Few franchises over the past 20 years have been as important to the overall gaming landscape as Halo. From the moment Halo: Combat Evolved launched in November, 2001, Halo has been synonymous with the Xbox brand; you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other, and for good reason. Were it not for the runaway success of that first entry, there likely wouldn’t even be an Xbox brand at this point, as Combat Evolved single-handedly propped up sales of Microsoft’s fledgling console. Halo 2 not only completely redefined how people play shooters online at the time (its matchmaking system was unlike anything to exist before it), it is still the foundation upon which modern online FPS games are built. I was a Halo junkie from the start, Halo 2 was my first true gaming obsession. Over the next two years I played more than 10,000 matches online and came to run one of the top competitive 8v8 clans in the game. In the mid 2000s, Halo wasn’t just a game for me; it was a way of life.
When developer Bungie decided, towards the end of development on Halo 3, that they wanted out from underneath Microsoft, it was big news. As part of the deal surrounding the dissolution of this partnership was that Bungie would agree to develop one more installment in the franchise, which eventually became Halo: Reach. While speculation at the time tended towards skeptical and even cynical assumptions about this final entry, as Bungie was clearly turning its attention towards other projects, the final product was not only on par with previous installments, but arguably the best FPS campaign ever created. This month, Microsoft and 343 Studios have finally brought this venerable installment into the Master Chief Collection family, remastering the game for both the Xbox One and the PC, allowing younger players to experience it for the first time while giving old school die hard fans such as myself a wonderful trip down memory lane.
WELCOME TO NOBLE TEAM
Unlike every other major installment in the Halo franchise, Reach does not revolve around the Master Chief. Serving as a prequel to the series, Reach takes place in the 24 hours immediately preceding Combat Evolved, as an elite team of Spartan-III supersoldiers fight in vain to repel the Covenant invasion of the colony Reach. Unlike the Spartan-II program which produced Master Chief, Spartan-IIIs are smaller, cheaper to produce, and typically much more dependent on highly coordinated teamwork. Players take up the role of Noble-6, the team’s newest recruit, notorious for his lone-wolf tendencies.
From a gameplay perspective, there’s not much of a functional difference between working with a team of other Spartans, and previous games where Chief fought alongside regular Marines and ODSTs, though your Spartan colleagues do feature more powerful abilities and slightly better AI, making them more useful in battle. What really makes this group dynamic work is the human face Bungie was able to put on the story, both figuratively and literally.
Whereas Master Chief was always content to be the strong, silent type who let Cortana do most of the talking, Noble Team is a tightly-knit group that brings with it the kind of gravitas and emotional attachment that you just never get from mostly-mute one man armies like Chief. The result is a story that feels more personal and intimate, with well written characters that do an excellent job of putting some real, human emotion behind this global conflict. Nailing the narrative in a prequel story like this is always hard, simply because players already know what happens, more or less; none of these Spartans ever left Reach, but even knowing that, their inevitable deaths and the sacrifices they make along the way, as they fight to secure the one resource that could turn the tide of the war, still hit hard.
OLD SCHOOL MULTIPLAYER FOR THE NEW AGE
While Halo ruled the console multiplayer roost from its debut up to 2007’s Halo 3, it was eventually dethroned by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the paradigm shift that game brought with it. Seemingly overnight the multiplayer landscape changed and gone were the days of strategic, varied, somewhat deliberately-paced multiplayer FPS, replaced by the breakneck speed of twitch based shooters that had more in common with the early days of PC gaming, where deaths were cheap and your kill-death ratio was all that mattered.
Practically speaking, Halo Reach’s multiplayer was somewhat dated even on its initial release in 2010 and, like previous remasters in the Master Chief Collection, 343 Studios makes no attempt to bring Halo into the modern spectrum of online multiplayer, instead giving us a pristine throwback to the latter half of last decade. While Reach did successfully modernize the stagnating Halo formula with different armor abilities and loadouts, and some interesting new game types, it’s still very much your father’s shooter. This will undoubtedly irritate some new gamers who aren’t used to the slower pace, the emphasis on map knowledge, strategy and timing, but for older folks like myself it is a godsend. I’ve frankly grown rather tired of competitive multiplayer that hinges on seeing the other guy first and/or having a higher tier weapon, and as a result Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege’s class-based, teamwork-oriented gameplay has been the only draw for me in that space for several years. Reach’s multiplayer brings back both the best and worst of the old school thinking re: competitive multiplayer and in 2019 it feels surprisingly refreshing and even sort of novel.
I had to spend a good deal of time unlearning what I’ve learned over the last 15 or so Call of Duty and Battlefield games, but once I got back into the groove of thinking ahead, plotting points of ingress and anticipating enemy movement, I started remembering why Halo was able to suck me into its universe so completely. I’ve spent the past week playing late into the night, ranking up my custom Spartan in a variety of game modes ranging from standard Team Slayer to the utterly bonkers Grifball, which plays out like a sort of demented match of cyborg rugby, in which two teams of four battle to score a ball on the opposing team’s goal.
BRING A SWORD TO A FIREFIGHT
Halo’s signature Firefight mode, first introduced in Halo 3: ODST, also makes a return appearance in Reach. Essentially a competent ripoff of the Horde mode first introduced by Epic Games’ Gears of War series, Firefight is a co-operative multiplayer mode in which four players fight off increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Each completed wave also adds a modifier into the mix, which increases difficulty in non-standard ways such as removing radar, increasing enemy melee damage, or reducing ammo supply.
Most maps are taken straight from the various campaign levels, which themselves served as de facto firefight stages within the campaign itself. However, in the dedicated mode the difficulty, and stakes, are much higher. It takes a lot of teamwork and more than a little luck to make it through an entire round of Firefight, especially on the more difficult maps, but it’s a great way to kill a few hours with friends. There’s not much in here that you haven’t seen before, either in Horde mode or Call of Duty’s own Zombies mode, but if you’ve played and enjoyed those you’re bound to have a good time with Firefight.
When 343 Studios first launched the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One in 2014 it was, to put it mildly, a disaster. While the campaigns more or less worked, matchmaking for both co-operative and multiplayer games was largely broken, full of bugs, and generally unplayable. It was a mess that took 343 and Microsoft literally years to clean up and finally fix, requiring them to cancel high-profile tournaments along the way because of broken functionality. So it was with a bit of healthy skepticism that I approached Reach on PC, hopeful for a solid port but wary of history repeating itself.
Thankfully, 343 seems to have learned the right lessons from their initial launch five years ago, because Reach is a solid technical effort on all fronts. I’ve had zero issues with matchmaking in any mode, was able to play through the entire campaign co-operatively with no issue, and despite some initial setup problems that were likely caused by a goofy first install, the game has played perfectly smooth and glitch free for the past two weeks. While this remaster doesn’t come with the same graphical touchups that other entries in the Master Chief Collection benefited from, it still looks sharp and plays great at 1080p and 60fps, and that’s really all I cared about coming into this review.
All in all, Halo: Reach is a fantastic update to a classic game. It might seem like lunacy to say it, but in 2019 the best multiplayer bang for your buck is probably a port of a 9 year old Xbox 360 game. With a compelling campaign and enough multiplayer variety to keep you occupied for months on end, Reach’s $10 price tag makes it a no-brainer for FPS enthusiasts, particularly those who remember (and long for) the days when Halo ruled the universe.