Here's a better tag line: "Forget ODST." Last year's Halo game, Halo 3: ODST, was conceived as an expansion but clumsily formed into a full-priced retail release. It was not a bad game, but it was a lesser Halo game -- by design. Worst case scenario: You started to think Halo, and Bungie's interest in the franchise, was on the decline.
So, forget ODST. Reach is Bungie's final Halo game. Let's not sour this seriously sweet farewell.
So, hello! And welcome to Halo: Reach.
You are Noble Six. You are not -- anti-spoiler alert! -- Master Chief in disguise. Release those fears of a terrible plot twist right now. Aren't you ready to be your own Spartan? The customization options are limited to start (gender, paint job and some starting credits for a small accessory), but when Noble Six, your Noble Six, enters the opening cinematic, you're invited to drop the observer role and become a character in the Halo universe. And once you're finished with the Campaign, you keep on being your Noble Six across all game modes. It's a simple, but effective touch.
The Campaign is easily the series' best. The classic "against all odds" survival mission works to keep the pace mostly racing and brings you closer to the other Noble Team members, a cast of conventional heroes that fight alongside you: the Captain America leader, his badass right-hand woman, the "thoughtful" sniper (Asian, of course), the skull-faced cool guy (voiced by Jamie Hector; Marlo in HBO's The Wire) and the heavy weapons jock. Reach, being Bungie's last Halo game, is a setup for heavy-handed melodrama, but the plot is never that distracting. It's not much more sophisticated than a decent Saturday morning cartoon, but it fills out the framework of an excellent game and satisfies the broader franchise story arc. If you've been following closely, you're definitely in for some "Aha!" and "Haha" moments.
I actually zoned out for several of the cutscenes, simply because I needed a rest. The gameplay is that engaging. Bungie has built downright nasty AI that will, on the Heroic and Legendary difficulty settings, challenge and surprise in constant dances to the death. When a half-dozen jet-pack Elites descended onto my position, I ran! This was not "skipping" past the game -- it's no glitch -- it was surviving. The fact that this "fight-or-flight response" is a working game mechanic is an exceptional design achievement. And how about Bungie sticking with the throwback health pack? If you thought this was a mechanic that never should have been pulled out of the has-bin, Reach seriously challenges that notion. The necessity of health packs and their sparing placement keeps you exploring and moving through the game areas -- and not camping behind decent cover.
Where the campaign does fall short is in its effort to portray ambient life on Planet Reach. The sporadic signs of wildlife are hardly indicative of a "living" gameworld and consistently come off as randomly placed objects -- like the forklifts you happen across or a duffle bag left in the streets of New Alexandria. Encounters with small bands of civilians (some of them militarized) are equally detached from any sense that Reach is (was?) populated by millions of people. In one part, you've been waiting forever for a cursed elevator, pushed together, backs against the wall, with a handful of Marines and civilians. Cue a pack of Brutes rushing the lobby. It's a little chaotic, sure, but multiply those civilians by fourfold, turn up the screaming and Bungie might have convinced me there's something worth saving more than my own damn hide.
The Campaign is easily the series' best.
It's a shame too, because Reach's improved technology and detail introduce a new high for Halo's typically okay looks. It's still no "10" in the graphics department, but if that's where you're looking to rate Reach, you're looking in the wrong place. There's a point where you're high atop a needle-shaped Covenant tower. You're on an outer, ringed platform near the tip of this structure. You could look out, evaluate the draw distance, note the quality of light bloom, but you're being charged by an Elite with his Energy Sword aimed at your gut. This is your dance with death. Me? I activated my jet pack and shot right up over him. Him? He went toppling over the edge in an entirely unscripted event. This was a top-ten highlight from my Campaign.
Call it a ballpark estimate, but I'm gonna say that of the total amount of time the average Reach player spends with the game, less than a quarter of it's going to be with the superb campaign. And for many of you, that percentage is going to shrink to a figure around, what, 5 percent? 1 percent?
"Halo," as in the basic multiplayer game, is a well established pastime, and Bungie hasn't messed with it much. Simple Red Team vs. Blue has been refreshed with new maps, weapons, vehicles and the Armor Abilities, in addition to the tiered objective-based Invasion mode. What will stand out, even during your playthrough of the Campaign, is the bank of credits you steadily accumulate as you play more Halo. Like the build-a-Spartan creation element, the credit system isn't novel, but it is instinctively addictive. So what if you can only spend it on your looks? It just feels good to earn credits.
If your Noble Six is the needle, the credit system is the thread stringing together the disparate modes of play. You earn credits for anything, seriously. I popped into the Forge World (an intimidating, ginormous empty map in which you create your own variations of the game) and lay down a Falcon with ease -- the editing controls are straightforward, despite the toolbox being a bit overwhelming. I switched to "play" mode and hopped into the helicopter, flew around the still empty map for a minute, and then quit out. To my surprise, I earned a little pocket change. Awesome!
The credit system is what's going to encourage you to explore and even contribute to this exceptionally deep game. From standard multiplayer playlists (my vote's for SWAT -- love that Designated Marksman Rifle!) to absurd custom game-types; to the sandbox imaginarium of Forge; to Firefight, there's so much to play with, and it's all rewarding, literally, on a very base level. And oh that Firefight! I urged you to forget ODST, but I never meant to imply that you let go of Firefight.
Bungie has left us with a shit-ton to enjoy; not to mention the developer's planned, ongoing daily and weekly challenges to earn extra credit. There's more than enough content on the disc and tools to tweak that content in subtle and unexpected ways for the community to thrive without its maker. Rest assured, with this fourth [wink] Halo game now ours, we should let Bungie leave the franchise in peace.
There's an art to iteration. ODST could have been a clever little shimmy, but it came out a misstep. Reach brings us right back into the dance that hooked us nine years ago, introduces some cool new steps, and leaves us twirling in enchantment as Bungie graciously bows out. Just keep twirling, Spartan.
This review is based on the retail version of Halo: Reach played over the course of two day-long sessions at a Microsoft-hosted review event. Accommodations were not provided.