After last year's disappointing Halo 3: ODST and my personal "meh" reaction to the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta back in June, I figured I was pretty much Halo-ed out. After many hours of furious fragging with the final version of Reach, however, I learned that my love of Halo was alive and well.Tuesday, of course, is the big day for Halo fans, with Microsoft throwing a series of lavish Halo: Reach launch events in a few hours, at midnight. For those of you who aren't hip to all things Halo, imagine the premiere of a new "Star Wars" epic --complete with long lines, fans dressed up as their favorite characters, the whole bit.
The original Halo: Combat Evolved launched back in 2001, with blockbuster sequels in 2004 (Halo 2) and 2007 (Halo 3), followed by a Halo 3 expansion pack that (unfortunately) morphed into a full-price, standalone title (a rather familiar and truncated one, if you ask me) last year. There was also a Halo real-time strategy game, called Halo Wars, that came out earlier in 2009 -- a bit of a departure from Halo's first-person-shooter roots, but still a game that I quite enjoyed.
Like the most recent "Star Wars" movies, Halo Reach ($60, Xbox 360) is a prequel to the original Halo, and the game puts you in the shoes of a typical Spartan foot-soldier rather than the indomitable Master Chief, the hero of the first three Halo games. Your "supersoldier" isn't nearly as powerful as Master Chief -- you'll need health packs to survive, for starters, and you won't be taking the same leaps and bounds as the mighty Master Chief did. Luckily, your fellow squad mates will have your back as you engage the enemy on the planet Reach, the final battleground between humanity and the dreaded Covenant. (Pass the popcorn, please.)
Dedicated fans can steep themselves in the lore of Halo to the nth degree, of course, but for the casual Halo player, the story is merely a setup for a series of pitched battles: some just your typical corridor-bound shoot'em-ups, others sweeping firefights with dozens of enemies on the screen at once, complete with ground troops, swooping Banshee fighters, and starships the size of small cities. And when you're done with the solo campaign, there's online multiplayer -- lots of online multiplayer.
[Note: Before I launch into my hands-on impressions, I should point out that I haven't finished the solo campaign yet -- that's why I'm calling this a "hands-on" piece rather than a full review. Also, I should disclose that Microsoft gave me a copy of the game for review purposes.]
So, what do we have here? Well, Halo developer Bungie hasn't reinvented the genre it created nearly 10 years ago -- but that's not really what we expected, was it? The familiar first-person perspective is present and accounted for, as are many of the old Halo weapons (like the Assault Rifle and the Needler), enemies (the Grunts, Brutes and Elites), and vehicles (warthogs, battle tanks, ghosts, etc.).
There's also a lot that's new here -- and right off the bat, I noticed that the graphics in Reach look quite a bit sharper and more detailed than they did in Halo 3. Bungie rebuilt the various Halo assets from scratch, upping the polygon count in the process. The game as a whole also has a darker, grittier feel, although there are still plenty of brightly lit, colorful, wide-open spaces and comically terrified Grunts to help lighten the mood.
There are also a series of new power-ups strewn about the campaign, which you can equip one at a time for abilities like increased speed (yes, you can finally run in Halo), a jet pack for soaring over your enemies (just wait till you try it), holograms to confuse and distract your foes, an invisibility cloak, and a temporary shield that gives off a vehicle-disabling electromagnetic pulse before it snaps off.
As usual, the Halo: Reach solo campaign is just a prelude to the incredibly rich multiplayer experience, complete with the Firefight mode from Halo 3: ODST (think waves of AI-controlled enemies that you must ward off with help from other online players) that now adds matchmaking, good for finding fellow players on Xbox Live if you don't happen to have a posse of pals standing by. You can also earn credits as you fight, good for purchasing a variety of customizable goodies (but no additional weapons or abilities, unfortunately), and there's also a vastly expanded Forge tool for customizing your own maps.
Speaking of maps, the arenas in Halo: Reach don't stray far from the usual Halo formula -- fans of the old Blood Gulch, Ivory Tower and Midship maps will recognize their Reach equivalents, for example, and there are plenty of multilevel maps stuffed full of beige corridors and control rooms. If you've played as much Halo multiplayer as I have, the overly familiar maps can get tiresome after awhile (hence my lack of enthusiasm during the multiplayer beta this past summer), but once I'd lobbed a few grenades and assassinated some unsuspecting victims (you'll now get a cool "assassination" animation when you slug an enemy from behind) in Reach, I got back into the pulse-pounding groove.
So no, we're not talking Halo: Combat Reinvented here, but rather Halo: Combat Refined -- and that's a good thing, if you love Halo. (If you don't, Halo: Reach won't change your mind.)
Reach also represents a serious return to form for Bungie after last year's middling Halo 3: ODST, which felt more like a $40 expansion pack than the $60 standalone title that it was. Bravo -- and by the way, Reach marks Bungie's exit from the Halo series, although we may yet see more Halo games from Microsoft in the months and years ahead.
Anyway, you'll have to excuse me; I've got more Covenant to slaughter.
So, are you planning on picking up a copy of Halo: Reach in a few hours?
-- Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.