Saturday, January 15, 2011

Halo Reach

Reportedly the final installment of the Halo franchise from Bungie, Halo Reach was released last fall to record-breaking numbers (that would be broken themselves by the next Call of Duty installment, released soon after). So, how is it?

The campaign was worthwhile, but surprisingly, not too interesting. The story follows a team of Spartan 3s (with a single Spartan 2 member) stationed on Reach, the military center of the human race. The team are called to investigate a possible incident involving the insurgent factions that were harassing the colonies in the years preceding Halo 1, find that the Covenant are attacking, and attempt to fight off their impending doom. (If you've so much as heard of the title of the first Halo novel, The Fall of Reach, you know this is going to be futile.) Having read the books, I was interested to see how this story fit in the Halo universe as a whole.

The novels showed the Spartans as professional military teams that depended on each other and worked like a cohesive unit. The Spartan 3s were a little less so, since they were not raised by the military from childhood, but there was still a sense of a bond shared by Spartan team members. Halo Reach's Noble Team, however, didn't seem to share this same bond. As a Noble Team Spartan, I expected to have this same bond with the other members. However, the AI-controlled characters seemed indifferent and aloof, not just to me as a new member, but even to each other. I never got the sense that any of the other Spartans cared for each other, no matter what happened. When characters started dying, it just didn't seem like it mattered to anyone. After the excellent storytelling of Halo ODST and the characters' varied and interesting personalities, I was rather disappointed.

The overall plot was decent, although I had a hard time fitting it into the universe as I knew it. I'll leave the fanatics to analyze the plot, but there were things that just felt "wrong". Could Spartan 3s actually be on Reach? Maybe. But Dr. Halsey, creater of the Spartan 2 program, actually seeing one? That didn't seem to fit with her character in the books, who was unsure of their existence until she ended up on Onyx. Her dismissal of the only Spartan 2 on Noble Team (Jorge), too, seemed out of character with the Halsey in the books, who cared for her Spartans like a mother. And the final mission, bringing Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn, didn't sound right. Wasn't the Autumn already in orbit as part of the fight, with Cortana on-board? I might have the exact sequence of events a little off, but the lack of clarity was distracting.

Campaigns are nice, but what really gives a game longevity is multiplayer, and that's something Bungie does extremely well. Although Xbox Live had been out for a year before Halo 2, it was that game that took the service from a novelty to a necessity. Even eight years later, we're talking about how other games' multiplayer lobbies fail to live up to that standard. Bungie's next two Halo games only improved on this, and Halo Reach is no exception. Right on the game's main menu, you see a list of all people on your friends list who are currently playing, what friends they're playing with, and their current status (in lobby, playing a match, etc.). You can select one of the friends and see more details: who they're playing with (not just your friends), what game type they're playing, and the current score and time remaining. If their party is set to "friends" or "open", you can enter a "join queue", which will add you to their party as soon as their current game ends.

The game play is fairly similar to Halo 3, although dynamics are changed with the introduction of armor abilities. These are roughly similar to the equipment of Halo 3, but instead of finding one and using it once, it's something you spawn with and can use any time (with a recharge time between uses). You can choose your armor ability as part of your spawning loadout (which often includes different sets of weapons). These armor abilities can radically change the way the game is played. Jet packs turn the game vertical, armor lock can turn a run-and-gun fight into a tense standoff, and active camo encourages care and stealth — and that is only a sample of the abilities.

Game types are similar to the standard Halo fare, although some games that had to be created with custom rule sets (like "Rocket Race") are now implemented as standard game types, with even more options (e.g., force players to be in vehicles). ODST's firefight game mode has been expanded, with support for matchmaking, a single-player mode, and more, allowing players to customize even the types of enemies that appear in each wave. Forge has been improved almost to the point of a full level editor. A new Forge World map has been included, which has a variety of terrains and locations. Where "forgers" had to use insane tricks to place adjacent objects seamlessly or to suspend objects in the air, Reach's Forge allows players to push objects through each other or suspend them as supported, selectable options. As a demonstration of the powerful feature set, Reach was shipped with on-disc maps that were completely built in Forge World.

Reach includes a new leveling system that was popularized by Call of Duty. The game features commendations, which are awards that are earned by performing certain feats in certain game types (e.g., killing so many Covenant forces with a sniper rifle while playing Campaign missions). The leveling system is based on "credits", which are earned by playing games, earning commendations, or completing daily and weekly challenges (objectives determined by Bungie that, if you complete within that day or week, earn you a credit bonus). The total number of credits earned in your career determines your rank — thus, it is possible to only play Campaign and still "level up". (This rank is separate from your skill level, which is now completely hidden from the player and thus harder to exploit.) Credits can also be spent in the armory, allowing you to customize your Spartan with a wide variety of helmets, armor pieces, effects, and even voices used in multiplayer. (Spending credits does not decrease your "total earned" number, used to determine rank.)

Bungie has definitely improved on Halo in their last project. Although the campaign lacked the epic feel of Halo 3 or the emotional appeal of ODST, the multiplayer is a worthy successor for Halo 3.

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