I prepared for Halo: Reach – the final instalment in the sprawling Halo video game series to be made by Bungie, its founding studio – in what might seem a peculiar way: By rereading a decade-old book.
Erik Nylund's million-selling Halo: The Fall of Reach, published just prior to Halo's debut on Xbox in 2001, details events leading up to the opening scene of the first game, in which a UNSC cruiser emerges from a faster-than-light jump in front of an enormous habitable space ring, genocidal extraterrestrials in hot pursuit. Halo: Reach brings Bungie's involvement with Halo full circle by delving into events from the final act of Nylund's prologue tale.
Reach is a key colony world equipped with mankind's strongest weapons. It's also the birthplace of a military initiative that saw the ethically questionable development of a handful of biologically modified soldiers, the Spartans. Master Chief, hero of previous Halos, is the most famous graduate of this program, but he's nowhere to be seen in Halo: Reach. Instead, the narrative follows the exploits of Noble Team, a sextet of new Spartans. Players step into the boots of Noble Six, a replacement who joins the squad mere moments before the fight to save Reach begins.
While Reach's narrative shares many of the strengths (dynamic combat dialogue, constant sense of urgency) and weaknesses (simplistic plot, feeble character development) of its numbered forebears, it has a dark vibe that's all its own. Remember, this is the fall of Reach, not its rescue. Noble team fights a losing battle, and the steady stream of epic and personal tragedies we experience lend purpose to their actions.
What's more, the Covenant aliens in Reach are more exotic and ferocious than ever before. Halo has never been a breeze, but Reach is hell. Confronting one veteran Covenant Elite is tough; taking on four of them armed with energy swords and plasma cannons can be near impossible – and a fine reason to take advantage of four-player co-op play.
But for all Reach's differences, it is still unmistakably Halo. Like its predecessors, this is a twitchy game that rewards players who stay on the move and make split-second, heat-of-battle decisions. Strategy plays an important role, but nimble thumbs are what will save the day in the campaign.
As much fun as it is to work through the story with a squad of dependable computer-controlled Spartans, there are few things more satisfying in the world of games than running and gunning with a team of skilled Halo players who take Warthog jeep flips in stride and casually finish off each others' targets when their teammates' magazines run dry. As in previous Halo games, online multiplayer is Reach's biggest draw.
New play modes – like "Headhunter," in which players collect skulls for points, and multi-phase "Invasion" matches – help breathe life into Halo's aging online formula.
What's more, online matches are where you can make greatest use of Reach's ballyhooed new armour abilities. Whereas computer-controlled Covenant typically shot me down whenever I used a jetpack to take to the air and completely disregarded my holographic decoys, I found that human opponents were much less likely to counter these abilities as effectively.
Of course, some online additions are less interesting than others. Accumulating credits with each kill sounds like fun until you realize that the only thing on which they can be spent are aesthetic armour upgrades that you can't even see while playing (remember, this is a first-person shooter).
But, on the whole, Reach's multiplayer is tremendously satisfying.
It will be interesting to see how Halo fares under new stewardship; I'm even more curious about Bungie. After a decade of living and breathing Halo, the studio finally has free license to do whatever it wants. I suspect these talented game makers might have one or two more cultural icons up their sleeves, and I can't wait to see what they might be.