Tuesday 12 October 2010

Reviewlet: Halo: Reach - Single Player

Halo: Reach is the game that turned me into a Halo fanboy. I wouldn’t say I’m a true frothing, forum-bashing, smack-talking, willy-waving, Ha-lolife, but I’ve definitely gained a great respect for the series having played through Bungie’s swan song contribution to the franchise. I was brought into the FPS fold by Unreal, a friend’s demonstration of the Nali Castle flyby on his Voodoo-powered PC convincing me that gaming had arrived full-bore on the platform. I thus skipped the entire Xbox generation: having made a large investment in a gaming PC I didn’t see the need for a console, especially when I had the likes of Unreal, Half-Life and its accompanying fragfests: Team Fortress Classic and Counter-Strike with which to occupy myself, followed later by the time-devastating march of the MMOs.

Thus, when I did finally take the plunge and buy an Xbox 360 I steered clear of FPS games; having been raised on the immediacy and accuracy of a mouse I always had trouble becoming comfortable with, and proficient at, aiming using a thumb stick. It was Gears of War 2 that eventually converted me, or trained me that aiming ‘well enough’ on a console would get you through most games at normal difficulty, and that I could still join other consoling types and pull my weight, or at least camouflage my inaccuracy enough not to be laughed out of the game. I still wasn’t sure about Halo though, and having played the odd demo I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about and didn’t buy Halo 3 when its blockbusting release arrived and busted a fair few blocks. I grabbed Halo:ODST on the prospect of more cooperative online play with friends due to its Firefight mode sounding very similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, but although I tried the single player game I couldn’t get into it, it was all too strange and seemed to rely too much on the player having prior knowledge of the game series to be able to get anywhere.

And so Halo: Reach arrived to much punditry aplomb, and with it came many comments on the lack of “circuitous, difficult to follow plots” that past Halo titles had ‘suffered’; in essence the game came without Master Chief and the baggage with which almost ten years of franchise development had lumbered him. It was time to revisit the Halo universe.

The musical score had an immediate impact upon me. The very instant the game starts its brief introductory synopsis you are presented with the sombre thumping military-like drum beat which evokes (for a non-Halo player like me) fond memories of Mass Effect, Aliens and the recent Battlestar Galatica TV series — quality sci-fi. The score is wonderful, atmospheric, brooding, ominous, and is pitched perfectly for the sci-fi story that the game is designed to present: the doom of the planet Reach.

I noted as I began the game that the introduction into the world is similar to that of ODST. As a silent no-name rookie you are introduced to a well established squad made up of strong characters whose personalities rub against one another to cause an awkward heated tension from the friction. Yet where ODST felt trite and generic, Reach’s characters were more believable and appealing and their personality traits, although obvious, were less in your face, perhaps an indication of progress in Bungie’s presentation of the generic hardcore combat unit, an understanding that players are by now, in the main, familiar with the tirelessly mediating and effectuating captain, the gentle giant of destruction, the brooding nut-job, the reserved assassin and the token female eye-candy.

The game breaks you in more gently than ODST too, it’s as though lessons were learned with ODST and that an understanding was reached that a break with Halo tradition also required a break with the assumption that the player was a hardcore Halo fanatic. Game mechanics are introduced slowly and sensibly, and although there is still a level of assumed familiarity — that, for example, you know how to operate the most bizarre game-based vehicle handling system known to man or Covenant — you are not thrown in at the deep end, but introduced to the enemy under controlled conditions that let you get to grips with the controls before more serious combat ensues. It’s a smooth, subtle tutorial that has you playing the game while learning it, rather than giving one of those stark immersion breaking tutorials of traditional FPS games, where the fully qualified combat recruit is forced to run through an exercise where they, as a first step, learn how to walk.

After that the game is of the standard FPS fare, but the story that is being told keeps the missions interesting and the player invested in the game. There are some nice highlights, such as the space combat mini-game which has a very Battlestar Galactica feel to it, and the cut-scene leading up to it had me whooping and bouncing in my seat, and was probably the point at which I started to get an idea of what Halo was all about. The weapons are generally satisfying; all the standard options are there from the assault rifle, to the sniper rifle, up to the grenade and missile launchers. If I were to be slightly critical it’s that the Covenant weapons feel far more powerful, but that is perhaps deliberate due to the fact that the Covenant are meant to be technologically superior. It’s a shame, however, that using the Covenant weapons is generally the preferred option — not only due to their power but due to the relative scarcity of ammunition for the UNSC weapons — because I preferred the more visceral and familiar feel of the assault rifle and its company. The reusable armour abilities are a nice touch, a semi-permanent power-up that offers an advantage for a short while before needing to slowly recharge itself for use once again. Only one of these abilities can be carried at a time, and although they are placed sensibly throughout the various levels, not all are offered at any one station, so a tactical decision is sometimes required. Or, like me, you just pick the faffing-great invulnerability shield generator whenever it becomes available, and stick with that.

The story of the combat squad itself is one that has been told numerous times and is a tale of inevitability; there are few surprises in the overall outcome, although the inevitable is delivered on occasion from out of the blue, and I think it does achieve its aim to shock you out of your familiarity zone, which again helps to keep things from feeling rather stale and regurgitated, which would otherwise be a danger even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise.

The ending, however, is what sold me on the game. It is the perfect every-tale of bravery and honour and sacrifice in the face of an overwhelming and superior force; you already know how the game is going to end because you are shown your future in the very opening scene, and yet you still want to believe that it will end differently — it doesn’t, but that just makes it all the better for it. Bungie has told the final chapter of their story developing Halo, which itself is the first chapter of the Halo story, and it sets the tone for what is to come after, both in terms of the existing games to which it serves as a prequel, and also those games which will be produced by the next developer to take up the Halo mantle. In the meantime there is plenty for Halo virgins such as myself to enjoy, because where a game such as Red Dead Redemption left me feeling glad that the ordeal was finally over, Halo:Reach left me wanting more, and so I plan to revisit the Halo games that I’ve missed in the past, while keeping an eye firmly on Bungie’s future developments.

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