Halo: Reach is a saga prequel. And that means you don't play as longtime Halo hero Master Chief. This game's action takes place before the Chief ever shows up. In fact, this one starts before mankind even has an inkling of the threat posed by giant galaxy-destroying Halo ringworlds or an alien parasite called The Flood.
We touch down in the year 2552 when human colonists find themselves locked in a conflict with a theocratic alliance of alien races known as the Covenant. After a number of painful losses, the United Nations Space Command decides that the line must be drawn at its main military hub—the planet Reach. And that's where we stay for the duration.
Reaching for the Big Guns
Gamers play as Noble Six, the final replacement member for a group of supersoldier Spartans called Noble Team. With Six's arrival the newly formed squad is sent off to investigate a distress signal from a nearby settlement. And things quickly escalate from skirmishes with odd looking alien invaders to full-out blood-and-guts firefights. That's really the central action through the game's nine-chapter single-player campaign.
From a first-person shooter perspective, gamers blaze away at packs of colorful alien enemies with magnum pistols, assault rifles and grenade launchers. And they can pick up the enemy's plasma weapons to blast and splat their foes, too. As with past titles, the controls and game mechanics are fluid and intuitive, and the action can get intense. Noble Six (who can be set up as either a man or woman) can also make his or her way into mechanical transports ranging from cannon-equipped earthbound vehicles to space-going crafts that add outer space dogfights to the mix.
Another new addition is a number of short-term armor abilities that can be equipped and flicked on at a moment's notice. Each ability can briefly give the wearer an edge in the heat of battle. For instance, an Active Camo ability throws a short dose of near invisibility into your stealthy maneuvers. Being able to project a running holographic decoy can be used as an effective offensive tactic. And an Armor Lock feature can help a soldier survive a grenade explosion through an immobilizing force field.
Those whiz-bang boosts don't really cut back on the boom-bang destruction, however. This is still a shooter. Reach takes aim and fires the same level of spilled red and blue blood that its predecessors do. You can't really classify the Halo games as gore-fests like so many other M-rated shooters … and the human squad members die heroically in an effort to protect their fellows. But die they do. In fact, anyone who knows even a little of the Halo lore knows that this particular chapter ultimately ends in a devastating massacre. And Halo: Reach plays it out to the last merciless death.
The War Will Never End
Of course, the single-player story campaign is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Halo combat. From capture-the-flag engagements to blast-'til-you-drop firefights to Slayer deathmatches—where the goal is to rack up as many kills as possible—the lengthy list of multiplayer online hostilities can support up to 16 players at a pop and flay thousands in a trice.
Not only do the firefights intensify in those online skirmishes, the language—which in the rest of the game already includes "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "b‑‑tards" and "b‑‑ch"—can go virtually unchecked via players' Internet-connected headsets.
It's been announced that this is Bungie Studios' last Halo hurrah. But we're almost guaranteed a seventh and even an eighth since on this title's first day of release, fans eager for another shot at new Spartan/Covenant battles ponied up an incredible $200 million to grab copies hot off the presses. The first five titles collectively sold about 34 million units, which amounts to more than $1.7 billion in the Microsoft till.
So to those who insist you can only crank out so many expansion packs and genre spin-offs before people stop coughing up cash, this is your opportunity to rethink things. The same goes for those who believe that because Halo is so popular it must be OK for everybody to play.