Halo: Reach Hands-On

By Lee on August 27, 2010, 11:42AM EDT

Bungie's farewell to Halo is shaping up to be a glorious swansong. Promising to reclaim the magic of Halo: Combat Evolved, while echoing the grounded narrative of ODST and building on the stellar online modes the franchise has become known for, you get the feeling that this could be the very pinnacle of the Halo series.

The developers certainly think so. They've stuffed every spare byte of the disc with content. A full campaign, a plethora of adversarial and co-op modes, a substantially enhanced Firefight mode, as well as the frighteningly flexible Forge 2.0 see to that. It's bursting at the seams.

Indeed Bungie have already gone on record to say that the last big challenge they faced was cramming it all onto the disc.

But all that counts for nothing if the content isn't up to scratch. A disc spilling over with rubbish is no use to anybody. Thankfully, from our early look, that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

The opening cinematic is familiar, a beefed-up version of the in-engine footage released a couple of months ago. It acts as an introduction to Noble Team, the squad of Spartans you'll fight with. "You picked a hell of a day join," says one. He's not wrong.

Scrambling to a personnel carrier, Noble Team set out to investigate a distress beacon. It's a mission that will lead to contact with the Covenent and the destruction of the planet Reach, the last stopping point before our own universe.

Rather than just vast shooting galleries, Halo: Reach offers a populated world, with houses, people and indigenous creatures. The Spartans interact with the inhabitants, entering their homes, watching as nimble Ostrich-like beasts flock past.

The idea is that you'll want to defend these people, protect this world. But it also has the effect of making you feel more powerful. When battlefields are full of super-powered foes, your own abilities seem reduced. When it is populated by vulnerable innocents, you get a sense of your heightened strength.

The feel of the game is unmistakably Halo. It's arguably the thing Bungie have had to put the least amount of effort into. It's been perfected for years, after all. The only obvious change comes in the audio. In combat your weapons boom and crack, adding a meaty, visceral punch to gunshots.

The other tweak to the Halo formula comes in the colour palette. Where Halo 3 was a bright, my-first-FPS concoction of greens and purples, Reach is far more muted. Slightly darker and washed out, it's an environment that lives. The impression is of a more mature approach.

Elsewhere in Halo: Reach the feature list has swollen considerably. Most notable is the Firefight mode. While ODST offered a compelling, yet limited, version of the wave-after-wave of enemies co-op mode, Reach blasts for the stars.

It is impossible to overstate the sheer amount of customisation options on offer. Squad composition, wave rules, strength settings, weapon load-outs, custom skulls, respawn times, enemy AI, everything you could possible wish to fiddle with is there in the menus. Everything.

If sploshing around in a sea of options isn't your thing, Bungie provides a few standard modes of their own. As well as Firefight Classic from ODST, there's also a Versus option allowing you and your friends to take turns as Spartans and Elites, swapping at the end of each round.

Other tailor-made modes include Rocketfight and Gruntocalypse. Rocketfight, unsurprisingly, equips you and your team only with Rocket Launchers. It's mindlessly entertaining running around like a lunatic, Chieftains and Jackals flying this way and that.

And then we come to Forge 2.0, Halo: Reach's insanely competent map designer. As you'll have already seen from the promo vids, a dizzying amount of objects can be placed, merged and manipulated within an area Bungie say is considerably larger than Sandbox, Halo 3's customisable battlefield.

But it's that single-player campaign that will ultimately decide the success of Halo Reach. Aside from an explosion of options, we pretty much know what to expect from the online elements. If Bungie can really nail the human, tragic narrative of the destruction of Reach then we could have something very special on our hands.

We haven't got long to wait. Bungie's emotional farewell is just a few short weeks away.

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