Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Halo: Reach Review: Good, But Good Enough?

NobleTeam It’s hard to imagine gaming without Halo. Since 2001, the game has defined first-person shooters on consoles, practically becoming shorthand for the entire genre.

Halo: Reach, a prequel to the monumental franchise, will be the last entry by its current developers, Bungie. This particular space marine is hanging up his helmet: no more will he pull the left trigger to throw a grenade or mash B to bludgeon with the butt of his rifle.

The established Halo formula is graying in a pleasantly distinguished way, but it’s nine years old – that’s roughly a century in industry time. Halo: Reach epitomizes a franchise; it is Halo at its best, and quite possibly the best it can be. But is that good enough?

Short answer: yes. Slightly longer answer: yes, but you should adjust your expectations accordingly. This is Halo, not Half Life 2. If you’re evaluating this game as Art, you’re doing it wrong.

Reach puts us on the frontlines of a war between humanity and an alien alliance called the Covenant. Reach, a fortress planet, is a proving ground for teams of Spartans, genetically-modified supersoldiers intended to turn the tide in a losing war. It isn’t quite working. Players fill the boots of Six, an unwanted replacement on  Noble Team, which lost a man on its last operation.

Fans of the franchise already know Reach’s fate: the planet falls to a Covenant fleet, which “glasses” the surface with superheated plasma after killing all the Spartans (well, all but one). Bungie has tried to strike a graver tone with Reach, cuing up the strings and summoning the gravitas of classical tragedy. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it comes closer than anything else in the franchise. Your teammates are painted in short, effective strokes, and the narrative sweeps along without the curious blend of too much/not enough information that marred past titles. While Halo is known for Michael Bay-style bombast and big finishes, Reach’s coda is brutal and surprisingly cold.

Which is not to call Reach’s battlefields understated. You’re fighting off a full-scale planetary invasion, complete with tanks, towering artillery guns and kilometer-long starships exchanging broadsides in low orbit. Halo was never subtle, and the battles in Reach are superlative in size and intensity; and for once, they finally get the graphical treatment for deserve. The engine powering Reach bears little resemblance to the one behind Halo 3, which produced some truly cringe-worthy facial animations and low-texture cutscenes. Reach looks like the big-budget product it is, with great animation (exception: the inadvertently comic death animation. Watch your big, serious Spartan thrash about like a subway break-dancer and tell me otherwise) and impressive draw distance.

Reach lets you trick out your Spartan with upgrades such as cloaking devices, jet packs, temporary dome-shields or speed enhancers. While Bungie hyped the armor abilities as a way for players to customize their tactics, I thought their implementation was too strongly dictated by context. Jet packs are only available when you need to jump long distances; cloaking is only available on the snooping-around level. Most of the time, your upgrades are limited to land speed and armor. What could have been a brilliant tactical twist comes off as lazy design. Why won’t you let me fly, guys?

The enemy artificial intelligence deserves special praise. While some games jack-up the difficulty by making you weaker and strengthening the bad guys, adversaries in Reach will dodge grenades, seek higher ground and flank you in seconds.

Why, then, are your allies so brain-dead? Marines in Reach have a life expectancy of one minute, tops; even the jet-packed Orbital Drop Shock Troops couldn’t survive much longer. And don’t let your teammates, jarhead or Spartan, take the wheel. While manning the chaingun on the back of a jeep, I watched my AI-controlled driver make a 10-point turn to negotiate an obstacle. Good thing no one was shooting at us.

Reach proposed to deviate from Halo’s standard operating procedure by letting you fight alongside other Spartans. Your Noble Team commander, Carter, underscores this by ordering you to leave the “lone wolf stuff” behind you. Playing beside Noble’s five other Spartans during the first mission, I was almost convinced; but after that, the game finds excuses to break you into groups of two. The sense of team play evaporates when a purportedly hyper-lethal Spartan ends up as your half-witted sidekick, governed by the same moronic AI lamented above. If my teammates are just glorified scenery, why can’t I have more of them? 

Some who buy Reach will skip the campaign entirely and jump right into multiplayer, and with good cause – Halo 2 was the first big Xbox Live shooter, and the franchise has dominated the multiplayer arena until only recently (see Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). With a decked-out suite of multiplayer options, Reach may re-install Halo as the king of trash-talking, head-shotting and tea-bagging competitive gaming. It manages to combine nearly every multiplayer mode offered since Combat Evolved: Firefight mode lets players fight increasingly difficult waves of AI-controlled covenant (humans can jump in as Elites, and unlike Halo 3: ODST, you can enlist random players via matchmaking); in Invasion, Covvies and Spartans fight over a series of map-specific objectives; in Forge World, a vast, rolling map, players can use a robust map editor to build fortresses and create their own scenarios.

In his New York Times review of Reach, Seth Schiesel said the game cured his Halo skepticism; he learned to stop worrying and love the “consummate middlebrow science-fiction space opera.” I come from a place of similar doubt: on this very site, I blasted Halo for being anti-progressive. Halo isn’t about being progressive. It’s about doing one thing, and doing it very well: fighting aliens, in space, with guns. Reach is the pinnacle of this form; and as the license is remanded to Microsoft’s 343 Industries, it may well be known as the last Halo game.

If so, it couldn’t have chosen a truer note to end on.