It’s one of the fondest — and possibly one of the most forceful - farewells in the history of video games. Reach, released earlier this month, is the fifth game in the Halo first-person shooter (FPS) series and the last one made by developer Bungie for Microsoft’s Xbox. The first Halo game, released in November 2001 for the original Xbox console, was one of the most successful video games of the time. And the latest one has set records on its release. Between the releases, Halo has become the face of Xbox.
It’s also true that Halo has slipped up and down in the intervening years, with the title of most successful first-person shooter going to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequels. But the first game in the series, Halo: Combat redefined the console’s first person genre. It freed the genre from the narrow corridors typical at the time, provided you with an open world to script your own battles, and pitted you against enemies who were a lot smarter than was usual for the time.
Getting vehicles into the game also led to far more open-ended maps. Halo did away with a fixed ‘Life’ statistic and gave ‘Shields’ in your armour - they lose power when you are hit, but if you avoid enemy fire for a few seconds you quickly regenerate strength. It allowed for a more frantic gameplay especially when your shield went out in the middle of an enemy rush.
Halo might well be compared to the television phenomenon that’s Seinfeld. Seinfeld, which began with the intention of shaking up status quo, has helped define the modern sitcom so thoroughly that it now seems quaintly dated. Today almost every other game uses the Halo formula one way or another. Regenerating health, having two weapons at a time, getting weapons from dead enemies, integrating vehicles into gameplay are all standard tropes of FPS games now. They had all been done before, but Halo put them all in one game, and along with GoldenEye, is one of the reasons first-person shooters exist on consoles even today.
Enter the fifth
Reach carries all this forward in a confident tone, doing away with some earlier additions such as dual wielding of guns, and instead of items scattered around the battlefield, gives you standard equipment you can get from specific locations. Those of you who have played some of the earlier editions might initially miss running around with a machine gun in each hand. But five minutes with the all-new ‘jetpack’ will quickly help you get over things.
The sequels were set around Master Chief, the last remaining Spartan — a supersoldier created by a centralised Earth government, and one who can tip the scales in the war that started when a collection of aliens known as the Covenant attacked humans for control of a ring-shaped planetoid, the Halo. The next two games followed this story and finished the fight. Having resolved that storyline, Reach takes us to a prequel.
Structured as a war film, you play Noble 6, the newest Spartan to join the Noble team on the planet Reach. The story is plotted by a published novel, Fall of Reach, which talks about how the planet is overrun by Covenant troops. The game does not try to hide the disaster for humans, with your character dead in the very first frame. The game then flashes back to your attempts to fight off the alien invaders, moving through the missions to a surprisingly moving finale.
Reach is a powerful encore. Not only does it manage to deliver its story with a great deal more panache than any other iteration in the series, but it also retains all the traits that have helped define the series since inception.
At the same time, Bungie has not been afraid to pick up a few tricks from other games. There were more than a few points in the playthrough where it felt like the game was channelling Gears of War, and Modern Warfare, possibly the only rivals in terms of popularity. The gameplay is more strategic than before and encourages using cover, flanking your enemies, assassinating people by getting close behind them, and trying to use the terrain to your fullest advantage.
Also taken from Modern Warfare is the multiplayer innovation of levels and ‘loadouts’ — you can choose a type of soldier to start with particular equipment and can further customise your character through the levels. Combined with an enormous number of game types, the multiplayer component of the game is almost overwhelming.
Visually, it’s a small step-up from the last release but the confidence cannot be denied. It might look dated in parts but the game never hesitates, never wastes time in excessive exposition, and keeps moving quickly.
The formula may have worn thin in more than a few spots. But unless you are someone who never felt the appeal of Halo, never liked its aesthetic or the openness of its levels, you will probably like the game. It’s worth the final plunge by Bungie.
The author is founder of split-screen.com