Halo: Reach marks the end of a decade for millions. Taking in ten years of countless controllers and plastic headsets, friends made, degree studies ruined and 3:30am finishes, from SD to HD and from videogame to cultural event, it bears a weight of expectation that goes far beyond sales records.
And it doesn't disappoint. This is the kind of game built to last through years of playing and expansion, a firstperson shooter package that sets itself up as inexhaustible and begs you to try to exhaust it. It's the most complete Halo experience yet, not only a refinement of the series but a comprehensive accumulation of proven features. The campaign is crafted solely around letting tightly engineered AI loose in open environments, the multiplayer offers an asymmetrical toolset of unparalleled variety and balance, and there are more ways to play than ever before.
Unlike those of Halo 3, every environment in Reach’s campaign mode has been built for four players. These levels comprise enormous spaces, allowing your team to spread wide in order to take on the clumps of Covenant thrown down, and narrow into tight-knit groups for the large-scale tear-ups that prove to be the highpoints. There are no real boss encounters, just complete faith in the AI's capabilities to consistently surprise players. While you can't help but miss Scarabs, it's the right decision for a co-op-focused campaign, and it means there are few dull passages throughout its duration. Picking a collection of highlights means considering thousands of instants, survived or otherwise, in which the action comes down to a split-second decision and its execution.
Elites are back as the lynchpin of the Covenant pack, and effortlessly outclass Brutes as an offensive threat. On Normal difficulty they make a habit of pincering complacent players, but on Heroic and Legendary settings they evolve into a more aggressive and cunning enemy than you’ll find in any other firstperson shooter. Which naturally results in the unprepared player dying a lot.
This is a tougher game than previous Halos, particularly on Heroic. Partly this is a result of the Covenant’s ability to surprise you with their approach; partly it’s simply a matter of their increased number. With more enemies per virtual square acre, sections of the campaign come to feel like Firefight mode, and it's a challenge, and a rhythm, that fits co-op play perfectly – the inevitable trade-off being that solo gunners face the occasional difficulty spike. Freefalls broken by the comforting inertia of a jetpack; leaps across scaffolding alongside ODSTs; battles in reduced gravity against almost silent audio accompaniment: these are experiences that are at their most powerful when shared – and talked about afterwards.
In terms of multiplayer, the intricate but sturdy foundations built for Halo 3 remain in place, with a wealth of modes and manners to play, but with an all-round refinement to the familiar experience. New kit to play with is the most significant addition, incorporated in loadouts that can be switched during respawn, comprising elements such as the jetpack, armour lock (temporary invincibility with a twist), active camo, sprint, and the ability to create a holographic copy of yourself that can be sent into the fray in order to fool enemies.
Such abilities slot easily into the Halo framework, and it hasn’t taken long for Reach’s playerbase to tease out their intricacies, the additions proving to be far more than simple one-note boosts. Using armour lock just as a Banshee is about to splatter you and watching it disintegrate instead isn’t a common occurrence, but it’s a supremely dramatic, and satisfying, outcome.
The jetpack can be used to soar, but also to hop over walls and even hover below sightlines, while the active camo's effectiveness is well balanced by its corruption of the motion sensors of other players in the vicinity. And being able to send out a hologram, watch your opponents empty their weapons in its direction, and then mop them up with your own firearm? The gratification opportunities are obvious. All of these elements fit neatly into the texture of Reach’s multiplayer, working ubiquitously and influentially, and ultimately proving to be inspired replacements for Halo 3’s more recherché equipment.