Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Video Game Review:
Halo: Reach  
Remember the fateful moments that started a legend.  Remember the courage and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Remember the ones who gave us a chance.

Remember Reach.

Humanity's desperate final fight begins here.  You are Noble Six, the newest member of an elite team of crack Spartan super soldiers called Noble Team, tasked with defending the planet of Reach from a Covenant invasion, and with getting the last spark of hope out of the enemies hands before the fateful end.  

Bungie deserved all the accolades it got for this game.  The development of the Halo universe since the initial game launched in Nov. 2001 has been fantastic.  Taking the story back to the very beginning, before the 'hushed casket' was opened on the Pillar of Autumn after it fled the fall of Reach was a stroke of genius.  

It was a risk making a game based on a story where all of the franchise's fans know it doesn't have a happy ending, but Bungie carries it off beautifully, even poignantly.  And they didn't exactly hide where the story was going either, as the very first scene in the game is that of a Spartan helmet lying abandoned on a ravaged planet with a bullet hole in the visor.

We come to sense even before the campaign is 1/3rd over that Reach is doomed.  What's more, we can see the Spartan team knows it too, but they press on, and in the end it's their sacrifices that lays the foundation for events that will propel humanity to victory.  

You're welcome. 

It's apparent Bungie took all of the critcism of their fan community regarding Halo:ODST very seriously.  They have attempted to address all of the issues in this new installment, and some of the attempts were more successful than others.  

One of the chief criticisms was that the protagonist of ODST was a nameless, faceless, colorless robot with no real personality.  A team was introduced in ODST, but you didn't really get a sense of any of them as persons.  Bungie has addressed this in Reach, although they probably didn't go as far as some of the critics might have liked.  Each member of Noble Team has defined roles and personalties that come through.  We get to see their faces - except for Emile, who never takes that creepy helmet of his off, the one with the skull face drawn on it. 

Jorge is the uber-large chain-gun carrying point man with a sensitive heart. 

Jun is the strong silent sniper/scout that goes about his job with quiet competency.

Kat is the electronics wizard/demolitions expert with a mechanical arm you might not notice until halfway into the game.

Emile is the aforementioned badass with a skull painted on his helmet who specializes in up close combat.  He never takes his  helmet off and nobody ever asks him too, either. 
Carter is the team leader, a crew cut no nonsense guy - think of Kurt Russell in Soldier, there's a passing resemblence.  

As the FNG, you're dropped off to meet your team just as they are scrambling to investigate the interruption of a comm relay nearby, suspected to be the work of rebels.  Who the rebels are and why they have a problem with the authorities on Reach is never explained, but from what you overhear early in the game there's been more than a few incidents of rebels causing michief, and at first it's assumed the silence of the comm relay is just another such event.  

The first few minutes of the game demonstrates quite clearly this isn't your older brother's Halo.  The new game engine does an outstanding job of rendering the visuals Bungie has created, and it immediately becomes apparent the game has been created with a cinematic feel in mind.  The impression you are starring in your own science fiction blockbuster is stronger than ever.  In fact, the 'Theater' in the main menu lets you replay saved missions over again where you can watch yourself and Noble Team run through the mission from a variety of camera angles.  Even blown up to it's highest magnification on my Vizio 55" HDTV the picture remained sharp and clear.  

Having had 4 games to tweak the controls and the shooting tech, firing weapons, aiming and driving/flying is a snap.  Halo never had a clunky control scheme to begin with, and it's now been perfected to a level where at no time in the game was I ever wondering which button, trigger or keypad to use. 

Bungie has always had what I think is one of the best game difficulty progressions.  Easy is what you expect, where it's possible for you to die, but it's rare.  You never really need to take cover or think strategically because you can pretty much run and gun and kill everything in sight with just a few rounds.  Normal jumps the difficulty up just right, where instead of 1-2 rounds it now takes 5-6 to put a Grunt down and enemies are smarter and starting to take cover and coming much closer with their grenades.  Heroic and you start paying for mistakes, getting flanked, taking much more cover and having to count your bullets because it takes plenty of ammo to get something to drop now.  

And then there's Legendary, which makes grown men cry and damage their controllers, kick their dog and maybe finally start paying attention to their girlfriend.  It's not fair. It's just not fair.  Because it's not meant to be fair. It's legendary! 

Nothing makes casual gamers retreat like scalded puppies more than trying to play this game for a few minutes on Legendary.  Even trying to use your indestructible not-able-to-die team mates as bodyguards/shields won't work on this level.  

Although you can't upgrade your weapons, Bungie did add an interchangable armor bonus feature that you can use.  You can equip the following armor abilities when you spot a colored ordinance case:

1. Sprint - allows you to run very fast for brief periods.
2. Hologram - sends a fake image of you running forward and standing out in the open for 10 seconds.  Great for drawing enemy fire and finding out if there are hostiles around the corner.  
3. Jet Pack - fly the not-so-friendly skies. 
4. Bubble Shield - cover up beneath this shield to avoid damage and then send out a brief EMP pulse taking down the shields of any enemies close to you. 
5. Active Camo - you disappear in Predator-like fashion, though an enemy looking carefully can still see you.  

Through a rank advancement system,  you can also spend credits received to unlock armor items, though it's never really spelled out if these new armor pieces give any boost to Noble Six's performance.  It could be they just look cool.  

The Single Player campaign has 10 total levels, though the 10th one comes after the credits have rolled and it shows Noble Six's last stand as the sole suriviving member of Noble Team. 

Not counting the beginning level, which is a bunch of introductory cut scenes, and that final level, the remaining 9 are very varied in their game play.  Some levels are run n' gun, others call for scouting/sniping.  Environments vary from scenic farms to urban landscapes.  

Every time I see the Warthog with someone manning the gun come flying over the top of a hill, I hear the theme from 'Rat Patrol'!

And the trademark vehicle driving is here in spades; on several levels you'll drive jeeps or operate the gun in the back while another team member drives.  Your old friend the Scorpion Tank makes an appearance, and Bungie adds a new twist by introducing space combat, where Noble Six pilots a fighter defending an Alliance ship under attack off planet.  

For various parts of missions  you'll be teamed up with a particular team mate.  Jun will team up with you for the start of the Nightfall level, as  you scout a Covenant base, then he will be replaced by Jorge as you attempt to accomplish an important mission deep inside a Covenant Corvette battlecruiser.  Each one has their own way and style of doing things, and it often fun to watch them in action.  

As the campaign unfolds the Spartans come to realize this is a full scale planetary invasion, and they are going to lose.  Watching your team members fall one by one creates a series of poignant moments. 

None probably more touching than Carter, who's constant hard-ass banter with Kat disguises his great affection for her, refusing to leave her body behind after she suddenly falls from a sniper round through the head, and carries her tenderly in his arms for the rest of the level.

In the end the story of Reach isn't one of defeat after all, as the final cut scene reveals. 

Again we see the same Spartan helmet from the opening scene, still lying in a field, still having that huge hole in the visor.......only now field around it is green and lush and full of life.   Reach - and humanity - has survived because of the Spartan's sacrifice.  

While there will be more Halo games now that another developer is handling the franchise, they will have their work cut out for them if they're going to top Bungie's fond farewell.

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