Reach for the stars

Reach, like Band of Brothers for the overstimulated generation.

Conceptually, Halo has grown immeasurably in the last decade. Ostensibly about shooting cartoon aliens in the face with cartoon guns on a cartoon planet, Halo has evolved into some sort of crazy sci-fi tour-de-force with the fate of humankind in the hands of one man. One seven foot tall man with hands of guns of fire, obviously – the Master Chief, an ugly robot man with little or no appeal.

But Halo Reach isn’t about the Chief; it’s about his best mates, Noble Squad. This brave collection of seven-foot tall GM troopers is the last bastion of hope against the Covenant, who happen to be hanging around Reach looking shifty and spoiling for a huge fight. Luckily, Noble Squad likes nothing better than beating up blue aliens.

Reach is a prequel to the whole Halo thing and sets the scene for the main trilogy by depicting the last, desperate stand of a few good men on the doomed planet. By the end of the game, when all is lost, you’re helping the Master Chief escape Reach to … dum, dum duummmmmm… discover Halo itself. It’s a tale drowning in pathos and respect for the Chief, its setting and all the other associated characters. Clearly, Bungie wants you to burst into tears at the end of Reach.

This is so sad. Poor robot.

And that’s all fine, except that Halo is still about shooting cartoon aliens in the face with cartoon guns on a cartoon plant. This whole plot thing just doesn’t feel right, and while the aliens are smart cannon fodder, they are also inescapably bright blue. At times it feels like fighting it out in a Mario level against King Koopa and his cronies. It’s stupid at best and utterly unfathomable at worst. I had no idea what was going on for the most part, and it’s not helped by pretty but poorly directed and acted cut scenes.

Putting all that nonsense aside though and you’re faced with an enjoyably stupid rollercoaster ride. Unlike Infinity Ward, Bungie understands how a good shooter should work and mixes clever pacing and scripting with unpredictable battlegrounds where the outcome is rarely as straightforward as you’d think. This is a good thing and it allows you plan ahead more clearly. If one approach doesn’t work, try something else. CODMODWAR doesn’t get this.

Bungie has also got smarter with the art direction in Halo: Reach so you’re not always fighting it out across the Mushroom Kingdom. The cities are stunning, as are the military bases and some outdoor areas are larger and more dramatic than in previous Halo titles. It all looks higher resolution too, making the whole cartoon thing more palatable for an audience with CODMODWAR on the brain. There’s even a pretty decent attempt at a space battle that, although short, sounds and looks brilliant. I’d like some more of that please Bungie.

The multiplayer is OK too, especially firefight (survive as long as you can against increasingly tough waves of enemies) but none of it is particularly original. There are also loads of fat teenagers playing it, so I’d probably stick to the single player if I were you.

Thankfully given that this is Bungie’s Halo swansong, this is by far the best Halo game. For those of us that abandoned the series way back in 2004, it’s probably time to come back to it. As long as you ignore the terrible cut scenes and just get down to some cartoon blasting, it’s a purchase well worth making and easily one of the best console shooters out there at the moment.

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