Imagine how the developers at Bungie felt when faced with the prospect of bringing their decade-long blockbuster series to a conclusion. How can you possibly end a series like Halo?

Apparently, Bungie decided that the best way for its time with Halo to end was to go back to where it began. Immediately prior to Halo: Combat Evolved – as we learned in the manual – the planet of Reach had been the site of one of the largest battles thus far in the Human/Covenant war, and one of humanity’s greatest defeats.

Reach casts the player not as the Master Chief, but as an unnamed SPARTAN-III supersoldier whose gender and (armor) appearance are customizable; this is a Spartan who exists primarily as a stand-in for the player. So when the game opens on images of a charred, bombed-out Reach and scrolls down to the sight of a Spartan helmet – the one you just created – lying abandoned in the dust, the meaning is clear: You, soldier, are going to fight this battle – and you will lose.

Your character joins the elite Noble Team as Noble Six, replacing the previous Six (who had heroically died in combat). Right away, this sets a different tone for the game: You may be a Spartan, but you are not Master Chief, gunning down waves of Covenant in a (largely) solo effort. You are part of a team, now – and other than a handful of missions that have you operating solo, you will be working with at least one member of Noble Team at all times.

Players have wanted to go into combat with a squad of the Spartan supersoldiers since the first Halo, and Noble Team strikes a nice balance between the juggernaut-like Chief and the squishy expendable Marines – more than competent enough to help out, but not so overpowered that you can let them clear a room for you.

While Noble Six is as blank a slate as they come, the rest of the team gets to take their helmets off and become actual characters. Their personalities may not have time to grow beyond cliches – the hard-ass tomboy second-in-command, the veteran leader, the friendly sniper, and so on – but they’re engaging and likable enough to play their parts. More to the point, the player never sees anything beyond what the team is experiencing – there are no cutaways to scheming villains – which gives the entire campaign a closer, more intimate feel as a team of soldiers realizes they’re fighting a losing battle.

Of course, in battle, you’re still a Spartan, and that means you still kick a bunch of ass. By Reach, Bungie has all but perfected its famed “thirty seconds of fun” philosophy, and with four Halo games behind them, the developer is able to pick and choose the best parts of each – in that way, Reach feels very much like a “Best Of: Halo” collection. Dual-wielding is gone, but you probably won’t miss it as much as you’d think. Your health doesn’t fully regenerate on its own anymore, either, which encourages exploration to find precious medkits – and sometimes encourages prudence in engagement rather than blindly rushing in.

And you will have to play it smart. In the absence of the mindless, infectious Flood, your only enemies are the various races of the Covenant as we haven’t seen them since the first Halo: brutal and intimidating. The silly little chatter of the Grunts is replaced by incomprehensible alien babble, and they certainly don’t seem as much like comic relief when they’re charging you with two lit plasma grenades in hand. The Elites charge and flank with deadly efficiency, and the Brutes are just as vicious as they’ve ever been.

Underestimating your foes in Reach is a mistake – in the course of completing the campaign on Heroic (the recommended difficulty for veterans), I chalked up a death total in the hundreds, and had narrow, hair-raising victories far more numerous than that.

The good news is that the deaths never feel unforgiving. Yes, failure is frustrating, but it doesn’t feel like the game is working against you: Play smart, try a new tactic, and try again. Armor abilities, which are new to Halo: Reach, give you more options than you ever had before. The abilities resemble much of the Halo 3 gear in function, but they aren’t consumable. Since your abilities regenerate quickly, you can use them often – and finding uses for the bubble shield, decoy hologram, or even the simple sprint is always very satisfying.

The campaign is wonderfully paced, from the first few minutes that have you anxiously anticipating those red blips on your motion tracker, to the intense finale as the Spartans meet their Thermopylae. It’s nicely broken up, too, with sojourns into space combat and flying a helicopter around a city under siege that wouldn’t carry an entire game, but are entertaining diversions. Best of all, while some missions are certainly better than others, there are no super-low points like “The Library.” It’s no stretch to say that this campaign is Halo‘s finest.

Everything in Halo: Reach feels like a love letter to the series and its fans – that is, the ones that aren’t going to ignore the single-player and immediately jump into spending hours online with the multiplayer. The moments where you start to see how Reach ties into the rest of the Halo story are wonderful bursts of “a-ha!,” and they come right alongside a healthy dose of “Oh, cool!” and “Oh, shi–!”

No, it won’t have anywhere close to the impact of the first game. Yes, it’s still ultimately Halo, and if you have been adamantly opposed to the series thus far (or swear by the “realistic” shooters in vogue these days), it won’t change your mind. Yes, the story is cookie-cutter albeit well-told, and Marty O’Donnell’s score isn’t quite as memorable this time around. Sure, perhaps they could have made the epic finale a bit more epic – but would that have fit? Reach isn’t a story about a galactic hero, but a story about soldiers doing their jobs. And that is something it does superbly.

In the beginning of the game, Noble Team’s commander tells you that you are stepping into shoes that the rest of the team would rather go unfilled. After Halo: Reach, the next team to develop a Halo game is going to be facing the exact same thing.

Talk about going out with a bang.

Bottom Line: A likable if clich√© ensemble cast and a well-told tale of a hopeless battle against overwhelming odds help make the Halo: Reach campaign Bungie’s finest. The gunplay is great and very nicely varied, the new Armor Abilities give you plenty of ways to tackle most encounters, and your foes are as intimidating – and as lethal – as they’ve ever been. Aside from some minor technical hurdles like occasional slowdown, it looks great, and plays like the best parts of all four Halo games up until now. If you were worrying that Bungie would phone it in for their swan song, worry no more. And that’s not even getting into the multiplayer…

Recommendation: If you’ve ever liked a Halo game before, Reach is for you. Hell, if you like FPS games at all, Reach is probably still for you – and is absolutely worth a rental.

[rating=5]

John Funk thinks every game should have a jetpack in it.

Game: Halo: Reach
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: September 14th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon.com

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