you invulnerability, but rivets you in place; the cloaking device makes you partially invisible, but the discerning sniper will have little problem finding you; the jetpack gives an unprecedented tactical advantage, but also makes you one hell of a target.

Here, too, is evident Bungie’s masterful grasp of balance. A few friends have said the jetpack is overpowered, and will likely be abused, but so far, I’ve seen fairly even usage of the armor powers. Sprint seems to be the only option largely ignored by gamers, and Bungie would do well to make its velocity a little more worth our while.

After a bumpy launch –servers were down for about five hours as fanboys frantically clogged Bungie’s tubes – Reach seems to be running smoothly. A handful of bugs are popping up on YouTube, but really, more glitches have made it into finished titles. Players still have an annoying tendency to drop a captured flag repeatedly as they run, marginally increasing speed and filling your living room with announcements of FLAG DROPPED, FLAG TAKEN, FLAG DROPPED, FLAG TAKEN until you either silence him or yourself.

Bungie has said Reach will be their final entry in the series, and a recently-inked 10-year deal with Activision seems to confirm that. If Reach is Halo’s apotheosis, the series could hardly do better. Halo will always be Halo: I’ve accepted that. I’ve come to love it. Unless Bungie creates an utterly lackluster single-player campaign, Reach should be the formula at its best and purest.