Sunday, September 19, 2010

Halo: Reach Limited Edition (Xbox 360) Review

The Halo franchise is many things to different people. Some people play the games for good old multiplayer carnage, some play for the Campaign and military sci-fi story, and others play simply because they like to blow stuff up no matter what they're doing. Enter Halo: Reach, Bungie's latest, and last, addition to the franchise. For nearly a decade now, Bungie has been entertaining gamers of all tastes with the Halo franchise's versatile gameplay, fast past action, and stylish humour. So does their final entry in the franchise measure up to what's come before?

Anyone who's followed the Halo storyline knows about Reach, the UNSC's primary military world and the home of the Spartan-II project. They also know that Reach was glassed by an overwhelming Covenant force just prior to Halo: Combat Evolved and that the majority of the Spartans fell defending the world. All of this is detailed in Halo: The Fall of Reach, the prequel novel published in 2001 and re-released in 2010. Yet despite Reach's importance and many references throughout the games, we've never actually seen the planet in-game outside of a brief Halo 2 flashback. In Halo: Reach, we get to witness the fall of Reach firsthand, though not through the eyes of John-117.

Like the last few Halo titles before it, Halo: Reach incorporates a significant amount of the expanded universe into the games, something hardcore Halo universe fans will be most pleased about. The thing they may not be overjoyed with in Halo: Reach is the significant amount of retcon that Bungie has placed upon this well established back story, but I'll get into that in a moment.

Players take on the role of Spartan-B312, or Noble Six, as he's more commonly known by his call sign. Six is the newest member of Noble Team, a group of six special operations Spartans (five are Spartan-III's, making their first in-game appearance) who are currently stationed on Reach. Six reports in right as Noble Team is being tasked with a new mission: to investigate a down comm relay. It was believed the relay may have been sabotaged by insurgent forces and an army group was sent to investigate. When they were never heard from again, command decided to send in Spartans, and Noble Team encounters what the UNSC feared most: Covenant. The Covenant are on Reach, and though this seems to be an advance party, worse is sure to come.

This all takes place beginning on July 24th, 2552, over a month before Reach falls. The rest of the story progresses slowly as Noble Team is tasked with increasingly difficult missions as the Covenant battles for control of the planet, and honestly, a lot of it just doesn't make sense when put next to the established canon of the Halo universe. While the Campaign's layout and gameplay is superbly done, smacking of the high quality polish we've come to expect from Bungie, I've always been a huge fan of the franchise's story and all of these revisions really bothered me. It bugged me so much so that I found myself enjoying the Campaign less and less as the game went on. Dr. Halsey, the mind behind the Spartan-II program and Project Mjolnir, also makes her first in-game appearance, and she knows about the Spartan-III's, something she wasn't supposed to learn about until two months later. Another plot hole for me to grumble about. Admittedly though, the Campaign really picked up about halfway through, much like Halo 3's, and despite the story inconsistencies with the rest of the established canon, I started having a great time and enjoyed myself up to the end.

The other major issue I had with the game's story was with Noble Team themselves. After putting together such great and memorable characters in Halo 3: ODST, a squad that I came to care about by game's end, I'm quite surprised that Noble Team is both boring and forgettable. Half the squad's voice acting is rather poor. Carter-A259 is completely uninspiring as squad leader, and he really could take a lesson or two from Sgt. Buck. Kat-B320 seems to be a fan favourite, but I honestly couldn't understand half of what she was saying with her thick accent, and if she was talking to me over the radio, forget it, couldn't understand a thing. I tried turning subtitles on, but sadly, not everything appears to be subtitled. At least Jorge-052, the squad's heavy weapon specialist and the Spartan-II of the group, had character and personality. Noble Team lacked soul and squad cohesion, and if it wasn't for an article on the web a few months back, I wouldn't have any clue about these characters back stories, as they certainly aren't fleshed out in-game. I will say I'm also glad to hear that Six actually talks now and again, much like John-117. I was worried Bungie would have made him a mute character lead, and I'm sorry to any Valve fanboys reading this, but mute leads don't work for strong storytelling. It's the truth, deal with it.

As I mentioned though, gameplay wise, the Campaign is solid. There's a wide variety of mission types through the Campaign, from search and destroy, to vehicle confrontations, to sieges; all the Halo flare is here and in spades. Elites make their grand return to the series and being a prequel, they're enemies and very challenging ones at that. As per my tradition, my first Campaign playthrough was on Normal difficulty, and even here, the Elites were challenging. They can absorb and dish out a fair deal of punishment, and they're excellent at dodging. The other new addition to the Covenant bestiary are Skirmishers, a very agile form of Jackal that forgoes their trademark Energy Gauntlet for speed and fancy maneuvers. Skirmishers are annoying, and you'll relish placing as many head shots through them as possible.

And head shots are harder to pull of this time around. It seems that Bungie has toned down auto-aiming, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's still quite possible, don't get me wrong, but precision shooting takes a little more finesse and skill than it used to. While enemy AI has been improved to extremely impressive levels, it's honestly the best enemy AI I've seen in a shooter period, friendly AI has taken a regrettable turn in the stupid direction. Not only are friendlies still horrible drivers, they're now poor gunners as well. Fun! If I had a dollar for every time my AI gunner, be it infantryman or Spartan, blew us up in our own Rocket Warthog, well, I'd nearly be able to buy my copy of Halo: Reach all over again! Not only is the friendly AI a poor shot, but on foot, they have a tendency to go charging ahead before I was ready, triggering the next enemy encounters too soon. This gets rather frustrating at times, especially when you're exploring.

For weapons, your tried and true staples are mostly back, save they may be the Army variants since Halo: Reach features the UNSC Army instead of the Marines for the first time in-game. The Battle Rifle has been replaced by the Designated Marksman Rifle, for example, which is a single shot, 15 clip weapon that does great damage; it was my fallback weapon throughout the entire Campaign. New UNSC toys include a Grenade Launcher and the Target Locator, used to call in air strikes. Very handy when available. The Covenant gets the Plasma Repeater, their version of an Assault Rifle, the Needle Rifle replaces the Carbine, and the Concussion Rifle is a new energy-based version of the Brute Shot. The Beam Rifle has also been replaced by the Focus Rifle, which functions like a sniping Sentinel Beam from previous games. Very deadly on enemies with no nearby cover!

Equipment is also right out, and Armour Abilities are in. Instead of carrying one single-use item at a time, you now get to pick up a regenerating armour ability that you can use again and again. These abilities can range from something simple like Sprint (an ability that's long overdue to the franchise, if you ask me!), to Active Camouflage, to Drop Shield, which is a combination of Halo 3's Bubble Shield and Regenerator.

While Halo: Reach innovates the franchise with these cool new abilities, Bungie hasn't forgotten the franchise's roots, which is rather fitting for the game as it is a prequel. The number of grenade types has been reduced back to the basic Frag and Plasma Grenades, doing away with the other non-essential Grenades introduced in Halo 3. Dual-wielding is also out, and the core mechanic of guns, grenades, and melee is once again at the forefront of the gameplay. Melee attacks have also been improved with the introduction of Assassinations. Hold Melee while behind an opponent, and watch as Six dispatches them in a fancy third person animation! Careful though, as performing an Assassination leaves you vulnerable for a few crucial seconds. Your Shields recharge like always, but your Health has limited regen, and you'll need to find and use Medkits to patch yourself up fully, just like in Halo: Combat Evolved.

Brutes may be back, but in old-school tradition, their vehicles are out. Makes sense as they're not a dominate Covenant military force yet. You'll see Ghosts aplenty again, as well as Wraiths and Banshees, and the new Revenant, a cross between a Ghost and a Wraith. Very fast, very deadly. The UNSC has a new Rocket Warthog as previously mentioned, as well as a chopper, the Falcon. Not only is it used as a troop transport, but the Falcon also has a gunner on each side, making it a rather formidable aircraft. For the first time in franchise history, players also get to partake in space combat! The UNSC Sabre is a prototype fighter that players will briefly be able to use against Seraph fighters and space Banshees as they attempt to halt the Covenant fleet. A very welcome change of pace.

Of course, the Campaign isn't all that's on offer. Bungie wanted to make sure that Halo: Reach was the complete package, the best Halo title to date, and the Multiplayer component certainly lives up to this goal. Matchmaking has been refined, and the standard game types of Slayer, Oddball, Capture the Flag, etc. are all here and better than ever! The new game types that were all the rage in the beta, like the Spartan vs. Elite objective based Invasion and the skull hording free for all Headhunter are here and they're loads of fun. What I'm most pleased with, however, is that Firefight is back, and not only is the classic style available, but there are several other Firefight gametypes available as well as a full host of customizable options! You can control the number of waves, types of enemies in each wave, your health and damage and so on and so forth. Seriously, the list of customizations in Firefight is gigantic, and it's all most welcome. You know what else would make Firefight all manner of awesome? Matchmaking. You know what? They did it! None of your Friends online? Fear not! Unlike Halo 3: ODST, you can now search for a game and start popping those Grunt's skulls ASAP!

As you play through the game, both Campaign and Multiplayer, you earn Credits which increases your Multiplayer ranking. You can then spend credits on different items in the Armoury, cosmetic changes that allow you to customize the look of your Noble Six. What's even cooler is that your Noble Six is the one who appears in the Campaign, cutscenes and all! The game seemed to remember the colours I used during the beta, as my Noble Six defaulted to my Canadian Brick and White colour scheme, and that was fine by me! I didn't bother buying anything from the Armoury at first though, save for Buck's voice in Firefight. Everything in life is better if Nathan Fillion's involved.

Oh, and Forge is back to. I'm not much of a mapmaker, but I hear it's a whole lot more intuitive this time around, and there's a huge playground to drop tanks on friends in. Good stuff.

Visually, Halo: Reach is a beautiful game. While not Unreal Engine beautiful, the game is breathtaking and even features excellent looking human character models, something Bungie is not known for. Colourful locations and gorgeous backdrops all await you on Reach, and it's quite pleasant to see a Halo title pushing the Xbox 360's limits with every kind of character, weapon, and vehicle seeing a graphic makeover. Audio wise, aside from the sub-par Noble Team voice acting, Bungie has done it again. Other voice actors, sound effects, and most certainly the music all help to not only flesh out the Halo: Reach experience, but to give it energy and life that many games just can't match.

Now, I purchased the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, which is advertised as a black box recovered from Reach containing Dr. Halsey's personal Journal and some fancy Elite downloadable armour. The ONI black box, which is a bit larger than five DVD cases on top of one another, is huge! There's a handle at the top that lets you pull the box out of its exterior case, and you'll find yourself looking at your copy of Halo: Reach in a black DVD case, not green; a nice little touch. Inside is the Elite armour downloadable token, the Spartan Recon Helmet downloadable token (available with all retail copies of the game in its initial run), the manual, and of course the game itself. I couldn't help but notice the lack of a journal, however, and that's when I realized that the game's case was actually sitting in a removable tray.

Removing that tray revealed the true treasure of the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, and I simply stared in awe for well over two minutes completely dumbstruck. If you're reading this review, you no doubt own various collector's editions of something, and you know that they all contain cool items or extras from whatever game or movie they're for. What I was looking at under this tray was a black bubble wrapped package with an official ONI seal, with a handwritten note on top. It was then that I realized I was in for something very, very special. Not only was this collector's edition going to present me with cool stuff, but it was going to be done in such a way, with such care and attention to detail, that Microsoft Game Studios and Bungie wanted me to believe that I was holding a very piece of the Halo universe.

And that's what this package contains: authenticity. The handwritten note explains that this is all that remains of Halsey's documents, with a list of contents on the back. The back of the black bubble wrap has a sign-out label with instructions on it. Once I carefully pealed back the ONI logo, there it was, Halsey's journal, full of handwritten information spanning decades and sketches made by the good doctor herself, all in this hand bound, magnetic clipped book thicker than some novels! Not only that, but the journal contains newspaper clippings of specific events, photos, medical records, a Spartan-II badge, Halsey's ID card, a map of Reach, and more. It truly is such a detailed package, that a deep fan of Halo fiction like myself approached it all with a great deal of reverence, and it's clear to me now that the marketing of the Limited Edition didn't due it justice by a long shot.

The Journal and supplementary material took me about two hours to go through, there's so much substance, and I'm glad to say, much of my issues with the story and continuity are resolved here. The journal does contain spoilers, so if you have it I recommend playing the Campaign first, but I can tell you I'll be viewing my next Campaign playthrough with a different perspective. It's not perfect, but the journal really helps set a lot of the events in perspective and nicely works it into the established fiction.

And here we have it, Bungie's swan song to the Halo universe. Halo: Reach is not just an excellent addition to the franchise, but a ridiculously well polished shooter that also happens to come in the single greatest collector's edition I've ever held in my hands. The Campaign's story isn't perfect, and Noble Team leaves much to be desired, but the gameplay and soul of the franchise are present in spades and the multiplayer component and all the trimmings are visibly the culmination of ten years of hard work and dedication by one developer.

Bungie, thank you for entertaining us for so many years, thank you for raising the bar on what we should expect from a quality shooter, and thank you for Halo. One last thing: Every Halo game always has something after the credits, so make sure you stick around. This is one very unique post-credit sequence you won't want to miss, and you'll want to keep your Controller handy.

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