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Bungie takes a bow with its fifth and final Halo game as fans the world over shed a tear...
There's nothing quite like the launch of a new Halo game and Halo: Reach has proven that all over again during the past week (however much it was thrown into doubt with Halo 3: ODST). Microsoft's lofty claims that Halo: Reach is "Halo 4 in all but name" were backed up by a jetpack flying Spartan in Trafalgar Square, the presence of numerous C-list celebrities at the game's launch party, and reports of the game's significance on 10 O'clock news shows. Sure, Halo has tough competitors these days in the over-hyped game stakes - Activision's Call of Duty being the most notable - but it was Bungie's shooter that started it all. Halo 2 was the first game to break day-one sales records for the entire entertainment industry back in 2004, making the cool kids in school (movies and music) turn around and take notice of this suddenly threatening nerd.
Separating the game from its hype has always been a challenge then, and perhaps Halo 3 didn't wow us as much as we'd hoped back in 2007. TVG's 8/10 score, due mostly to underwhelming visuals and a campaign that lacked panache, certainly riled fanboys at the time and went against the grain of a 94 on Metacritic. Nonetheless, Halo: Reach now shows just how much room for improvement there was on Halo 3. Visually, Reach is a Halo game that finally looks like a first-person shooter should on the current crop of consoles. It's not the best looking shooter on the Xbox 360 by any means, but it's certainly a cut above the majority of its competitors and more than fitting of the quality you'd expect from a game series that's been so highly rated.
These graphical improvements make Bungie's rich Halo universe all the more vivid, bringing it to life in ways that were just beyond the studio's grasp previously. It's perhaps testament to the original Halo: Combat Evolved that we remember the beauty of Reach through rose tinted spectacles. A retrospective playthrough of the game reveals just how much our minds have filled in the gaps over the last nine years. As good as Combat Evolved's graphics were at the time, recollection of them does become romanticised over time as your memory is all too happy to forget the jaggies and idolise the vision underpinning it all. Returning to Reach had the potential to be something of a disappointment for some gamers then, such is the level of reverence for the hallowed turf of Reach.
But Bungie's Halo swansong fails to disappoint in this sense, not only graphically, but in the grandiosity applied to the Covenant's mass invasion of the planet as well. Reach's campaign goes everywhere from hundreds of metres below the planet's surface to, quite literally, in orbit around it. Inevitably, the conclusion to Reach's prequel storyline has to meet somewhere alongside the start of Combat Evolved, which it achieves both seamlessly and effortlessly, almost as if Halo: Reach had been written before Combat Evolved was even storyboarded. Noble Team's journey is not only an engagingly sharp one throughout but a genuinely touching one at times as well.
It's the sheer scale of the action that pulls you in as well. Even during some of the more pedantry land battles you'll see Corvette class Covenant warships looming ominously on the horizon with Banshees buzzing around them like midges. There's not one moment during the campaign where you doubt the invasion's megalodonic weight, whether you're engaging in orbital dogfights above the planet's atmosphere or providing supporting fire from a UNSC Falcon to pinned-down soldiers on the ground, this is war at its most brutal. Halo: Reach shines just as brightly when Bungie minimises the action down to small-scale engagements though, ensuring that Halo's bread and butter raises the bar just as much as the epic setting of Reach.
There are times when all you need is a dropship filled with half a dozen grunts, a few shield-cladded Jackals, and a couple of Elites. Given Halo's success, it's remarkable that so few developers have managed to successfully copy Bungie's AI style with its widely differentiated enemy classes that keep you running-and-gunning so frantically that cover is rarely an option. Halo: Reach's assortment of enemies is very much what you'd expect from its predecessors, although we can't help but feel like an Elite's sharpness with its evasive rolls or a Brute's out-and-out aggression haven't taken on significant improvements since Halo 3 and ODST. There's no standing still for long in Halo: Reach as enemies will sniff you out quicker than a pungent French cheese and it's this that sets Bungie's AI apart from the vast majority of shooters out there today.
If there are criticisms of the main campaign, perhaps it's that the Noble Team isn't as much a part of the gameplay as it could've been. Your five squad mates are wrapped into the storyline pretty well but there are rarely moments where you'll notice their significance during combat. While it's understandable that Noble 6 (your playable character) doesn't call out squad orders because he/she is effectively a new recruit to the team, the squad system could still have benefitted from team leaders who were a bit more vocal or dynamically involved in the gameplay rather than merely the cut-scenes. As it is, Noble Team just seems to constantly fire at enemies and waste a lot of ammo by racking up a disappointingly low body count. Yes, we know that you can level this criticism at most FPS squad systems these days, but that doesn't mean there isn't space for some new ideas or innovation in a relatively static area of gameplay.
As far as additional content goes, it's hard to think of an FPS with more modes and features than Halo: Reach. It's the culmination of a lot of fan demand that's then been loyally translated into the series by Bungie, such as the Forge and Firefight modes from Halo 3 and ODST respectively, but this time iterated through more customisation options and improved user-interfaces. And then, of course, there's the competitive multiplayer: Reach's biggest addition to the tried and tested Halo formula is undoubtedly its Invasion mode, which offers an almost Battlefield-esque format that puts the new Armour Abilities (essentially character classes) to good use amongst some objective based team games and more spacious maps than we've become used to in the Halo series.
Invasion is certainly a welcome change of pace to Halo's traditional fare of skull games, capture the flag, Slayer, Swat and alike. Pitting the Covenant against Spartans in the mode has also allowed Bungie to try out some neat ideas with the Armour Abilities, such as an evasive roll manoeuvre unique to the Covenant Elites. These abilities, which include the now famous jetpack, a Predator-esque invisibility cloak, and an enemy-duping holographic version of your character, all seem to be fairly well balanced throughout the multiplayer at large and definitely add to the single-player experience as well. Our particular favourite is the hologram for its originality and how stupid it can make enemies look, but each Armour Ability has its benefits to be honest. It really depends on your style more than anything else.
Elsewhere in the multiplayer, Bungie appears to have readdressed the balancing of weapons in Reach to deliver a slower pace to the combat than Halo 3. The absence of dual-wielding is one of the main reasons for this but seasoned players will also notice a weaker Needler and Assault Rifle, for example, or the DMR (which replaces the old Battle Rifle) that fires in single shots rather than the traditional triple-shot bursts. These factors can make it more of a challenge to ratchet up a 'Killing Spree' in Reach, which may make the transition uneasy for some veterans at first. Nonetheless, it's only logical that Bungie would look to reformat the gameplay slightly to make the keys to success different in Halo: Reach to what they were in Halo 3, otherwise what would be the point?