Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: "Halo: Reach"

Reach for the Stars
review for Halo: Reach, 1-16 player sci-fi first-person shooter, available now

Contrary to what I may have said in the past, I don't "hate" Halo. I hate that it's a cog in the Microsoft money-making, customer-screwing, Xbox World Domination machine; I think its popularity to quality ratio is unfortunately high, considering what little it brings to the table with each installment. But, regardless of its rather crippling issues of repetitiveness and lacklustre storytelling, the Halo franchise is, at best, actually pretty damn good.

It isn't fantastic by any stretch of the word, but it is, especially with friends, fun. Halo, as a social multiplayer experience, is as fun as it was when Halo 2 came out, and Reach raises the benchmark higher with a staggering array of multiplayer, co-op and Forge modes available. The multiplayer is, however, as unbalanced as it has always been, usually devolving to "whoever has the biggest gun or vehicle, wins". Which is, to be honest... sort of refreshing, in a Quake Arena sort of way. Co-op, however, takes a bit of a hit narratively. The whole game is actually pretty retarded in that department, but doubly so on co-op - unlike in Halo 3, where Player 2 was thrust into the role of The Arbiter, in Reach your partner plays as an unexplained replica of your character, Noble 6. Is this second Noble 6 a clone? Brother? Pretender to the throne? Whatever it is, it really doesn't help the immersion any. ...and that's the good stuff out of the way.

The most appalingly bad part of the game is its "epic story," so I'll bash on that for a bit. I think Halo: Reach is the most a game has ever wasted so much potential, especially considering that it's a prequel. There's so much meat here for the game to chew on. Morally ambiguous genetically enhanced super-soldiers! A new threat to humanity, never-before-seen! Self-sacrifice for the greater good! There's a lot themes and issues to tackle, and the game handles it by... not tackling them. Halo has had this sort of plot lying and waiting for years and years, and yet it's almost like Bungie is scared of acknowledging these things, instead abiding by well-worn (read: overused) science fiction tropes and cliches. People will call me out on this, saying shit like "oh but who cares it's just an FPS," but Halo is an old series now. It's been around for as long as I can remember. And yet, it is yet to find a genuinely mature plot thread to deal with, despite having all the pieces required to do it. I mean, they could pull it off, all the Shakesperean hyper-dialog Bungie manages to cram in to some of the mouths of their dying protagonists proves that they are sorta intelligent enough to write a MUCH deeper story - yet, even in a game where a whole planet is lost, Halo can't seem to do much more than Humans vs Aliens. It really should be more than that. And I, as a gamer, should be able to expect more.

Not to say Bungie didn't kind of try. To give you a bigger emotional attachment to your ultimately doomed squad of Spartan super-soldiers, Bungie has attempted to characterise each of them. They all have a name, a face, and a particularly ambiguous back-story. But, like the actual meat of the plot, even this isn't explored enough; they go as far as giving them a face and a back-story, but they don't really give them much personality. They're the very definition of "paper cut-out" characters - they have no arcs, no real personal conflicts or turmoils, they're just images. There's very little soul. BUT - and this is a big "but" - you really have to give Bungie props for trying. They missed the mark, but they were oh-so-close, too; perhaps in a universe less restrictive than that of Halo, the characters of Reach could be quite memorable - alas, this is Halo, so they are watered down husks of human beings. And yes, they are supposed to be emotionless super-soldiers but I'm not going to buy that. You can still give them more traits and, y'know... make them likable. Even Master Chief had more intrigue than these guys, and he doesn't have a face at all. Likewise, Bungie really needs to make up its mind - are we a silent protagonist for us to project onto, or a similarly undercharacterized Master Chief wannabe? Do these cutscenes play out from our viewpoint, or are they cinematic blast-'em-ups with epic alien encounters? You can't have it both ways, it doesn't work otherwise.

Now, I was all set to hate Halo: Reach. I was ready to get good and angry. The first few levels, I sort of went into a trance, the repetetive gunfights broken up by long-winded walks to the next one. It's nothing we haven't seen before, with most of the major inclusions just stuff that was emitted from Halo 3, like Elites as a major enemy again. Bungie has, however, completely missed another mark - showing that they are nothing if not consistent - by including special armour powers. One of these powers is the ability to sprint, so if you really think having Armour Lock is worth sacrificing a max top speed of that faster than a tortoise on a segway, you can so totally do that now. Even though it's not worth it.

Constructive criticism, Bungie. Why not take a cue from Bioshock 2 and let us toy around with two of these power-ups at a time? Then we could mess around with the tactical combinations, come up with some nice tactics of our own, and maybe sacrificing our sprint would become less of a stupid decision. Now there won't be another Bungie-made Halo, so it's too late to do that, but in whatever sci-fi universe you make next, if it has Spartans in it, let them do that. That'd be way much more fun. Constructive!

So Halo: Reach sounds pretty crap by now. A retarded story and painful additions to Halo's well-worn formula? It's not worth your time, is it. But y'know... it's strange.

I was in my "god this is lame" mood, kind of just going shoot, shoot, cover, reload, repeat, the game showing no distinct variety, or much in the way of innovation. I was even getting bored and was about ready to do something else, when along came two giant creatures, apparently native to Reach. Now the fight with these monsters themselves wasn't so great, in fact it was piss-poor, but the resulting realisation was something quite nice. As a walked up to the body of the beast I had just slain, I realised that I didn't clip through the thing. When I brushed up against its hand, its arm moved up. When I stood on its belly, I didn't fall through. And that was when I realised what Halo: Reach really is.

Really well-polished.

At first the graphics seem quite bland. They're washed-out, and while the character models are really well-detailed and HD and all those things every FPS is nowadays, it felt like Halo 3 with all the bloom removed. Which isn't a bad thing, the bloom in Halo 3 was atrocious, but it did make the game less of a looker than it could have been.

But it doesn't need to look great, because it seems to sacrifice out-there graphical styles for... a sense of grandeur and detail. Everything is accounted for. There are no empty areas, there are no useless areas of the map where they forgot to add a wall or whatever - the game has a rich, rich world. It's also as painfully undercharacterised as Noble Team, but what the hell, count our blessings, right? Reach is a really well-presented planet.

Likewise, while the gameplay isn't exactly the next great thing on the block - it is repetitious, broken up sporadically by tiny sections of moderate interest - yet it is filled with little details which bring it just enough out of "shithole" territory that it can actually be considered halfway decent. Things like the way the Covenant now conveniantly don't speak English, or how a Grunt stuck in an automatic door will cause the door to open and close with the little bastard jammed in the center; the way it pulls off the deafness of being in outer space without making the game completely disorienting, or the way the HUD warns you when you're about to go dry - Reach really is beyond functional, and applying liberal amounts of polish is a step that some games tend to disregard. It's crafted, that's for sure, and while they haven't crafted a masterpiece to be held aloft as "art" or whatever, they have made a decent, sort-of varied science-fiction first-person shooter. The few marks Bungie missed, they missed really hard, which is dissapointing, because something tells me that if they had stuck with it, Reach could have been more than just really good - it could have been... umm... almost excellent.

The lameness of the plot and characters are offset by the sheer amount of genuine quality presented here. Whether or not you'll enjoy the game comes from your ability to overlook the gaping flaws and just... enjoy it. I couldn't do it, but Halo fans will love every fleeting second of the "fable" of Reach. Myself, I'm going to giggle at the undercharacterised robots going on about things I'm simply told I should care about, and consider Reach, in narrative and in gameplay, a flop. It's a fairly interesting flop, sure, and it's well-presented, competent and certainly enjoyable in some parts (the scenic vistas, especially in space, are freakin' beautiful to look at), but it isn't as playable or interesting or as varied as the original trilogy, and has a bucketload of problems that range from questionable to unforgivable. It certainly had the potential to be the Schindler's List of the Halo generation - instead, it's just another in the long line of Aleins R Bad, Shoot Dem 2 Winz - with added failed attempts at poignancy. Tiring and pretentious. You're better off just buying the soundtrack.

Andrew Deavin's pet genre is the science-fiction first-person shooter, which is why games like Reach, that have so many interesting and cool science-fiction ideas unfortunately watered down for the ingrates that are the main Halo fanbase, tend to disappoint him. Just sayin'.

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