“Remember Reach,” cries the marketing campaign accompanying the release of Bungie’s latest (and last) entry in their flagship franchise, following on from Halo 3’s slogan of “Finish the Fight” and Halo 2’s “Buy an Xbox or your loved ones will shun you!”
And, indeed, upon reflection Halo Reach is an experience worthy of remembrance; an atypically epic follow-up to its illustrious forerunners, which – though technically marvellous – nonetheless sticks all too closely to its familiar gameplay formula. It serves as a prequel to the events of 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, set upon the doomed human colony planet of Reach where the player takes the role of a nameless soldier serving as part of an elite team dispatched to investigate unusual surface behaviour.
From the game’s opening shot – your helmet, visor shattered, sitting atop the burning, ruined surface – one knows how the story ends, an unrelenting sense of foreboding tragedy hanging over proceedings as the situation swiftly escalates from small-scale skirmishes to a desperate struggle for survival as the planet dies around you. The resultant experience, trading space opera for war film, is undeniably different from that of Halo 3, a balls-to-the-wall exercise in gung-ho heroics in which the player occupies the role of a Messianic superman massacring entire races at the drop of a hat.
However, this arguably detracts from the game’s more visceral enjoyment; Master Chief’s exploits empowered players, allowing them to topple entire empires with the swift blow of the butt of a gun to a chitinous extraterrestrial ribcage. Halo Reach’s more muted experience is comparatively underwhelming, even emasculating.
But most important are the actual mechanics underpinning the game, which are without exception excellent; overhauled graphics are matched with impeccable art design to ensure that the tragedy of Reach is captured with visual splendour almost befitting a work of art. Similarly, slight tweaks to the weapon system and the introduction of power-ups – holograms, jet packs – are imaginatively implemented, helping to spice up gameplay.
However, it’s precisely this element which is sadly all-too familiar; Bungie deserve full credit for streamlining the Halo experience, wisely removing the widely-derived Flood levels in favour of well-designed firefights against intelligent AI, but it’s still an (admittedly polished) evolution of their previous work bedecked in the fineries of experimental narrative and paraded around like some geeky Second Coming (or fourth, as the case may be).
Nonetheless, fanatical, frothy-mouthed Microsoft fans may point towards the towering monolith of the game’s multiplayer as its saving grace, particularly in light of its arrestingly brisk single-player. While it’s true that the game generously provides an array of new modes, maps and tools, very little innovates or reinvigorates a franchise which has doggedly remained faithful to its roots in defiance of the ever-changing nature of an industry obsessed with revolutionising the way one interacts with the gaming experience.
In this regard, Halo Reach is the Sylvester Stallone of videogaming; a proud brute steeped in the excess of yesteryear and proudly flaunting its trademark delivery under an updated guise. But one suspects that the franchise has finally reached full circle and inevitable future iterations of Halo Kart Racers or Master Chief’s Brain Training will be steps too far.