Review: “Halo Reach”

“One final effort is all that remains…”

This is it. The last Bungie-made Halo game. After five titles and more than a decade of working on the franchise, Bungie is now passing the torch to 343 Industries and moving on to a new IP. So, how does their grand farewell to the series compare to past Halo games? Is Reach everything I have hoped for in a Halo game? Read on to find out.

A world falls. An era ends.

GAMEPLAY

Weapons

The arsenal in Reach is much improved over Halo 3’s. The weapons are generally more accurate, consistent, and effective (though some have been nerfed noticeably if not outright royally shafted), and many of them are hitscan to boot, which is a boon for those who play online. Dual wielding is gone, which is great. Returning weapons that were dual-wieldable in Halo 2 & 3 are much better now that they are single-wield. Also, I like how the AR, DMR, pistol, and sniper rifle all have different reload animations depending on whether or not the weapon is reloaded from empty (the shotgun does not, however; the pump is operated even when there’s still a shell in the chamber). That was a nice touch from Halo 1 that I missed in the sequels.

The DMR was my preferred weapon in the beta and is still my go-to gun in the final game. I’ve been arguing for a semi-auto BR for years, and now I finally have one. It’s extremely accurate, with less shot spread than even Halo 1’s M6D pistol. In fact, if you pace your shots properly, every shot will be perfectly accurate. I never did like the spamfire factor of the BR’s burst fire, and I’m glad that’s no longer a factor with the primary UNSC mid-range firearm. The DMR is as close to the the M6D as I could hope for, without the latter’s somewhat excessive damage over time as compared to the other weapons.

The DMR. Perhaps the best primary weapon since Halo 1’s pistol.

The Needle Rifle is much the same. Like its predecessor the Carbine, it’s somewhat weaker per shot than its UNSC counterpart but fires a bit quicker. Unlike the Carbine, though, the Needle Rifle is dead-on accurate just like the DMR, unless of course you’re spamming the trigger. Also, it’s projectiles aren’t just neon-colored bullets. They can cause a superdetonation just like those of the Needler. This does help differentiate it from its otherwise functionally identical counterpart and makes it feel more like a Covenant weapon. In fact, it’s an outstanding weapon in Campaign and Firefight, especially when fighting Brutes.

The new version of the M6G pistol is a decent starting weapon. It’s just as powerful per shot as the DMR (and its Halo 3 version, at least when it was single-wielded), though it has a smaller magazine and its scope has less magnification. It also places more emphasis on speed rather than accuracy. Its rate of fire is higher than the DMR’s, but it’s also less accurate and kicks like an SOB. It’s still far more accurate than the AR and can kill a good bit quicker at closer ranges if your shot placement is good (or you’re just lucky), though, the latter of which is a bit of an imbalance considering you start with both in standard Slayer.

The plasma pistol is, for the first time since Halo 1, a decent standalone weapon. Unlike in Halo 2 & 3, it is actually capable of killing an enemy on its own. The charged shots are even capable of inflicting damage to health once again. However, it seems to have been nerfed since the beta. While I managed to rack up over 100 kills with it in the 2+ weeks of the beta, I’ve yet to get anywhere near that in multiplayer in the final game since it came out. Then again, this apparent nerfing may be due to upgrades made to other weapons like the AR. It only takes 10 shots to kill an opponent in multiplayer with the plasma pistol, but with the leading involved and the time it takes to pull the trigger ten times (or more, depending on your accuracy), most other common weapons like the AR will usually overwhelm it. The plasma pistol is still more useful as a shield breaker than as a killing weapon in multiplayer and is more effective as a standalone weapon in Campaign and Firefight. Considering that weapons like the AR have been upgraded, an increase in per-shot power and/or projectile velocity or perhaps even a Halo 1-style stun effect should have been implemented to put it more in line with the other weapons. Overall, while it falls short of the good old Halo 1 plasma pistol, it’s a massive improvement over its Halo 2 & 3 incarnations.

The AR has been greatly improved not only from the beta, but from its incarnations in Halo 1 and Halo 3. The weapon is very accurate when fired in short, controlled bursts. You can get very tight shot groupings even at 30 meters. The AR is also very effective at close range. Overall, it’s a very solid gun and is the best incarnation of the AR in the series. If there’s anything that needed to be improved, it’s its per-shot power.

The Plasma Repeater seems to have been nerfed since the beta, and is less effective overall than its counterpart the AR, which the repeater is supposed to be a Covie-themed mirror of. It’s less accurate than the AR, not to mention leading is required to hit your targets (it is a plasma weapon, after all, so it’s not going to be hitscan like the AR). Given the fact that you have to lead your targets, there’s no excuse for it to have such lousy accuracy. It should have had at most half the spread of the AR. Also, while the repeater has the same per-shot damage as the AR, it seems to take longer to kill, likely due to the lower accuracy and relatively slow projectiles.

The plasma rifle, on the other hand, is more accurate than the repeater on full auto (though slightly less accurate when fired in short bursts) and it does more damage per shot, though its maximum rate of fire is lower. It’s also a far more effective shield breaker. In terms of effectiveness, the plasma rifle is in my experience superior to the repeater. I’ve gotten more use out of it in Campaign than I have with the repeater, and I’ve also found I get better results from it in multiplayer as well based on custom games I’ve played that had plasma rifles available. Given the fact that the plasma rifle is generally superior to the plasma repeater and is more in line with the AR in terms of killing power, I hope Bungie decides to ditch the repeater in favor of the rifle in a future update. Either that or they should just eliminate or greatly tighten up the spread on the repeater.

The Needler isn’t quite as formidable as it was in Halo 3 since you can no longer get a super-detonation if your opponent’s shields are up, thus requiring more needles to be stuck into your target to kill them. It’s still reasonably effective, though, especially when used in narrow corridors or against guys with jet packs. Also, it’s as always one of the most effective small arms to use against Brutes.

The sniper rifle is pretty much unchanged functionally, except now it can damage vehicles, which makes sense considering it’s an anti-materiel rifle (in fact, I think it does a bit too much damage). It also looks a lot cooler now. While it retains some of the attributes of the NTW-20 that the sniper rifle’s original incarnation was based off of, it now more closely resembles an Accuracy International rifle.

The Focus Rifle is hit-or-miss for me. I can appreciate Bungie trying to further differentiate the Covenant sniper rifle by turning it into what is basically a Sentinel beam with a scope. However, this makes it feel very finicky. Sometimes it works quite well, while other times it seems useless, at least in multiplayer. It’s a merely okay weapon, and to be honest I much prefer the Beam Rifle.

The shotgun has been improved from its Halo 3 incarnation. While its effective range isn’t nearly as good as it is in Halo 1, it’s still a good bit better than in Halo 3 where it was almost useless past melee range. It can actually do decent damage at ranges where it would have been nearly useless in Halo 3.

The gravity hammer feels a lot more consistent than it did in Halo 3. Combined with the sprint ability, it’s a very devastating CQC weapon.

The energy sword, on the other hand, has one big problem that’s really holding it back: it can now be blocked by a melee from any weapon, not just from another sword. While this feature isn’t as bad as it was in the beta — a sword wielder no longer has his shields knocked out if the sword strike is blocked — it’s still a totally unnecessary game mechanic. This sword blocking mechanic is not only unnecessary — close-quarters weapons like the sword are absolutely useless past close range, while other power weapons can be used at any range — it’s inconsistent as well. The hammer cannot be blocked by a melee even though it’s also a dedicated one-hit-kill melee weapon, and there’s no way to block it or any other weapon without using the armor lock ability. And speaking of which, well, if you attack someone who locks before the slash connects, you’re pretty much dead thanks to the AL’s EMP ability. Why the sword, and only the sword, was made to where it could be blocked by means other than the armor lock makes no sense. The sword block needs to be removed (except for when two players with swords clash like in Halo 3).

The rockets are simply devastating now, as they should be. They’re just as effective as they were in Halo 1, whereas they felt like dinky little bottle rockets in Halo 3. I’ve also noticed that they have a slight ballistic arc, requiring the appropriate adjustments when firing at distant targets, which is a nice touch. Bungie also re-added tracking for rockets, though unlike in Halo 2 they can only home in on air vehicles.

The Concussion Rifle is essentially the Halo 3 Brute Shot re-skinned as a generic Covenant plasma weapon. It does however have, as befitting of its name, a shockwave effect to its blast that can stun and knock around infantry and impart enough force to flip light vehicles. It’s a fairly decent weapon, and I’ve gotten a good amount of use with it.

The Plasma Launcher is more balanced than it was in the beta, mainly because it doesn’t track infantry nearly as well and it takes longer to lock on to targets. It’s still quite effective as an anti-vehicle weapon, though.

Aside from a damage boost (direct hits are now one-shot kills in MP), the fuel rod gun is mostly unchanged from Halo 3. It has finally made an appearance in multiplayer, though, and it’s quite effective. Maybe not as effective as the rocket launcher, but still a good weapon.

The Spartan laser is better balanced than it was in Halo 3. Its battery is now good for only four shots rather than five. It seems like it takes a bit longer to charge up a shot and cool down after firing. Finally, I’ve noticed in saved films that the laser blast itself isn’t a single shot, but rather four distinct pulses maybe only a frame or two apart from each other. That means that it is possible to not get the full effect of the shot and therefore shot placement is more important than before. I’ve fired several grazing shots that would’ve easily killed my target if this was Halo 3. I thought the original laser cannon was a bit too powerful and effective for a hitscan weapon that also has both the damage of a rocket launcher and the accuracy of a sniper rifle, but now it feels just right.

The target designator (“target locator” is inaccurate and IMO sounds kind of dumb) is an interesting and extremely effective device that calls in a massive artillery barrage. However, it’s also extremely rare. It shows up only once in the entire Campaign and can be found as a weapon pickup on certain Firefight maps, but that’s it. Given its power, though, I can understand why they wouldn’t allow it in Matchmaking, but I would have liked to at least been able to try it in custom games.

The grenade launcher is tricky to use properly and has a decent learning curve (probably why it’s nicknamed the “pro pipe”), as its projectiles bounce off of surfaces before exploding when in automatic detonation mode. It does detonate on impact with infantry and vehicles, however, and a direct hit is a one-shot-kill against enemies in multiplayer as well as most weaker enemies in Campaign and Firefight. I think the ability to hold the trigger for a manual detonation to airburst on enemies (perhaps the most effective means to get kills with the weapon, at least in multiplayer) is a nice touch. Once you get the hang of it, it can be a very effective weapon, maybe a bit too effective against vehicles considering the airburst’s EMP effect.

The new single-barreled heavy machine gun is pretty much the same as Halo 3’s Gatling-style machine gun (3rd person view, reduced movement, 200-round ammo belt), though it seems a bit more effective. Its counterpart, the Covenant plasma cannon, has received substantial improvements as well.

The flamethrower is… gone. I’m sad now. I would’ve really liked to barbeque some Covies in revenge for glassing Reach.

Frag grenades have been nerfed slightly since the beta. They have a smaller blast radius and inflict slightly less damage (a single hit point less, according to Bungie, which while not much does matter considering the nature of the health system).

As for plasma grenades, just like in Halo 2 & 3, they can still kill a player with full shields and health without having to stick them, which kind of defeats the purpose of having the players stick someone. I think their splash damage should be the same as a frag’s; instant kills should be reserved for getting a stick or for blowing up near a sufficiently weakened enemy.

Now, apparently the changes Bungie has made to grenades in Reach were ostensibly to reduce grenade spam. In that regard, I feel they failed. While the properties of the grenades (throwing arc, blast radius, fuze length, etc.) as well as their abundance on the map are important factors affecting the amount of grenade spam, by far the biggest factor is the presence of starting grenades. If you start everyone with grenades, it makes grenades more abundant and therefore lessens their value and makes them more disposable. In your typical 4v4 Team Slayer match, you might see nearly 200 grenades being thrown just from those the players start with (assuming everyone starts with two grenades, all spawning ‘nades are thrown, and the score goes something like 50-45), and players will usually make a habit of going for the grenades that spawns on the map (especially plasmas), driving the total amount of thrown grenades well over 200. So, assuming that a total of 240 grenades are thrown during an 8 minute match, you’ll see an average of one grenade going off every two seconds. While this wouldn’t be so bad on large maps like Spire or Hemorrhage, it results in large amounts of grenade spam on smaller and more constrained maps. For these reasons, I’ve always been of the opinion that you shouldn’t start with grenades on certain maps.

If Bungie were serious about wanting to reduce the prominence of grenade spam, instead of tweaking damage or reducing blast radii, they should have eliminated starting grenades on small maps or at the very least reduced the number of starting grenades from two to one, which would of course cut the number of grenades thrown during the typical match roughly in half. Given the tools available even to the players, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Bungie to alter loadouts in order to reduce the number of or eliminate entirely starting grenades on small maps. They recently made this change for Arena, and I hope it carries over to other playlists in the future.

Melee Attacks

At this point, it’s clear that Bungie is dead-set on having the melee lunge in their games and that we’ll never see non-lunging Halo 1-style melees again in their games (assuming their next IP is an FPS). I guess I can tolerate the lunge, but it still needs some tweaking. Indeed, Bungie has been tweaking the lunge ever since it was first introduced. Halo 2’s lunges were ridiculously random, but this was fixed in Halo 3, where melees are very consistent. However, H3’s melees were also overpowered in terms of how much damage they inflicted relative to their ease of use. Reach’s melees were also overpowered in the beta, not because of how much damage they do but because of how fast they are. The player could melee at a noticeably faster rate than in prior Halo games. This rapid-fire fisticuffs, when combined with the relative ease with which you can melee enemies due to the lunge ability as well as the introduction of new abilities like sprint, made melee attacks more effective than ever before, trumping almost everything else except dedicated CQC weapons like the shotgun.

While melees have been slowed down slightly in the final game, I can’t help but feel that they should be slowed down a bit more. They’re still too fast and too easy to kill people with. People still habitually charge in close just to punch twice for a quick & easy kill. Melees still dominate everything in close quarters except the dedicated CQC weapons. After all, why shoot anybody up close when it’s quicker and more efficient to simply double-tap the B button (or whatever you have it mapped to)? Perhaps just as important as the attributes of the lunge itself (i.e., rate, range, & angle), if not more so, is the changes made to the shields & damage system, which I will address in the next section.

Directly related to melees is the new “assassination” mechanic, which allows the player to perform a stylish finisher much like Gears of Wars’ executions (albeit far less gory) by holding down the melee button. It’s a pretty cool mechanic, albeit one that’s gimmicky and purely for show. Oh, and since these new finishers are called “assassinations,” the plain old melee-to-the-back, which had that name originally, has been renamed “Beat Down.” Of course, that was in turn the name of a standard melee kill, which is now called “pummeling.” I know this is very nitpicky, but I doubt I’m the only one who doesn’t like this new nomenclature. Regular melees and standard assassinations should have kept their old names, while the flashy assassinations should have been called “Executions.” Yeah, that sounds very Gears-ish, but at least we wouldn’t have had to deal with “Player 1 pummeled Player 2.”

Shields & Health

Interestingly, Reach has both health packs and regenerating health. Unlike Halo 2 & 3, the player’s health does not always fully regenerate (when playing as a Spartan, anyway; Elites have fully regenerating health and don’t require — and cannot even utilize — health packs). Instead, the health bar is divided into thirds, and if the player’s health falls into a lower third, it will not regenerate past that. If a player with full health takes only a small scratch (say, a single AR round) while their shields are down, their health will fully restore on its own. However, if they’ve lost more than a third of their health, they’ll need a health pack to fully restore it. This is an excellent compromise between the H1/ODST and H2/H3 systems as it encourages players to cycle around the map more while also giving them some leeway by not having them worry about every single bit of damage done to their health, not to mention it is practically identical to one of my proposals for a new health system in my “Ultimate Halo Game” article.

There is one other thing I need to say about the shields & health system, though. In past Halo games, if an attack did more damage than what the player had in shields, the remaining damage transferred over to their health (e.g., if they had 10 HP of shields left and were hit by an attack that inflicted 25 HP of damage, they’d lose their shields as well as 15 HP of health). While this still applies to grenades and power weapons (e.g., rockets, sniper rifle, shotgun) as well as damage resulting from high falls, it no longer applies to most other attack forms. In Reach, standard weapons (AR, DMR, etc.) as well as melee attacks cannot inflict damage to health unless the player has no shields. Even if the player has a single hit point of shielding left those attacks won’t transfer over to health. The thing about this is that it’s not too big a deal for standard weapons as they’ve never had high per-shot power (usually up to around 7 to 16 shots to kill), not to mention transferring damage from shields over to health with said weapons would mainly only be an issue with headshot-capable ones, of which there are only three in Reach: the DMR, Needle Rifle, and pistol. Even then, it’s not too big of an issue.

So, that leaves melees. It seems quite clear to me that these changes were made mostly to affect melee combat, as melees inflict much more damage than a single shot from any standard weapon. One of the big problems in Halo 3 is that people would often fire a few shots with their weapon and then melee their opponent to kill them. For example, a mere six shots with the AR followed by a melee will net the player a kill. Thing is, six AR rounds inflict 45 HP of damage, which is only 64.3% of a full shield bar (or about 39% of their maximum total HP), but is enough to where a follow-up melee will take out the rest of the target’s shields as well as all their health. Apparently, Bungie saw this as a problem and sought to fix it by making it to where only grenades and power weapons can transfer excess damage to health after breaking shields. Now the player must fully deplete their opponent’s shields before they can kill them with a melee. However, I can’t help but feel that this is something that would’ve been easier to fix merely by re-balancing melees rather than completely reworking the shields. After all, this new system actually punishes players who attempt to melee an opponent whose shields are mostly down but nevertheless still up by making it to where their melee does not inflict full damage. If a particular attack inflicts x points of damage, it should always do so regardless of how much shielding they have left. If an enemy has 5 HP of shields left and I hit him with an attack that does 25, he should lose his shields as well as 20 HP of health. That 20 HP remainder shouldn’t just evaporate into nothing just because he had a bit of shielding left.

As I mentioned in the previous section, the issue with Halo 3’s melees is that they were overpowered, especially considering how the lunge makes it much easier to strike an opponent than the non-lunging melees in Halo 1. In Halo 1, a running melee inflicted 70 HP of damage to a MP opponent, which is about 46.7% of their total maximum of 150 HP (75 shields/75 health), while a jumping melee inflicted 84 HP of damage, or 56% of their max HP. If the player was standing still, their melees would only inflict 56 HP (37.3% of total max HP) damage. In Halo 3, melees usually inflict 70 HP of damage, same as a running melee in Halo 1. However, since the player only has a max total of 115 HP (70 shields/45 health) in Halo 3, this means melees are proportionally stronger than they were in Halo 1. 70 HP out of 115 translates to just under 61%. This is about 30% stronger than a running melee was in H1 and almost 9% stronger than even a jumping melee was. If a regular melee in Halo 3 were to be proportionally the same as a H1 running melee, it would have to inflict only 54 HP of damage. Of course, I’d argue that a Halo 3-style lunging melee should be weaker than a running Halo 1 melee — perhaps only 40% of the player’s max HP (but no less), which would be 46 HP in Halo 3 — since the lunge makes it easier to hit an opponent.

By reducing the power of the melees to where they do somewhat less damage than 50 percent of the player’s maximum total hit points, the effect of charging at an enemy, spraying him with a half-second burst of AR fire, and then executing a melee to try for a quick finish would not be nearly as big as a problem as it was in Halo 3. Furthermore, it would mean that there would be no need to rework the shield system, and by keeping the old shield system, players who hit an opponent with any attack would always inflict full damage, as they should. This would have in turn made the habit players in Reach have of simply charging in for the double melee a less effective and easy means of killing up close.

Vehicles

Something I’ve been arguing for for years is that vehicles should have their own non-regenerating “health” independent from the player’s health. That was the system used for Covenant vehicles in Halo 1’s Campaign, and it’s the system used in Reach. This is definitely a major improvement over the Halo 2/3 damage system, which gave vehicles the ability to sustain a potentially unlimited amount of damage so long as the occupant(s) health remained a non-zero amount.

While vehicles were very fragile in the beta, they’ve been beefed up in the final game. They are now resilient enough to be a potentially major threat as they should be, but players on foot can still chip away at it with small arms fire to take it out (though high-damage weapons like rockets, lasers, or sniper rifles would obviously be far more effective, and the armor lock can disable or destroy any light vehicles attempting to splatter the locking player, plus there’s like a half-dozen ways to EMP vehicles), thus keeping the vehicles from being too overwhelming. There are two problems I have with the new system, though. The first is the fact that there is no damage meter on the HUD like there was for Covenant vehicles in Halo 1 (see below in the section on the HUD for more on this). The other has to do with how damage done to a vehicle “bleeds over” to the player(s) in the vehicle, albeit reduced a bit. Giving vehicles their own separate “health” is great, but I believe vehicle and player health should be totally independent. Considering that concentrated small arms fire can quickly destroy light vehicles, there was no reason to add this additional handicap. Unless you hit a vehicle with an explosive weapon, in which case the splash damage can affect both the vehicle and its occupant(s), damage done to a vehicle should not hurt the player and vice-versa.

Speaking of fragile vehicles, why can you destroy tanks with melee attacks? I can understand if you board one and toss a grenade inside of it, but blowing it up by punching it? Seriously, what’s up with that? Melees should only affect the driver, and even then only if you board from the front where the cockpit is. Tanks should be immune to melee attacks, that way you can actually steal the damn things without destroying or heavily damaging them.

Vehicle boarding works just like it does in Halo 3, and that’s a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Getting kicked out of a light vehicle both damages and temporarily stuns you (if the former doesn’t kill you), rendering you helpless for several seconds. It’s even worse if you’re in a tank and get boarded. That’s pretty much an automatic death sentence. Once boarded, you cannot leave the tank under your own volition (even if your opponent boarded the back of the tank), so you’re trapped until your opponent kills you or (less likely) he’s forcibly removed by an ally. This can make tanks a death trap for the driver on certain levels, especially on the oh-so cluttered Boneyard. This really, really needs fixing. If I get boarded, I should have the ability to leave the vehicle at will rather than be at the absolute mercy of the boarder. Furthermore, the stun effect from getting removed from a light vehicle should be absent. Finally, the player should have to bust open a hatch (either the one over the cockpit or one placed over the rear) before being able to throw a grenade inside of it.

Splattering is a lot more consistent in Reach than it was in Halo 2 & 3, where it was rather inconsistent. If you run over a guy while going fast enough, you will almost always get that kill. It feels almost like Halo 1, though unlike in that game you usually have to be going a decent speed to splatter someone, though sometimes you’ll still get relatively low-speed splatters.

As for specific playable vehicles, the Warthog feels more top-heavy than it ever has, and it bounces around a bit too much. I much preferred how it handled in Halo 3 (and even more so in Halo 2), though I have gotten a lot more used to the new handling. I like how its Gatling gun overheats, which keeps players from simply holding down the trigger the whole time they’re on the turret. Fortunately, Bungie didn’t go overboard with this feature, and the overheat rate is low enough to where you can get plenty of use of the turret. The Gatling gun could have used a boost to its accuracy and/or damage, though, since it feels less effective than in previous games. There’s also the Gauss Hog, which is largely unchanged, and a new Warthog armed with rocket launchers, which is pretty cool.

The Ghost is still great for splattering (even more so than in Halo 3), and its plasma cannons are more useful than they’ve been in the past. What I don’t get is why there’s a limiter for the boost. It’s so generous that one might ask why it’s there in the first place.

The Mongoose, is, well, still the Mongoose. It seems less prone to flipping, though, and it looks larger so the player (especially one who’s an Elite) doesn’t look comically huge in comparison when riding one. Oh, and you can hijack someone off of one now.

The Banshee is a bit of a mixed bag. The plasma cannons are improved from Halo 3 and can be pretty effective, but the fuel rod cannon is simply devastating now. The fuel rod is now a one-shot kill in multiplayer, and it has a decent blast radius and a rather fast rate of fire. In fact, there’s not really much of a reason to use the plasma cannons considering how powerful the FRC is. The Banshee’s offensive power is offset somewhat by it’s poor defense; it’s more of a Glass Cannon than any other vehicle in the game. Then again, in the right hands and with proper support from the pilot’s teammates, the Banshee’s fragility is largely negated and it almost becomes a game-breaker, and even without backup he can inflict considerable casualties before the enemy team can shoot him down. Personally, I think the Banshee needs more resilience but its fuel rod cannon needs a decrease in either rate of fire or damage. In other words, more defense but less offense. It seems like it doesn’t want to pull off loops and barrel rolls when I want it to on occasion, though. There is also a starfighter Banshee variant encountered on Long Night of Solace that cannot be controlled by the player. They look pretty cool, but are not terribly formidable.

The Falcon is in certain ways an improvement over Halo 3’s Hornet. I like the way it handles. It does take a little while to get up to speed, and it can also hover like the Hornet could (though hover mode has to be manually activated). In terms of offense, it is very formidable in Campaign, complete with a chin-mounted autocannon operated by the pilot and two side-mounted passenger-operated weapons (either a machine gun or rapid-fire grenade launcher). In multiplayer, the autocannon is removed and the grenade launcher variant is not available. With no pilot-controlled weapon and only machine guns for the passengers, the Falcon can be likened to an airborne version of the Warthog. Not that that’s a bad thing, as it’s still quite formidable in multiplayer.

The Scorpion is powerful (perhaps overpowered on a map like Hemorrhage, not that that’s an issue in Matchmaking anymore), but the handling feels off compared to its Halo 2 & 3 versions (those handled great). Its machine gun turret is a bit more effective, and that’s a good thing.

The Wraith handles fairly well, its plasma mortar feels more effective and consistent than in Halo 3, and its plasma turret is more effective as well.

The Revenant is an interesting new vehicle. While it somewhat resembles Halo 2’s Specter, it has the agility of a Ghost combined with the firepower of a light plasma mortar. Good for splattering and taking out infantry and other light vehicles, but not so hot against tanks and aircraft.

The Sabre, which is found only in Campaign, does its job well and it has great controls, and I had fun with it the short amount of time it’s available.

Finally, there’s a selection of civilian vehicles. Many of these are relatively slow, have poor handling, and are useless for combat purposes. The exception is the pickup truck, which is fast and maneuverable enough to splatter enemies and players in the side seat can provide support. Jorge even hops into the truck’s bed and uses his machine gun as a makeshift turret on Winter Contingency.

As for vehicles the player cannot control, there’s the return of the Covenant Spirit dropship. While it’s great to see them back after having been absent from the series after the first game, I wish there was a opportunity to destroy one. Supposedly it’s possible, but the only times you have sufficient firepower to destroy one, they’re not around (they’re not very common) or they don’t linger long enough for you to do enough damage.

The Phantom returns and is more or less the same as in Halo 3 and ODST, with one exception: it’s main gun is nastier than ever. Both the Phantom and the Spirit’s guns are functionally the same as a Concussion Rifle, including the immobilizing knock-around effect and the splash damage. Those things hurt like twelve bitches on a bitch boat on higher difficulties. I thought the plasma cannons from past games were bad, but damn. Whoever decided to give dropships a concussion turret is a sadist. There’s a space-borne “gunboat” variant of the Phantom as well. It looks pretty cool, but is only found in a single encounter during Long Night of Solace.

The Seraph, the Covenant’s main fighter craft, has appeared before in the Halo series, most notably as the Heretic leader’s personal ship in Halo 2, but this is the first time we’ve been able to actually fight them. Tougher than Banshees and equipped with shields, their definitely a nice change of pace from the usual vehicle encounters.

Finally, there’s the Scarab. You don’t get to fight any of the ones you see, and they are largely window dressing. I really would have liked to have one last chance to blow one up.

Armor Abilities

Armor abilities are an interesting change from Halo 3’s equipment in that they’re part of the player’s starting equipment, are reusable, and, with the exception of the drop shield, are fully self-contained, i.e., they are not dropped when the player dies and they are nominally only for the benefit of the player himself, whereas equipment could be dropped and were largely neutral, independent entities when deployed (for example, players could hurt themselves with their own trip mines or could benefit from a bubble shield deployed by an enemy).

However, I feel that they need more tweaks. Generally, they need to take longer to recharge to put more emphasis on the basic “golden tripod” as well as encourage players to be more judicious about their use rather than simply spamming them constantly.

The active camo should have been just as effective as in Halo 3. For example, the player shouldn’t fade in any when running full speed. In addition, the AC’s radar jammer effect kind of defeats (or at least puts a damper on) the stealth aspect of the camo, so I lean towards thinking it should have been removed. These upgrades could have in turn be balanced by increasing the camo’s rate of energy consumption and/or recharge time. Overall, I think it should have worked more or less like the Arbiter’s camo in Halo 2, though with a movement-based energy consumption scheme like it has in Reach instead of a flat consumption rate.

The armor lock has received a couple of slight downgrades since the beta (energy consumption and certain effects on other players), which is good, but I still feel that it’s a bit too powerful for multiplayer purposes. It’s literally “press X LB to not die.” In addition to its ability to provide invincibility against any and all attacks, it also can be pulsed up to three times per charge, giving the user not just a second chance but also a third and fourth chance, and it emits an EMP, disabling any shields and vehicles (well, any vehicles that weren’t destroyed by crashing into the locked player) within a small radius. I feel like I have to question the judgment of whoever at Bungie thought giving people invincibility-on-demand in multiplayer was a good idea, and they really should have made it a Campaign- and Firefight-only ability. Someone who is good enough at timing it can render themselves nearly unbeatable if they have any charge for it and a teammate for backup. Multiple players on the same team using armor lock can be even worse (i.e., two guys alternating locking and shooting). Something that provides invincibility shouldn’t be so pervasive, especially not in Slayer. It’s not completely foolproof (improper use can render it far less effective), but the fact that it makes the user totally invulnerable to all forms of attack for a good while, can be pulsed, and can disable nearby shields and vehicles makes it too powerful. It should have been nerfed even further than it was, perhaps only providing a single two- or three-second burst per charge and no EMP effect. But since it would likely be impractical or even impossible for Bungie to actually alter the armor lock itself, I feel that it would best for it to be phased out of most Slayer gametypes (it’s already being removed from Arena), being reserved for Invasion and certain objective gametypes.

Loadouts

When loadouts were first announced, I was worried that they would push the game into a more Call of Duty-esque style of gameplay. Fortunately this didn’t turn out to be the case. The loadouts a player can access are determined by strictly by gametype and playlist rather than by criteria such as rank and are always preset rather than player-customized. For example, the most powerful loadouts, such as Grenadier and Operator, are restricted to the last phase of Invasion. In other gametypes, you only have access to the most basic loadouts, while in others (e.g., SWAT) you don’t even get to pick your loadout and everyone is automatically assigned the same gear. For example, in standard Slayer, everyone starts with an AR, pistol, and two frags, with the ability to choose from several AAs, while in SWAT, everyone starts only with a DMR and Sprint. Bungie’s approach to loadouts is far superior than the unbalanced mess in games like Modern Warfare where you start with a limited set of equipment and abilities and unlock new ones by ranking up and/or completing challenges.

Fall Damage

I am glad that fall damage has returned. I’ve always considered it important for both balance and depth of gameplay. While it wasn’t punitive enough in the beta, it feels about right in the final game. Though not as severe as it was in Halo 1, fall damage in Reach is sufficient to where if you jump off of or fall from high enough places, you will get hurt or even die. For example, jumping to the ground from laser spawn on Paradiso will take out your shields, while falling off the top of the mountain on that stage can kill you.

Weapon Spawns

Reach uses a combination of the Halo 1/3 and Halo 2 weapon system for weapon respawns. Halo 1 & 3 used a simple timer mechanic: you pick up a weapon, and it respawns x number of seconds later (say, 30 for an AR or 180 for a rocket launcher). Halo 2 used a system where a power weapon would not respawn until it disappeared from the map, usually because the person carrying it used up the ammo and dropped it. I found this system to be a bad gameplay element because it encouraged camping rather than cycling around the map to control the weapon spawn areas. The H2-style spawns can still be an annoyance, but fortunately it’s not as pervasive as it was in Halo 2, and is less common than timer-based spawns, being restricted to certain weapons on certain maps.

Heads-up Display

The HUD in Reach has a nearly identical layout to the one from Halo 3, which I thought was a good HUD. In fact, the Reach HUD offers even more improvements. For one, there’s a health bar, which was sorely missed in Halo 2 & 3. Second, the motion tracker shows relative elevation of enemies (red dot for on your level, dark red dot for below you, and red triangle for above you), which I really appreciate. Also, the compass from ODST has returned and comes in handy (well, except when you’re an Elite; alien letters and all).

There are a couple of brand new features as well. The first is simply a circular gauge that displays how much charge is left for your current armor ability, similar to the active camouflage gauge the Arbiter had in Halo 2. More notable, however, is the “reticle bloom” feature. This feature causes the center of the crosshairs on certain weapons to expand when the weapon is fired. The amount of bloom indicates how much spread the weapon has: the larger the reticle, the greater the spread. For example, when the DMR’s reticle is completely contracted, the rifle has no spread, whereas firing when it is fully expanded (the result of spamming the trigger) results in noticeable shot spread and thus poorer accuracy. This is an excellent feedback mechanism to help regulate one’s rate of fire for maximizing accuracy.

There is one major problem with the HUD that I can’t overlook, and that has to do with the vehicle damage system. In Halo 1, when you drove a Ghost or Banshee (the only playable, destructible vehicles in H1) in Campaign, your HUD would display a damage meter to let you know how much damage you can take. Reach lacks a damage meter for vehicles, thus turning the monitoring of the viability of one’s ride into a matter of guesswork based solely on visual cues. You never know if you’re one shot or ten from having your ride turn into a pyrotechnics display. The omission of a vehicle damage meter has turned out to be something rather unpopular, as I’m far from the only one who has complained about it.

The Reach HUD.

Player Movement

Spartans run slower and have a lower jump height than in Halo 3. In fact, the jump height in the beta seemed lower than in Halo 1, making it the lowest jump height in the series (except maybe ODST). I thought that was actually a bit too low, plus the running speed felt a tad too sluggish. Fortunately, the jump height and running speed were increased a bit from the beta. Also fortunate was that Bungie didn’t going too far in the other direction and make the jump height like it was in Halo 3, which made jumping over other players way too easy. Overall, player movement feels just right in Reach.

Elites vs. Spartans

While I can appreciate Bungie doing something different this time by making Elites functionally different from Spartans in multiplayer (as opposed to attempting to make identical gameplay-wise two character models that differ in size and shape), it’s quite obvious there’s imbalances between the two. During the beta, Elites were inherently superior to Spartans (according to Bungie, Elites won 50% more games than Spartans in SvE Slayer gametypes, including Invasion), with several factors that gave them an edge over Spartans. They were faster, they could jump higher, they had more shields and health, their shields started to regenerate much sooner (3 seconds vs. 6 for Spartans), they don’t require health packs as their health can regenerate fully, and they spawn with plasma grenades, which are more powerful than frag grenades. While Elites are much larger targets than Spartans, this one disadvantage wasn’t nearly enough to balance them out.

Bungie did take note on the advantages Elites have over Spartans, and they implemented changes to better balance to two species against each other. Elites are still more agile than Spartans. However, Elite shields take longer to start recharging than in the beta and their health starts to recharge slower as well. They seem to have slightly less shields and health overall as well, though they still have the edge over Spartans in this area. However, there are still some minor balance issues. In fact, I’d argue that Elites are at a slight disadvantage against Spartans, at least in the first phase of Invasion. This is mostly due to the weapons Elites spawn with. The plasma repeater is an inferior weapon to the AR, and the plasma pistol is inferior to the M6G. A Spartan wielding an AR is more than a match for an equally-skilled Elite wielding a repeater despite the Elite having somewhat greater hit points and mobility. The AR does after all have a tighter spread than the repeater and it’s hitscan, and Elites are larger targets than Spartans, so you do the math. There’s a reason Elite players often ditch their Covie weapons for Spartan weapons. I think that upgrading the repeater (or replacing it with the plasma rifle) and slightly bumping up the plasma pistol’s damage would be sufficient to better balance Spartans and Elites during the early parts of Invasion. Later phases are pretty much even since Elites start getting access to weapons like the Needle rifle that are better balanced against their UNSC counterparts, and Elites are in fact somewhat better suited for dealing with vehicles than Spartans since their loadouts typically include plasma pistols and plasma grenades.

As a side note, if I were going to differentiate Spartans from Elites, I would have simply given them extra hit points to compensate for their larger size, and that’s all. Movement, shield regeneration rate, and so forth would have remained the same. This would have in turn made it to where Elites could be chosen as a default player model in any game mode like in Halo 3 without having to worry about balance issues.

Controls

I’ve been sticking to the “Recon” layout as it is most similar to Halo 3’s default. I don’t like how the default layout puts melee on RB and grenade type toggle on B, which is fairly big change for the series despite being a simple swap between two buttons. Such a switch is a bit too much for me, as that muscle memory can be a bitch, though I’d imagine more flexible players probably got accustomed to it fine. Of course, since dual wielding has gone bye-bye, I wish Bungie had added a “Classic” layout that’s more like Halo 1’s default layout. It would have placed Reload/Action on X, grenade type toggle on RB, melee on B, and AA activation would remain on LB. It would be just as familiar as Recon for those like me who still regularly play the original game. Hopefully Bungie will add a Classic layout in a future update if that’s at all possible.

In another control-related issued, I was kind of annoyed when I learned that Bumper Jumper had returned. It had no real drawbacks in Halo 3, giving the player full mobility even when performing tasks like jumping repeatedly or meleeing, whereas the other layouts required you to remove your thumb from the right stick to press one of the face buttons to perform those tasks. In Reach, however, Bumper Jumper does at least have a slight drawback in that it places armor ability activation on X instead of LB, requiring the player to take their thumb off of the right stick to perform said task. Of course, this is more of a drawback for the jetpack and armor lock, which require the activation button to be held rather than pressed once. If the player is using some other armor ability, this drawback is nowhere as severe and the player still has full mobility when jumping or meleeing. This general AA-related drawback seems to have reduced Bumper Jumper’s popularity, though, as I don’t really see it a whole lot, and even in SWAT it’s no longer near-universal like it was in Halo 3 (though it still crops up at times and is still annoying when it does), so I’m happy.

CAMPAIGN

Story & Presentation

Judging it on its own merits, Reach’s story is nothing remarkable. It would make a passable made-for-cable sci-fi war movie, but that’s about it. Most of the characters are flat and have no development (Jorge is the only really interesting character). Many plot points are poorly explained and there’s lots of stuff that makes little to no sense. Same for many of Noble Team’s objectives; it’s often unclear why exactly you’re doing the things you do. Some plot points aren’t even explained at all in the game, but rather are explained in extraneous material like the Halsey’s Journal extra that came with the limited editions of Reach. Everything seemed to lack cohesion and purpose, feeling like little more than a sequence of objectives.

What Reach does very well though is not in its story, but in its presentation. It does an excellent job at building atmosphere. It really does feel like I’m defending a doomed planet being overrun by hostile invaders. Whether it’s watching UNSC bases being besieged by Covenant forces, or seeing a main character make a pointless sacrifice or another suffer a random and senseless death, or witnessing the wholesale slaughter of civilians by Brutes, or watching helplessly as enemy capital ships reduce a city to slag, there are a ton of “Holy shit!” moments in Reach. If only Halo 3 had moments like these.

But back to the story. While Reach’s story is average sci-fi action fare when judged on it’s own merits, when taken into context of the Halo fiction as a whole, it’s a total disaster. When Reach was first announced, I already knew there were going to be at least a bare minimum amount of retconning, and minor retcons and continuity issues aren’t anything new to the Halo fiction. The most obvious retcon, and perhaps the only necessary one, involves Reach’s timeline. In the novel The Fall of Reach, the Battle of Reach was a total curb stomp battle that lasted all of two hours. The game would obviously have to extend that timeline a bit for an 8-hour Campaign, perhaps making it take place over the course of a whole day or two.

However, I did not expect the retcons to be as extensive and egregious as they were. The game basically throws out the entire last act of TFoR by, among other things, extending the battle to encompass a span of over five weeks. It places the Pillar of Autumn in drydock on Reach’s surface, when in the novel it never landed on Reach and had already jumped away from Reach to Halo by time the last level of Reach takes place. It seems to make the whole Sigma Octanus IV artifact irrelevant to Halo’s story. It also overrides a plot point in Ghosts of Onyx where Dr. Halsey had no knowledge of the Spartan-III program prior to leaving for Onyx. Everything just seems shoehorned to make Noble Team and especially Six important figures that helped pave the way for the Master Chief’s adventures in the main trilogy. Halo 3 may have been largely filler, left many things unexplained, and had poor resolutions to several of the trilogy’s main plot points, but at least it didn’t discard large portions of the series canon just for the hell of it.

Some might say “It’s Bungie’s story. They can do whatever they want with it. Games are superior canon, so Halo: Reach‘s view of events is now official canon and overrides the novels, etc.” Well, that might be the case, but I don’t have to like nor accept it. Reach could have easily been made to fit with existing canon with a minimum of retconning, yet Bungie chose to throw out things that have been canon for years, some nearly a decade. In my opinion, the new canon does nothing to enrich the Halo-verse and is a major step down in terms of quality of writing. As far as I’m concerned, Reach is an apocryphal entry in the Halo fiction.

Stage Designs & Environments

The stage designs in Reach are overall an improvement over those of Halo 3. They are generally less linear and often offer multiple branching pathways and complex structures, allowing the player to choose multiple ways with which to approach an encounter. In a lot of ways certain stages remind me of Halo 1’s Campaign stages. However, the stages also offer less playable real estate than Halo 1. Many areas, even those with branching pathways, are often relatively constrained, and the Campaign also has several on-rails segments, usually in form of making the player ride in a Falcon either as a passenger or a gunner. While it is possible to be bogged down in combat situations for long periods of time on higher difficulties, especially Legendary, the levels themselves are not that long in terms of both physical size and completion time. Playing how I’ve always normally played Halo Campaigns, I can breeze through all of them in 30 to 45 minutes on Heroic. The only truly large areas are those that require the use of vehicles: the skies of New Alexandria and the space battles of Long Night of Solace. Of course, to use those sections as points of comparison when discussing stage sizes would be unfair, a sentiment shared by Bungie’s Chris Opdahl (source: 7/23/10 Bungie Weekly Update). After all, vehicle-mandatory sections like those or Halo 1 & 3’s end-game Warthog runs must by necessity be large in order to properly encompass that type of gameplay. You’re going to need a lot of space when you have a vehicle like the Saber that has a base speed of around 200 kph. The “normal” stages are still relatively small on average, with even the largest of them still falling short of the reigning king of large Halo stages: Assault on the Control Room.

Another drawback with the stage designs comes from Bungie’s continuing obsession with invisible walls and now “soft-kill” barriers. While Halo 1 and (to a somewhat lesser extent), Halo 2 offered plenty of opportunities for exploration, Reach, just like Halo 3 and ODST before it, nips any attempts at exploration or getting outside the map in the bud. Even if it looks like some place you can get to or through, if it isn’t part of the intended play space you’ll either be stopped by an invisible force field or get a “Return to Battlefield” message, the latter of which comes with a handy-dandy countdown that gives wannabe explorers 10 seconds to get back in bounds OR ELSE! I can understand these barriers being in place in multiplayer or even Firefight, but not in Campaign where I’m on my own time. These barriers are bad design, plain and simple, I don’t care what Bungie’s rationale is for implementing them. At the very least, I should have the option to disable them.

The types of environments encountered in Reach aren’t quite as diverse as those in the main trilogy, but there’s still a decent amount of variety. The natural environments found on Reach, which form the bulk of the game’s scenery, are not that diverse, though it’s not quite a single-biome planet. While what we see of the planet is uniformly very rugged and generally not very hospitable-looking, some areas have a fair amount of vegetation, while others are more desolate environments like desert, badlands, or tundra. As for the other types of locales we see, there’s a UNSC base, a city, a ship-breaking yard, a Covenant corvette-class vessel, an underground ice cave, and even outer space.

As for my thoughts on each individual stage, Winter Contingency is a solid introductory level. After a slow-paced beginning ostensibly designed to ratchet up tension, you have your initial encounters with the invading Covenant forces in a decent-sized field (formed mostly from Overlook from Firefight). After the initial engagement, there’s a relatively large area that offers several different pathways and three encounters you can tackle in any order, sort of like a smaller version of the second half of the level “Halo” from the first game. The next part of the level (the Visegrad relay outpost) is fairly standard, with a fight in a small courtyard and some indoors fighting to finish the level. The only beef I have with the level is the part where you fly in a Falcon to get to the relay outpost, bypassing a large chunk of the level, namely a bridge and a road, that serves only as scenery. I thought it would have been more interesting if you had to fight your way down the road and bust through a Covenant roadblock before entering the facility.

Sword Base is in some ways similar to Winter Contingency in terms of general design. It starts you with a fight in a courtyard in the base, then once you leave the base, you have to accomplish two objectives: reactivating Farragut Station (a comms relay) and Airview Base (an anti-air battery). You also get a target designator on your way out of the base, the only time said weapon is available in Campaign. You can pick whichever one you want first, and the whole area is basically a big loop. Then you backtrack to the base for more indoor combat, including your first encounter with Hunters in the game. Overall, a well-designed level.

Nightfall is a much more linear level, though many of the places you fight are well-designed and offer multiple ways with which to engage the enemy (MP map Powerhouse and Firefight map Waterfront are located in this level). It’s very reminiscent of the outdoors segment of Truth & Reconciliation in that it’s a nighttime level that gives you a sniper rifle with lots of ammo as your starting gear. The stage can be tackled stealthily since you get an active camo item early on, though doing so can be hard to do so since Jun has a habit of blowing your cover. It’s not a bad stage, but it’s far from my favorite in the game. BTW, what was the deal with those Gueta things? Talk about a Big Lipped Alligator (Gueta?) Moment.

Tip of the Spear reminds me in certain ways of The Ark from Halo 3 due to its desert environment and focus on vehicular combat. It’s a decent-sized stage as well, though due to the overall flow of the level it can be cleared just as quickly as the others. It’s a fun level, but not without some flaws. I don’t like how the opening cinematic teases you with the promise of large-scale vehicular combat before thrusting you into a mission where it’s pretty much just you, Kat (and later Jorge), and a Warthog. You rarely have any troopers backing you up, and you have no other friendly vehicles accompanying you (unless Kat steals a Ghost). Also, there’s a “rail shooter” segment late in the level where you man the turret of a Falcon, which feels a bit out of place in a Halo game. Can’t say I really care for it. Still, despite the issues I have with the level it’s one of the better ones in the game.

Long Night of Solace is probably the most varied level in the game. It starts off normally enough, with a beach landing and some ground combat with Covenant infantry. However, there’s a huge gameplay shift with the space combat that Bungie showed off at E3. It’s definitely a nice break from the standard Halo action, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome either. The final act of the level involves combat inside a Covenant corvette, the first time you fight inside a Covenant ship since Halo 1 (High Charity is more of a mobile city than a proper fleet ship). It offers low-G combat inside a vacuum, much like the outside parts of Cairo Station, which I really like. I just wish the corvette part had been longer, though. It’s a small ship with only a single deck open to the player, as opposed to the larger Truth & Reconciliation which had four decks. I though it’d be more interesting if we actually went inside the eponymous super-carrier itself, destroying it from the inside (perhaps by destroying the reactor core; a stage like this was proposed for Halo 2 but ultimately scrapped). Still, LNoS is perhaps the best level in the game overall.

Exodus gives us our first and only taste of urban combat in the game and is also the first time we fight Brutes in the Campaign (there’s no Elites at all). It’s a rather linear level, including another (and thankfully the last) rail shooter segment. It does offer a brief section that is essentially a first-person platformer, which was interesting. The last part of the level, which is composed of Beachhead from Firefight, is probably the best encounter in the level. Overall, the stage offers some decent action but otherwise isn’t particularly remarkable.

New Alexandria is a fairly unorthodox stage. You actually get to pilot a Falcon this time, flying through the skies of New Alexandria, which are packed with Banshees, Phantoms, and AA fire coming from Shade turrets. You’re tasked with three primary objectives: destroying Covenant communication jammers. They are located in a hospital, a Sinoviet office building (the top floor of which is composed of Ivory Tower Reflection), and Club Errera, the latter being the single most visually striking place in the entire game (it’s also patterned after Crater from ODST in terms of layout). The order in which you must tackle each primary objective is random, which I like since it mixes things up in a way befitting the level’s design. There’s also a number of secondary objectives, which like the primary objectives are randomly generated, though you only get two per playthrough. One of them involves escorting a Falcon being flown by Sergeant Buck from ODST, and it even has music from ODST playing. The only non-random objective is the final one, which involves destroying several Shade turrets. This stage also marks the first time every species of Covenant (sans Engineers) is represented since Halo 2’s “Gravemind” level. Overall, this is one of my favorite levels from the game alongside TotS and LNoS.

The Package is largely a revisit to Sword Base, though radically different in atmosphere. The skies are filled with orange light coming from a sea of lava created by Covenant glassing operations nearby, which has also caused the local glaciers to all melt, flooding the area that was once Farragut Station. You get to drive a Scorpion for most of the outdoors section, the first and only time you get to do so in the Campaign. There’s some more fighting inside the base just like before. The only thing new is the excavation site below the base (Glacier from Firefight), which involved a defense-based encounter where you defend Dr. Halsey’s lab from wave after wave of Covenant. Overall, it’s a decent level, but nothing remarkable.

The Pillar of Autumn is perhaps the largest and longest level in the game. It’s fairly linear but very action-packed with a wide variety of encounters. The only vehicle-based segment it has is a “Mongoose run” that takes up most of the first third of the level, similar to the Warthog runs that made up the finales of Halo 1 & 3 (you can, however, go on foot unlike the Warthog runs). Every species of Covenant is represented once again. A squad of those new purple Elite Zealots, led by a Field Marshall (presumably the same one harassing Noble Team since the beginning of the game), make up the last group of infantry in the penultimate encounter of the level. To top things off, you get to man a huge rail gun and shoot down a bunch of Phantoms (who always appear in a set pattern) before shooting down an approaching CCS-class cruiser. That was an… interesting diversion from the standard gameplay. Overall, this was a good level. Maybe not the best, but pretty good

Lone Wolf is a stage unlike any other in the Halo series. Instead of the usual post-credits stinger, you actually get to fight one last battle in a stage no bigger than some of the smaller multiplayer maps. Your objective: Survive. You will fail. You might last a while and take down a good number of Covies, but you will eventually lose. Lone Wolf is unwinnable by design. Moody, atmospheric, and rather poignant (as far as anything in Reach goes), it’s definitely a unique and inventive way to end the Campaign.

Enemies & AI

While it doesn’t feature the Flood or Sentinels for obvious reasons, Reach contains the entire roster of the Covenant army. You can actually fight every species of the Covenant in some levels (the level “Gravemind” in Halo 2 being the last and until now only other time you do so, Engineers excluded), and they’re all on the same side this time. Of course, this means that, just like ODST, you don’t find any of the three-way battles that were common in the first two games.

The Covenant no longer speak English, not even the Grunts. This was done to make them more “menacing and scary.” Bungie’s rationale is that if we can relate to or understand them, it makes them less scary. However, I find that making all the Covenant speak their own language not only fails to enhance their level of menace, it also robs them of their character. Grunts go from comic relief cannon fodder to just plain old cannon fodder. Elites no longer sound like proud, often boastful warriors and even lack the character their non-English-speaking Halo 1 counterparts did. Brutes no longer sound like the barbaric cannibals of Halo 2, 3, & ODST. Having all the Covenant speak their own language just doesn’t feel right.

Grunts are the same cannon fodder we’re used to, but with some upgrades. Any Grunt above Minor rank that uses a plasma pistol can fire charged shots, a first in the series (I actually had this as an idea before Reach was announced; see my “Ultimate Halo Game” article). Furthermore, Grunt Ultras have protective helmets that keep the player from dispatching them with a single headshot (another idea I had, but never wrote down). Also, the Grunts’ methane tanks can explode now (yet another idea I had, though my concept is different from Bungie’s). Finally, for the first time since Halo 1, there are several Grunt permutations, all of which can be seen in the below image. It’s a nice visual touch.

Taste the Grunty rainbow!

Jackal regulars don’t differ much, except they’ve inexplicably become right-handed after having been left-handed the entire series. Sniper Jackals can still be a pain in the ass, though the focus rifle makes them a bit more forgiving. However, there is a totally new class of Jackals with the Skirmishers. They are much faster than regular Jackals and can jump extremely high. They’re like Jackals hopped up on PCP or something. I though the regular ones were annoying enough, but these nimble little SOBs take the cake. At least they usually don’t have shields; the red-armored ones do have small shields, and they use them to good effect, blocking headshots if your first shot doesn’t kill them. They’re definitely an interesting challenge, that’s for damn sure.

Drones are rare, but they’re a a bit tougher than before. Interestingly, they explode into ludicrous gibs when you shoot them in the head or hit them with a heavy weapon.

Engineers serve the same passive role as their ODST counterparts, providing shielding to any Covenant infantry around them. The only real change is the removal of the bombs they had in ODST, not that those were really all that threatening anyway.

Hunters are very similar to their gold-armored counterparts from ODST, which were in turn a fusion of the Halo 1 and Halo 3 Hunters. Their assault cannons once again mimic the fuel rod cannon instead of being Halo 2/3-style beam cannons, while their hand-to-hand moves are pretty much the same as in Halo 3 (complete with hitbox dissonance *grumble*). They can also take tons more punishment than they could in the past, which is saying something.

While stylistically similar to their Halo 3 & ODST incarnations, Brutes play more like they did in Halo 2. Instead of the whole “powered armor” concept from the last two games, they now have a ton of health and a helmet that protects them from headshots like in H2. You can simply pump them full of lead until they drop (though as always needle weapons are the ultimate anti-Brute small arms), or you can knock their helmets off with a headshot-capable weapon and then blow their brains out. A sniper rifle can even punch right through a Minor or Major’s helmet for a one-shot kill. Chieftains do have an energy shield for added protection, though, which I like. Another change is the streamlining of their rank structure. There are now only three types: the aforementioned Minors, Majors, and Chieftains. Stalkers, Jetpack Brutes, and all the various sub-grades of Minor, Major, and Chieftain are all gone. Perhaps the most most notable change to the Brutes is the fact that they no longer go berserk when you kill off their packmates. This was perhaps their defining behavioral aspect in past Halo games, but it was scrapped in Reach for some reason. Can’t say that I care for this omission.

After being absent as enemies in Halo 3 and ODST, Elites are back and perhaps better than ever. Fast, agile, smart, and deadly, they are the ultimate warriors of the Covenant. All the regular ranks have returned, and there are also the new purple-armored Zealots that are even tougher than the gold-armored ones. Each rank now also has its own permutation to match the Elite armor permutation found in multiplayer. Oh, and they sometimes cheat by dual wielding, which the player can no longer do (not that I’m complaining).

The enemy AI in Reach is a marked improvement over Halo 3’s, and is perhaps the best in the series. For example, enemies are not shy about taking cover. They become even more evasive and prone to using cover when you’re sniping (their AI actually changes the moment you pull out a sniper rifle). You throw down a drop shield when an Elite is nearby, and he will run at you and kick you in the face. You run for cover, the enemy will either try to flank you or simply just throw grenades to kill you or flush you out.

The same cannot be said about friendly AI. They still can’t drive for shit. They’re terrible in a firefight. Getting allies to board a vehicle is a pain the ass, especially when you give a guy a rocket launcher and want him to ride shotgun. Army troopers and ODSTs are cannon fodder at best on higher difficulties. The members of Noble Team are lousy combatants as well, though at least the excuse of them being invincible does provide justification. The one part where I simply hate my Spartan allies is on Nightfall. Jun makes playing that stage stealthily nearly impossible — and you would be able to if he wasn’t around — as he insists on firing at the most inopportune times and has a penchant for staying right next to you the whole level. Overall, Reach’s friendly AI is perhaps the worst in the series.

Difficulty

Apparently, Bungie took difficulty balancing notes from games like Battletoads, Ghosts & Goblins, Ninja Gaiden, and Mega Man, because Reach is hard. Nintendo Hard. Scratch that. It goes beyond Nintendo Hard. Legendary mode can be an exercise in frustration, and even on Heroic there are plenty of cheap deaths to be had. It took me 14 hours to beat Reach all the way through on Legendary, and I died over 200 times. Granted, it was my first playthrough and my performance has improved in subsequent attempts, but still. There’s the kind of challenging that’s fun, then there’s the kind of challenging that’s the result of hair-pullingly bad design. Reach on Legendary is the latter. I haven’t been this frustrated by Legendary since Halo 2. Before I get started on what makes Reach so damn hard on Legendary, let’s review how the games of the main trilogy fared in terms of difficulty.

For me, Halo 1 struck the best balance in difficulty on Legendary. The enemy AI was great for its time (it’s still decent even by today’s standards, though it still has a few glaring shortcomings). Elites in particular were agile and made good use of cover. Enemies inflicted a reasonable amount of damage, usually 90% as much damage to the player as what an MP opponent could inflict on them (e.g., a Grunt armed with a plasma pistol inflicted 10.8 HP of damage on Legendary, while in MP a plasma pistol inflicts 12 HP of damage), which made them dangerous but not excessively so. There was also great encounter design, including some that varied depending on the difficulty level. All of these factors made for a challenging yet fair experience. I still die a couple of times per stage on average despite the sheer amount of experience I have. There were a few things that were a bit too easy, though, namely being able to one-shot Hunters with the pistol as well as being able to exploit an AI shortcoming where enemies wouldn’t react to you at all past a certain distance.

In Halo 2, enemies had a massive increase in damage from Halo 1 (at least 65% higher or more, making it to where they do more damage on Normal than they did on Heroic in Halo 1, and more on Heroic than in H1 Legendary). A weapon that takes 12 shots to kill in MP would only take 8 shots when used by an enemy on Legendary instead of 13 or 14 like it would’ve in Halo 1. Then you had those damn sniper Jackals with their one-hit kills, near 100% accuracy, and their super-quick-draw skills; these guys are Demonic Spiders of the worst kind. Add on to that weapons that took longer to kill your enemies and had less ammo. I was unable to beat Cairo Station on Legendary until I learned the merits of the noob combo by being the victim of said attack on XBL (I figured, correctly, that if I can’t dodge a charged shot in MP, then Elites in Campaign can’t). Sniper Jackals involved equal parts memorization, lots of cover, and sheer luck to beat, and even then they were a pain in the ass. I got to where I would just bypass “Sniper Alley” on Outskirts on Legendary. And let’s not even get into the ordeal that was the battle against Flunky Boss extraordinaire Regret. Face it: Halo 2 Legendary was cheap. For that reason, I’ve always defaulted to Heroic instead of Legendary, which I’ve only played through all the way maybe half a dozen times at most over the past six years.

Halo 3 Legendary was less difficult than Halo 2 for several reasons despite enemies having the same massive damage bonuses as in Halo 2. The Brutes, while decent shots, were freakin’ retards with negligible evasive ability, plus they had armor that could be blown off instead of having regenerating shields. They had less health as well, not to mention their berserker attacks were slower and far more predictable. Melees were extremely effective against just about every enemy except Hunters. Sniper Jackals, while still being able to one-hit-kill you, were less accurate, slower to the draw, and easier to spot. Also, no tedious boss battles. So, Legendary in Halo 3 can be hard, but that’s almost entirely due to the massive damage bonuses the enemies have as well as their numbers rather than anything regarding their AI or physical resilience. Most often I die because of an enemy that was armed with a heavy weapon (Brute Shot or Fuel Rod Gun) or was piloting a vehicle, or because one of those damn Ranged Pure Forms (another Demonic Spider on par with the Sniper Jackals) was in a bad spot.

But Reach on Legendary, well, it’s not nearly as cheap as Halo 2, which was absurd in the extreme in how hard it was, but it’s still excessively difficult. This is due to a confluence of several gameplay elements. Probably the biggest and most notable factor affecting the difficulty is the damage output of the enemies. They are just as overpowered as before if not more so as they retain the same high base damage they have in Halo 2 & 3 (Legendary provides them a 77% damage increase, similar to all the previous games). Enemies inflict around 50% more damage to the player on Legendary than what the players receive from their opponents in multiplayer, compared to 10% less in Halo 1. Even on Heroic, the enemies do considerable amounts of damage (about 20% more than Halo 1 Legendary). Enemies with heavy weapons are particularly insidious, particularly those armed with the fuel rod gun, which can kill in one hit on every difficulty except Easy and comes with a rather fast rate of fire. Melee attacks from Elites and Brutes are almost as devastating as heavy weapons; Elites in particular can often kill you with a single melee even when you’re at full shields and health, even on Heroic.

Another factor includes enemy rank distribution. High-ranking enemies are far more common than low-ranking enemies, essentially making it to where you have a “Thunderstorm-lite” skull on by default. For example, Elite and Grunt Minors are exceedingly rare on Legendary, both being outnumbered by higher ranks by a ratio of nearly 25:1. They are so rare they are even outnumbered by their highest-ranked counterparts (Elite Zealots and Grunt Ultras). Even on Heroic they are a minority, albeit a much larger one, with the Minors being outnumbered by higher classes by a ratio of over 2:1 for Grunts and 4:1 for Elites. Brutes are the only enemy type where the lowest-ranked troops outnumber their superiors on Heroic and Legendary.

Of course, there are other factors that impact difficulty. Vehicles can be death traps at times since higher-ranking Grunts (which as mentioned comprise almost all the Grunt population on Legendary) can now use charged shots, plus high-ranking Elites and Brutes are often equipped with Concussion Rifles which can send your ride flying if you’re in a light vehicle. Enemy projectiles are also faster, with a velocity increase of 50 to 100% depending on the weapon (discounting hitscan weapons, of course, since you can’t possibly go faster than that). Enemies wielding needle rifles can headshot you, which is of course instant death if your shields are down (Carbine wielders in Halo 2, 3, & ODST could not do this). There are also “custom encounters” on Legendary, such as stealth Elites armed with focus rifles on Nightfall. Drop ship guns are extremely powerful and they will hammer the piss out of you unless you’re hiding, so killing enemies as they’re being dropped off is much riskier than it was in prior games, and even coming out of cover is inadvisable if a dropship is nearby. Shade turrets fire far faster than when used by the player. Add on to all of this the best enemy AI in the series and nearly useless friendly AI.

Essentially, Reach is designed to make sure than anything short of the most perfect performance on Legendary will result in repeated death, and even when you’re being as cautious as possible death can come quickly and frequently. It’s almost like Bungie is saying “Oh, you think you’ve had it hard on Legendary before? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! You’ll be begging for mercy when we’re done with you. *evil laughter*” And this is mainly due the excessive damage the enemies inflict upon the player. Considering how good the AI is as well as all the myriad other ways Bungie ramped up the difficulty (most of those I don’t mind, since I feel that they are far better means of creating a good challenge), there was no reason to give the enemies the ability to inflict such massive amounts of damage. Of all the ways the game could be made more challenging, I’d place high damage output down at the bottom of the list. All that does is turn combat into dull, frustrating tedium since there’s fewer options for effectively dispatching the overpowered enemies before they can get off the handful of shots they need to kill you. If their base damage was dropped to or near to Halo 1 levels — in other words, the damage you receive on Legendary is roughly equal to what you receive in MP — Reach’s Legendary mode would’ve been a far more fair experience. As it is, I don’t have much incentive to play Legendary, and like in Halo 2 I usually default to Heroic. I imagine that repeated playthroughs will familiarize me with the ins and outs of the encounters and the AI’s behavioral quirks, and over time it will seem more reasonable, but at this point, even though it’s not nearly as over the top as Halo 2 in terms of how tough it is, Reach isn’t endearing itself to me in how it approaches difficulty balancing.

Mission Objectives

Like every other Halo game, Reach’s mission objectives normally involve “get from point A to point B” and “kill a bunch of enemies.” There are a few token objectives, such as disabling the Ardent Prayer‘s engines on Long Night of Solace or destroying the AA guns on Tip of the Spear and The Package, but that’s about it. I know I shouldn’t really expect anything else, as having at most a couple of token objectives is par for course, but I’d like to have seen more of them nonetheless. I always liked the break from the standard action that objectives like destroying the Pillar of Autumn‘s reactor in Halo 1 provided.

FIREFIGHT

Firefight, which debuted in ODST, returns with many improvements. Whereas in ODST there was but one default variant and no custom options besides setting the difficulty, in Reach there are many default variants to choose from, including the ODST-style Firefight Classic, Sniperfight, and Firefight Versus, which splits the players into opposing Spartan and Elite teams, the latter actually fighting alongside the waves of Covenant. Where Firefight really shines in Reach is its custom options. With 30 different enemy squads to choose from and the ability alter everything from starting weapons to player and enemy damage to the option to toggle hazards such as enemy vehicles, Firefight is a truly deep experience this go-around. At least in Custom Firefight games.

I’ve played a fair amount of Firefight Matchmaking and I can’t help but notice the lack of variety in the enemy squads. While there are thirty types of squads available in the game, you only see less than half of them in Matchmaking. This is especially glaring in Score Attack, where (except obviously for Gruntpocalypse) the waves are always, in order, Grunts, Jackals, Brutes, and Skirmishers, with the boss wave always being either Elite Generals for standard Score Attack or Hunter Strike Team for Sniper Attack.

Team Firefight offers only marginally better variety. Most squad types still go unused and you’ll be seeing pretty much the same types of waves every match. The initial wave is always a Jackal Patrol, with the three main waves always being a random selection of either Elite Infantry, Elite Patrol, Hunter Infantry, Brute Infantry, or Skirmisher Patrol, and the boss wave being either Elite Strike Team or Brute Kill Team (IIRC Sniperfight replaces Hunter Infantry with Hunter Strike Team).

Interestingly, it turns out that these are the default settings for these gametypes when you play custom Firefight games. Considering all the options available to the player for custom Firefight, you’d think Bungie would utilize those options and change up the enemy types you encounter in Matchmaking. I can maybe understand repetitiveness in Score Attack in order to balance things for leaderboard purposes, but that doesn’t really apply in four-player Firefight. Perhaps in one match the first round could go Grunts, Hunter Tactical, Jackal Snipers, Elite Infantry, and Brute Kill Team, the second round goes Jackal Patrol, Elite Patrol, Brute Tactical, Hunter Strike Team, and Elites, while the final round goes Jackals, Skirmisher Infantry, Elite Airborne, Hunter Kill Team, and Elite Spec-Ops. The amount of possible combinations are staggering, even if you restrict certain squads to where you normally expect them (e.g., Grunt/Jackal-only squads for the initial wave, squads with Generals or Chieftains for the boss wave).

The gametypes have been somewhat limited as well. While Matchmaking offers standard Firefight, Sniperfight, Rocketfight, Generator Defense, and several variations of Score Attack (standard, Sniper, Mythic, and Gruntpocalypse), Firefight Versus was only available as a limited-time playlist, and Firefight Classic has yet to appear in Matchmaking.

However, Bungie has recently started to make better use of the wide array of Firefight options, and have just introduced a number of new gametypes to the roster which include not just different rules and starting equipment, but also enemy squads that before now have not been seen in matchmade Firefight. So, over time, Firefight Matchmaking will likely offer a wider variety of gametypes to choose from to better reflect the deep customization available to players.

MULTIPLAYER

Map Design

Reach’s selection of maps is somewhat better than that of Halo 3. It has some great maps, including Powerhouse, Reflection (a remake of Halo 2’s Ivory Tower), Breakpoint, and the latest incarnation of Blood Gulch. However, it also has plenty of stinkers, including Countdown, Paradiso, and The Cage. Most of the rest are average to okay. Of special note is Boneyard. As in the beta, Bungie continues to neglect a large chunk of the stage. The part where Elites spawn in Invasion is only utilized in that gametype. In other gametypes, there are no player spawn points nor weapons or vehicles worth bothering with. It could have been a decent Big Team map, but almost all of the action remains concentrated in only one half of the map.

Overall, while somewhat of an improvement over Halo 3, the map design in Reach still falls short of that of Halo 1 & 2.

Gametypes

Halo: Reach offers a variety of multiplayer gametypes both old and new. There is of course all the Halo standards: Slayer, CTF, Assault, Oddball, King of the Hill, and all their variants. Race, which has not been seen since Halo 1, makes a return as well. Reach also introduces a new gametype called Invasion. It comes in two main forms. Standard Invasion is a multiple objectives game where the offense must accomplish three consecutive objectives (e.g., Territories, Assault, then finally “Capture the Core”). Invasion Slayer, which is Slayer mixed with Territories, capturing the territories being the only means of acquiring vehicles and power weapons. In both variants, each round has up to three phases, which unlock upon acquiring an objective in standard Invasion or attain a certain number of kills in Invasion Slayer. Each subsequent phase unlocks more loadouts (which are generally superior and/or more specialized than those in the prior phase) as well as making vehicles and power weapons available (how they are acquired depends on which Invasion variant you’re playing).

Standard Invasion is, oddly enough, an objectives gametype I actually enjoy (I’m generally a Slayer-only person), and I play it regularly. However, I have mixed feelings for Invasion Slayer. I like it because it’s Slayer, but I don’t like it as much as other Slayer variants for several reasons. For one, the limited spawn zones are a bad idea when the goal is to kill the enemy rather than defend or assault an objective. Spawn killing can happen much easier when you only have to spawn zones and one wingman on whom to spawn. Second, why are there objectives in Slayer anyway? I don’t like the whole “capture territories to get supplies” routine (there aren’t even spawns for regular weapons, forcing you to scavenge bodies for ammo if you’re low) and the ensuing clusterhump that occurs every time a territory is captured. That is assuming the territory isn’t placed in a spot where attempting to capture it is a suicide mission.

Voting in Matchmaking

The new voting system is an improvement over Halo 3’s veto system. It offers more choices and is far more transparent. You never knew what you’d get if you vetoed something in Halo 3, but that’s not the case in Reach. While the entries are randomized and limited to three (a second set of three is offered if “None of the Above” is selected), the players still have at least some control over what map and gametype they’ll be playing. However, there are times when I feel that when a player casts their vote, it should be locked in. It can get annoying very quickly whenever some schmuck keeps clicking back and forth between random entries (“I want Slayer! No, CTF! No, Oddball! No, none of the above! LOLOLOLOL!!!”). In Arena, if you make your choice, you are stuck with, so choose carefully or not at all. Perhaps for non-Arena playlists, it would have been nice if the number of times one could change their vote could have limited to one or two.

The final game resolves and issue present in the beta where all the votes were initially assigned to the entry at the top of the ballot. The entry at the top of the list would get picked simply because half the players in the lobby did not vote. Now every entry starts with zero votes, and only players who actually cast a vote are counted, as it should be. If only one person votes, then their selection will be the map & gametype everyone plays. In other words, you stay at home on election day, you don’t count and you don’t get to complain about the outcome.

TECHNICAL ASPECTS & OTHER FEATURES

Graphics

Reach has an entirely different graphics engine from the one Bungie used for Halo 3 & ODST. It offers many noticeable improvements, including better textures, increased polygon counts, and vastly improved facial animation. As usual, Bungie put a lot of effort into making a detailed game. Even with the more limited color palette used in Reach, it still manages to be far more colorful than most FPSs this generation.

However, there are some things with the new graphics engine I don’t like. Reach has this… look to it. I guess “fuzzy” or “grainy” are good descriptors. The game lacks the cleanness and sharpness of past Halo games, which really serves to act against the many improvements made to the graphics engine. Also, there are some shortcuts Bungie uses to save processor power, which I wouldn’t mind if they weren’t so noticeable. Whereas Halo 3 used shortcuts like “phasing-in/out” of certain objects (dead bodies, some plants) as you got closer or farther away from them, Reach uses an “amorphous blob” effect where the level of detail is turned way down on some things when you move far enough away from them. It’s very similar visually to the texture pop-in seen in Halo 2. While it’s usually not an issue, there are times when it’s so obvious it’s impossible to not notice. A similar effect can also be seen in distant aerial battles like those on Sword Base; Falcons and Banshees look like crude lumps of clay (granted, you need a sniper rifle to notice how those vehicles look, but still). Did the graphics engine tax the 360 so much they needed to use such shortcuts? In addition to the above issues, there are several places in the game that have noticeable frame rate drops.

As for the art direction, it’s good overall. The environments of Reach in particular look very pretty. However, there are a few designs I don’t care for as a matter of personal preference. Bungie being Bungie, they saw fit to not only make the graphics more advanced with the new engine, but they also completely redesigned every weapon, vehicle, and enemy. Some of the new designs I like (Grunts, the sniper rifle). Others, not so much (Brutes, the AR).

Music & Sound Effects

Marty’s work in Reach is still at the same level of quality he’s known for. The music is very well-composed. However, it’s also far less memorable. Nothing really “pops” like most of the tracks in the main trilogy do. I can hear “Devils, Monsters,” “In Amber Clad,” and “Farthest Outpost” and be reminded of what, when, and where in the main trilogy, and the Halo theme is one of the most iconic in the history of video games. Reach’s music doesn’t have the same effect. While I’ve played the game a lot these past several months, hardly anything sticks in my head except the music that plays whenever you boot up the game (“Space. Zoom. Fade…”) and the first part of “Tip of the Spear.” Some of the best and most memorable tracks are only found on the OST album. Seriously, why isn’t “Walking Away” in the game?

Like I said, none of this is a strike against the quality of the music. It’s just that most of the music in Reach is, for me, ultimately forgettable. Even the best modern composers have made soundtracks for film and other popular media that are good-quality and even award-winning, but were nothing memorable or that really left a lasting impact for the listener. For example, many people, especially sci-fi fans, may find James Horner’s scores for The Wrath of Khan and Aliens or Alan Silvestri’s scores for Back to the Future, Predator, and The Abyss to be very memorable, but both men have composed scores for many films where people likely won’t remember or recognize their music even if they’ve seen those movies several times. A good score showcases the talent of the composer and helps build atmosphere and tone and may be even worthy of awards, but a truly great score is one that not only does those things, but is also something you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s iconic. It’s instantly memorable. Reach’s soundtrack is good, but I cannot consider it among the truly great video game soundtracks.

The sound effects in the game are great as always. In particular I love the way weapons sound now. Human firearms sound more realistic, and explosives sound a lot meatier. However, the effect from Halo 3 where weapons sound different (in pitch, not just in volume) the further you are away from them is gone. I liked that little touch, and I miss it in Reach.

Forge

Forge offers many improvements over its Halo 3 incarnation and eliminates pretty much every issue I had with it in that game. It’s far more user friendly, with an expanded tool set and greater ease of use. There are also no arbitrary restrictions on what weapons the player can put on a map. The Forge World map also offers a huge playing field and a large budget with which to create everything from a nearly pixel-perfect Lockout remake to a racetrack that goes on for several kilometers. Perhaps the only bad thing about it is that certain options, namely those used when creating objectives, aren’t self-explanatory. For example, I’ve had to consult others on what to do when I was creating a racetrack because I didn’t know what to do to get the checkpoints to work.

Saved Films

Films in Reach have improved functionality from Halo 3. Campaign and Firefight films can now be rewound. Film clips can now also be made from said play modes. However, you can no longer view films with your party, which I don’t like.

Medals

Reach has plenty of medals for all of its play modes, both old (e.g., Killtacular) and new (e.g., First Strike). One change made to the returning medals is that weapon-specific sprees (Shotgun, Sniper, etc.) are no longer interrupted by getting a kill in some other fashion. You only need to get the requisite number of kills in a single life, and they need not be consecutive. I like this change, as sometimes in Halo 3 I would be going for, say, an Open Season only to be forced to melee or grenade my opponent, thus being forced to start over. As for the new medals, they’re pretty cool, especially Revenge (it’s a dish best served cold).

Post-game Carnage Report

The PGCR is mostly unchanged from Halo 3. The only difference is the omission of betrayals and suicides in the stats, which makes things a bit inconvenient when trying to find out who the jackass team-killer was if you didn’t catch his name in-game.

Player Customization & Advancement

Like in Halo 3, you have the option to customize your character by choosing from an assortment of armor permutations. Spartans are more customizable than before; in addition to helmets, chest pieces, and shoulder pieces, there are now also helmet attachments, wrist pieces, knee guards, “utilities” (bags or armor plates affixed to the left thigh), a variety of visor colors, various special effects such as Grunt Birthday Party, and even a bionic arm (actually an attachment offered for certain chest pieces). There are some armor pieces that return from Halo 3, including much better-looking versions of the Security and EOD helmets (though some redesigns aren’t so great, like the new Mark V shoulders). There are also some new gear (besides the obvious like knee guards) such as the Gungnir helmet.

However, the new customization system isn’t without its flaws. For one, players who preferred playing as Elites (I played as one for almost the entire time I played Halo 2 & 3 online) are once again shafted. Not only are Elites unavailable in matchmaking outside of the Elite Slayer and Invasion gametypes due to how Bungie has re-balanced them (see “Spartans vs. Elites” earlier on in the review), but Elite armor permutations now only come as whole sets rather than as separate helmets, chest plates, and shoulder pads as was the case in Halo 3. Furthermore, there are only eight different Elite permutations, compared to well over a dozen each for Spartan helmets, chest pieces, and should pads. This disparity is deliberate and was noted by Bungie before the game came out, but I still don’t like it.

Another problem has to do with the Spartan chest pieces. While each chest piece was its own entirely different model in Halo 3, in Reach they’re just attachments to the default armor, usually bags, grenade belts, and shotshell straps, thus resulting in a lack of distinctiveness amongst them. Several (ODST, HP/HALO, & Collar/Grenadier) actually offer large armor plates that mostly or fully cover up the standard chest armor, which does actually make it look like a totally different chest piece, but the fact remains that you’re only attaching pieces to the default rather than fully swapping out the entire chest piece. You can still swap out entire heads and even an arm, but for some reason Bungie saw fit to do away with full model swaps for the chest. I would’ve liked to have seen the return of the Mark VI and Recon chest pieces.


My current multiplayer model.

As to how you unlock these armors, Bungie has created a new player investment system, which revolves around “credits” (“cR” for short), sort of an in-game monetary unit. Instead of armor permutations being unlocked by completing achievements, they are now purchased by spending credits in the Armory. In addition, your visible rank is purely experience related and determined by the total number of credits you have accumulated (you still have a True Skill rank, but it’s invisible), similar to Halo 3’s playlist-specific ranks. Credits are earned simply by playing the game as well as by completing challenges and advancing commendations.

Before I start to dissect Reach’s player investment system, let me first state that I am in principle opposed to any such systems. They can and do negatively impact gamers’ playing habits. Some people simply play for the credits, not to actually play the game. This can lead to various undesirable behaviors just as “farming” or griefing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely asshole-proof these systems or to convince people to play for the sake of playing (the amount of grinding needed to buy certain things from the armory doesn’t help). Player investment systems really make me cynical about the future of gaming. It’s part of a industry trend of putting players into a Skinner box, enticing them to perform repetitive tasks in exchange for various, often external, rewards (fill that bar, get a shiny new helmet and a cool emblem next to your name!). But damn it, if a developer is going to make a player investment system, they could at least do it right. So, did Bungie make a good P.I.S. (don’t giggle)? Unfortunately the answer is a resounding “No”. While Reach’s system isn’t nearly as grossly exploitative as, say, those of MMOs like World of Warcraft, it’s deeply flawed.

The most glaring problem with Reach’s player investment system is how credits are paid out. The bulk of the credits the player can attain are derived from three sources: game completion bonuses, commendations, and the weekly and daily challenges. Game completion bonuses are a product of how long a matchmade game lasts and the rank of the player (i.e., an 8 minute game pays more than a 5 minute game, and a General gets more credits for a match of a given duration than would a Sergeant). Commendations are a set of rewards where people get bonus credits for performing various actions such as getting headshots or finishing a round of Firefight without dying. Each commendation has several “grades” (Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, & Onyx), and players get a bonus payout when they advance a commendation to a new grade. Commendations for multiplayer and Firefight are restricted to Matchmaking, whereas Campaign commendations can be attained in both “custom” matches and in Matchmaking. However, there are far fewer credits to be earned from Campaign commendations than from MP and FF commendations. Finally, Challenges are optional tasks one can choose to work towards over the course of the day or week (I will discuss challenges in depth later on).

Other sources of credits are “Performance bonuses” awarded for winning multiplayer matches and a “Slot Machine” that pays out random amounts of credits and is independent of any player action. Since the victory bonus is only a fraction of what the player receives from game completion bonuses and commendations, there’s very little incentive for the players, especially those whose motivation is more credit-driven, to actually play to win. However, there’s a tremendous incentive to stretch the game out as long as possible as well as rack up as many kills as possible in non-Slayer gametypes.

By tying rank and armor customization to credits and by mishandling the way those credits are paid out, Bungie has made a rather poor player investment system. It has led to some people doing rather… inappropriate things, such as full-party boosting, deliberately running the clock out in objectives games in order to maximize kill count, and idling during 4-player Firefight matches. While like I said there’s no way to completely asshole-proof these systems, Bungie could have least reduced the incidences of undesirable behavior by, among other things, improving on how credits are paid out. For example, instead of there being Game Completion bonuses, victory in multiplayer should have been the primary source of credits. Winners get the big bonus, while the losers get at most half that. Furthermore, there would be no armory items that require hundreds of matches to both reach the rank needed to unlock them and accumulate the requisite number of credits to purchase. No one should have to play for weeks on end just to unlock a single item, and if someone wants one bad enough, they’ll take whatever shortcuts they can to get it.

Another way Bungie dropped the ball was how they handled Campaign commendations. The way things worked initially, you’d get both per-action credits and a credit bonus for each grade turnover. This applied to Campaign just as much as it does to matchmade multiplayer and Firefight. However, shortly after the game came out, per-action credits for a given Campaign commendation are no longer attainable once that commendation reaches silver. If you continued getting per-action credits until the Campaign commendations were maxed out instead of them terminating at silver, you would attain a total of 559,600 more cR by time you maxed them all out, for a total of 592,800. But as things actually work, you’ll only net a maximum of 33,200 per-action credits by time all your commendations reach silver. So, you only get 5.6% of the per-action credits you would have earned had Campaign commendations continued giving you per-action credits past silver. By comparison the total credits you get for all the silver-to-gold and gold-to-onyx turnovers is just 63,600 (all the turnovers total 95,425 cR), which is just over 11% of the value of post-silver per-action cR if we actually got those. So, by time a player gets all his Campaign commendations to onyx, he will have earned 128,625 cR from both per-action and grade turnover credits. He would have earned 688,225 cR if Campaign commendations worked like MP and Firefight commendations.

Since the bulk of your credits earned in Campaign initially come from commendation-related efforts, what this says basically is “If you want to keep earning any substantial amount of credits in the long term, you’re going to have to play MP or Firefight.” There is essentially no incentive to bother advancing your Campaign commendations once you’ve reached silver. You’ll only get another 63,000 credits, whereas in MP and FF by time you advance a commendation to gold or onyx you’ll have earned hundreds of thousands more for each action that goes toward advancement in addition to the credits earned at the actual rank turnovers. It makes you wonder why there are even any Campaign commendations to begin with.

The addition of matchmade Co-op does resolve the credits issue by giving more credits for game completion (solo Campaign and non-matchmade co-op give out the tightly-capped Custom game completion bonus), but it still does fix the problem of Campaign commendations. I had hoped that MM co-op would allow for per-action credits since the playlist’s design serves to discourage farming and encourage legit commendation advancement. That in turn is why many of us wanted a Campaign version of Score Attack so we could play MM Campaign solo (no reverting, no saving then quitting and restarting) instead of having to play with randoms if we didn’t have a full party. Now that per-action credits for commendations silver and above no longer exist in Campaign regardless of if you play “custom” or matchmade Campaign, the former is no longer an issue — though on the bright side I no longer have any incentive to play co-op MM with a bunch of randoms — and the latter is no longer necessary. What I don’t get is how no one at Bungie had the foresight to realize that people could easily farm Campaign commendations. If they had, then maybe we would have had both matchmade Campaign (solo and co-op playlists) and the ability to continue getting per-action credits past silver. In any case, it’s not like Campaign farmers were ruining anyone’s experience, unlike people who go into matchmaking in order to do crap like grief or full-party boost, so there wasn’t any real need to so heavily limit the credits gained from Campaign commendations. But as things currently work, people who play for credits will naturally gravitate towards multiplayer and 4-player Firefight, and the less scrupulous of them will abuse the system however they see fit.

Of course, what more could one expect when the guy calling the shots for player investment is none other than Luke “Multiplayer Is Your Meal” Smith? Makes me wish he had stayed working for 1up as a game journalist instead of working on game design. His statement reminds me of those people that buy games only for the multiplayer and eschew the single-player/Campaign element, and there’s no shortage of those people out there.

Challenges

While challenges tie into the player advancement system, they deserve their own section. They’re an interesting feature, providing bonus credits for performing certain tasks in certain play modes, such as killing a certain amount of enemies over the course of the day, or for attaining a certain amount of points in a Campaign mission. While a great concept, the execution is very hit-or-miss. For example, some challenges can actually be a genuine challenge, but more often than not they simply involve a bunch of grinding. You’ll get them merely by playing enough. Some challenges, namely the assist-related ones, are simply annoying and I’ve gotten to where I won’t go out of my way to get them anymore. Probably the biggest problems I have with challenges, though, are the shortchanging of players for certain weekly challenges and the improper classification of certain challenges as either dailies or weeklies.

Perhaps the most notable example of the former was “All In A Week’s Work,” the weekly from the last week of October, which required attaining 1000 kills in multiplayer over the course of the week. Daily challenges that require a certain number of kills (“Gunslinger,” “Shootin’ & Lootin'”) usually go at a rate of 10 cR per kill. “AIAWW,” with a value of 4000 cR, went at a paltry rate of only 4 cR per kill, a 60% drop from the norm for these kind of challenges. If it had gone at the standard rate, it would’ve been worth 10,000 cR. Similarly, “Multiplicative” went at a rate of about 44.44 cR per multikill, awarding us 2000 cR for 45 multikills. It’s daily analogue “Oops! All Kills” has shown up twice, once going at a rate of 80 cR per multikill and another at 111 cR per kill. This being the case, Multiplicative should have been worth anywhere from at least 3600 cR up to 5000 cR. The latter would have been much fairer. So, weeklies like these two going at a heavily discounted rate as compared to their daily equivalents is apparently standard.

Seriously, some of these challenges and their relative value and difficulty is all over the place. Some weeklies (like the two mentioned above, which did take all week) aren’t worth nearly enough considering the work involved, while others (e.g., “Legendary Friends” and “Crackshot”) could easily be dailies since they can, and often must, be done in a single match/mission. Conversely, there has been at least one daily (“Just Hold On…”) that should’ve been a weekly. If a challenge require multiple hours of play time, then it should be a weekly, not a daily.

Whoever is in charge of the challenges needs to get their act in gear and start having some consistency and balance in these things. That means no weeklies that easily could be dailies, no dailies that require so much time and effort that they should be weeklies, and no massive discounts for weekly versions of dailies that involve tons of effort and grinding. In fact, weeklies in general should pay out more than they do. Up until recently they’ve averaged around 3000 cR, with the lowest value having been 1500 and the highest 5000, whereas some dailies can go as high as 2500 cR and all four dailies for any given day total in the 3000 to 7000 range.

Fortunately, things seem to be improving as of late in regards to the payouts for weeklies, which are now often in excess of 10,000 credits. However, many dailies are still annoying grind-fests that don’t offer nearly enough, especially considering that once you reach a certain rank, you’ll have attained at least an order of magnitude more credits simply from playing by time you’ve played enough matches to complete the challenge, thus reducing the incentive for trying to do so. For example, I’m not going to go out of my way to play enough multiplayer games to rack up 100 automatic weapon kills for a measly 1000 credits when I usually earn at least 1500 credits just by playing a single match.

The Bungie.net Service Record

The B.net service record provides the same stat tracking as Halo 3’s, but far more in-depth. The only thing it’s lacking is the ability to break stats down by gametype. Overall, though, I like the new service record.

CONCLUSION

Bungie’s last foray into the Halo-verse has left me with mixed feelings. Reach is a very fun game, and I play it almost daily. The gameplay is overall much improved over Halo 3’s, and is the closest to Halo 1 of all the sequels (well, this one’s technically a prequel, so yeah). Many of the most notable issues present in Halo 3 (and from the Reach beta itself) were fixed. It’s probably the most refined multiplayer experience I’ve seen to date from an online game, not to mention it’s probably the single most feature-rich FPS I’ve ever seen since Perfect Dark. However, Reach is not without its own issues. It has its fair share of annoying or outright broken game mechanics, many multiplayer maps are rather humdrum, and the Campaign has major difficulty balancing issues as well as poor writing. Despite its flaws, it is still for me the best Halo game besides the original and is perhaps the best shooter I’ve played on the Xbox 360 (BioShock comes really close).

Scores

Gameplay: 8. Changes such as an improved arsenal of weapons, the elimination of dual wielding, the return of fall damage and health packs, vehicle hit points being divorced from player health, good enemy AI in Campaign and Firefight, have resulted in gameplay much improved over that of Halo 3. However, several aspects of the gameplay, including certain armor abilities (namely armor lock), difficulty balancing issues in Campaign and Firefight that are mainly the result of overpowered enemies (which do fade over time in their annoyance factor, though), vehicle boarding that works the same as in Halo 3, the sword block, and invisible walls and soft-kill barriers in Campaign (“Return to Battlefield”? Fuck you! I’ll go where I damn well please in single-player.) serve to keep the gameplay from reaching the caliber of that of Halo 1.

Graphics: 9. Reach’s new engine offers several graphical advancements, including increased polygon count, higher-res textures, and improved facial animation. Also, while the color palette is a bit muted for a Halo game, it still manages to have a good amount of color. However, the game has this “grainy/fuzzy” look to it that I don’t like as it breaks from the clean, crisp look Halo games always had, instead opting for a grittier look. There are also issues with texture “pop-in/phase-in” as well as some drops in frame rate at several points in the game. The art design is good as always, but there are some new designs I don’t particularly care for.

Music & Sound: 8. Marty’s score is good as always in terms of overall quality. However, it lacks the iconic and memorable sound of his scores from the previous Halo games. The sound effects are great, with impressive-sounding weapons and explosions.

Story: . The characters (not counting Jorge) are dull, flat, cookie-cutter archetypes. The writing in general reads like bad fanfiction. Worst of all is the retcons. Large portions of what had stood for years as established canon was simply discarded for no good reason. Seriously, Bungie. What. The. Hell? The only saving grace the game has fiction-wise is in its presentation. It is an impressive cinematic experience so to speak, and despite the shoddy writing it is nevertheless atmospheric and full of spectacle, and really drove home the fact that you are fighting a losing battle for a doomed world.

Features: 10. Reach is one of the most feature-rich shooters ever. Forge and Saved Films are improved over their Halo 3 incarnations, there are more gametypes than ever, and Firefight offers deep customization that its ODST counterpart lacked. The game has a solid user interface as well.

Replay Value: Very High. Multiple play modes with a large amount of options give the game a lot of replayability, and as always it’s fun to hop into multiplayer (or Firefight) on a regular basis to play a few rounds. While the Campaign has bad writing, the mission design is solid enough warrant regular playthroughs.

Drive-In Totals: One deep-fried planet. Skydiving Spartan. Cyborg Spartan with big butt. Exploding buggers. Gratuitous backstabbing. Gratuitous takeoff sequence. Pelican-fu. Railgun-fu. Three-and-a-half stars. Check it out.

Overall Score: 9. Reach really shines on the merits of its improved gameplay and its large amount of features. However, poor writing and certain game mechanics keep it from being my favorite in the series. Nevertheless, it still rises above the other post-CE Halo games and is an admirable final effort on Bungie’s part. Now all we have is to wait to see whatever 343 has in store. Hopefully Halo 1 in HD with online multiplayer.

Well, that’s a wrap. As always, feedback is appreciated. Thanks for reading. And thanks to Bungie for a great series of games. I may not have liked everything about it, but it’s still the best FPS series around. Halo won’t be quite the same without them.

FURTHER READING

Halo Reach Is Not Canon
Aratech’s Review of Halo: Reach

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3 responses to “Review: “Halo Reach”

  1. You put far more effort into this than I ever could have. First off, let me say that there isn’t a single point that I disagree with you one. (Though I would have mentioned the Weekly Challenge that required you to perform 20 daily challenges myself.) Secondly, this being the first review of yours that I’ve actually read, I’d like to say that I love your drive-in totals. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who remembers Joe Bob.

    …Okay, so really the only thing that I had to say was the second point and the rest was just to keep me from looking too much of a fool.

  2. Oh wow, that was entirely awesome. I read the whole thing, and while my arguments were identical to yours, I just couldn’t muster up backup information to make my argument stronger. You opened me up to that.

    Thank you.

  3. The amount of time you’ve put into a simple review is far more in-depth than any other review I’ve seen. I should probably ask you for advise if I ever make a game.
    How you’ve meticulously obtained the statistics for everything and managed to back up your arguments so well is beyond me. I don’t really agree with everything you’ve said, but the way you’ve backed your arguments up is impeccable.

    I don’t feel that armor lock is being abused, mostly because it takes such an immense amount of skill and practice to abuse effectively that it’s more skill-based and therefore legit. It’s very hard to effectively use armor lock to the extent you described. I’m also not too sure why you think how Active Camo works is wrongly handled. It seems much better than the ridiculously overpowered active camo of Halo 3(although these were one-use affairs).

    You really opened me up about the story. At first after first playthrough I thought the story was great, more emotional and better handled than previous games. Then I realized what I was looking at wasn’t the basic story, because if you take the basic plot and outline you’re right. It’s merely a passable sci-fi plot, and one full of retcons at that. Where Reach’s campaign really shines is how cinematic and beautifully designed the cutscenes were. They really helped to hammer home how tragic Kat and Jorge’s death were(the music helped too) and made their deaths a lot more depressing that what it would have been if the cutscene designer was a lot worse. Emile’s and Carter’s deaths seemed to have lost the touch, though, and I can’t say I felt extremely saddened by them.

    I actually feel Reach’s music was at times one of the most memorable in the series, espescially Ashes, Unreconcialed, Wing and a Prayer, Noble Mission, and Lone Wolf. The rest, however, were quite forgettable and even dully repititive(what is with the endless percussion pieces?) But for the good pieces, it was definitely a different style than previous soundtracks. It’s almost as if it were a different composer paying homage to previous tracks.

    I appreciate the open-worldness of Halo Reach’s campaign, but it was way too short. Way too short. I was expecting at least a campaign with as many levels as Halo 2’s, if not more. And I was also thinking it could be more cinematic, like Modern Warfare 2. Of course you would need to balance out cinematic, linear moments with more non-linear, explore-all-you-want moments. And some moments, like the Mongoose Run, the assault on the Spire, the platforming section on Exodus, and the invasion of Halsey’s lab, felt subdued. If I had done it, I would definitely make these sections more grand and epic. Why isn’t the Scarab making an effort to destroy your Mongoose, for example? Or why no jetpack-brawls in Exodus? And worse of all, totally ignoring the main battle on TotS.

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