Before the discovery and destruction of an ancient alien ringworld, before a teeming parasitic enemy threatened Earth, before a soldier called John-117 made a new name for himself, humanity fought to defend the planet Reach. And though Halo: Reach is a prequel to all the Halo games that have come before, it represents the evolutionary pinnacle of the series. From the expertly tuned combat to the expansive level design and from the innovative online integration to the robust creation tools, all the pillars of Halo's success are in top form here, tied together seamlessly by an elegant and intuitive menu system. While the core mechanics remain very familiar, invigorating new elements and extensive customization options make it so there are more ways to enjoy yourself than ever. Halo: Reach is one of the most fully featured games on consoles today, and it's also one of the best.
One of the first things you notice about Halo: Reach is the refined menu system. In addition to presenting the main gameplay modes, the main menu displays the status of your friends who are playing Reach and allows you to peruse their service records and invite them to your party with ease. Entering a mode, tweaking options, and starting up a match is an effortless process, and your party members can come with you almost everywhere you go. The interface allows you to easily explore game types, customization tools, and user-created content without getting swamped or overwhelmed. It's remarkable that everything is this easily accessible, because Halo: Reach is absolutely packed with great content.
Halo campaigns have traditionally had epic aspirations, and Halo: Reach is no different. Whether you play solo or cooperatively with up to four players, you play as the newest member of Noble team. Your first mission is to investigate a distress signal in a rural mountainous area, and it's no surprise when the source of the distress turns out to be the Covenant. Small skirmishes and reconnaissance missions soon escalate to all-out war as humanity tries to repel the alien invaders. Anyone familiar with the Halo canon knows how that one ends, but it's thrilling to be a part of Noble team's efforts. You undertake missions of increasingly crucial strategic importance, and this urgency is conveyed without any reliance on previous Halo knowledge. Instead, the characters you interact with help set the tone, and your squadmates have unique personalities that go a long way toward keeping you emotionally invested in the action. There are some cliches and a few cheap moments, but the story successfully channels the forthright heroism of soldiers who are committed to their cause. This earnest appeal makes Halo: Reach's campaign one of the most satisfying in the series.
The campaign also benefits from great pacing and a cohesive sense of place. The slow burn of the early levels explodes into frenetic large-scale conflict, and some good dramatic turns and an engrossing musical score keep the pace from fizzling out as the game builds toward a climactic ending. Your missions take you through a rich array of environments, from rural farming communities to high-country military outposts and from dry, rocky steppes to battered city streets. Throughout these diverse locations, the mountainous geography of Reach remains a constant presence that helps you connect with the land you are fighting to defend. Levels are often expansive, offering stunning views and allowing for some nice gameplay diversity. In addition to a number of classic vehicles that still handle marvelously, there are a few new rides that provide some kicks of their own. There's also a space-faring first for the series, and though this sequence is a bit shallow, it doesn't overstay its welcome and features some gorgeous orbital vistas.
The campaign provides excitement aplenty, and adding some friends to the mix makes it even more enjoyable. Picking your own routes through the battlefield is more exciting when you know your buddies are doing it too, and it leads to some great moments of teamwork, both planned and unexpected. Though the friendly AI is generally harmless, it has trouble when it comes to driving, so you're better off driving yourself or trusting a friend behind the wheel. If you want to spice things up a bit, you can keep score individually or as a team, using skulls (now found in an options screen rather than hidden in levels) to modify battlefield conditions and boost your scoring potential. And if you don't have any friends available to join you, the online campaign matchmaking can easily set you up with squadmates. These options, along with the stellar core action, the excellent level design, and the well-balanced difficulty levels, make this great campaign supremely replayable.
Back after a very successful debut in Halo 3: ODST, the Firefight mode once again offers up to four players an arena to take on increasingly difficult waves of Covenant enemies. This is largely the same addictively entertaining experience, though it now boasts full online matchmaking support. Frantically fighting off hordes of enemies is as exciting and satisfying as ever, and the new maps and gameplay variants offer many different ways to enjoy this mode. You can take on a tougher challenge by choosing to defend generators in addition to killing Covenant or add a bit of levity by fighting hordes of grunts that fling confetti into the air when you shoot them in the head. You can even have some players play as Elites and try to thwart the remaining Spartans. If you want to tweak one of the built-in variants or create something entirely different, the extensive game options let you customize the makeup and toughness of each enemy wave, the weapons and shields available to you, the strength of gravity, and a lot more. It's a lot of fun to mess around with these options and see what you can come up with, and if you're not the tailoring type, you can easily download user-created variants by browsing popular variants or searching for keywords.
Extensive customization options are also available in competitive multiplayer. In the Custom Game mode, you can tweak the conditions of any game type beyond recognition or use subtle changes to spice things up. As in previous Halo games, the possibilities here are vast, and the intuitive interface makes them all easily accessible. Competitive matchmaking is once again a standout in Halo: Reach. Before you jump in, you can tweak a few variables in your psych profile to indicate that you prefer team players to lone wolves or want to avoid chatty teammates. It was hard to gauge the effectiveness of this system at the time of review, but just having such a system in a prominent location bodes well for being able to find an agreeable crowd with which to play.
Though there are just six competitive multiplayer lobbies, a revamped voting system lets you choose from a few different maps or variants, potentially turning your Team Slayer game into Team SWAT. This built-in variation may irk some purists who don't want their Slayer game to turn into a Mongoose race, but it's a great way to build in some variety without spreading the player base between too many lobbies. There's also a ranked arena that functions as a competitive league, assigning players a ranking based on their performance while cycling through discrete blocks of time called seasons. And, there's a new objective-based mode called Invasion that pits Spartans against Elites, challenging one team to capture a series of positions and abscond with a valuable item. The progressive structure is a nice change of pace, though ultimately, it's just another way to enjoy the best part of the game: combat.
Halo: Reach continues the series' tradition of superlative combat and movement mechanics. This consistency isn't likely to excite those who have disliked Halo in the past, but those who have enjoyed it before have a new twist to contend with in the form of armor abilities. These special abilities operate on a cooldown timer and grant players a specific power that can give them an edge in combat. Whether it's a quick burst of speed to close the distance between you and an enemy or a jetpack that grants you the power of limited flight, these abilities add an intriguing new tactical element. Active camouflage aids in stealthy maneuvers, while armor lock can help you survive a grenade explosion that is too close to evade. And while the advantages of being able to create a running decoy of yourself may seem obvious, deploying the decoy effectively is another matter.
When these abilities are in play, they change the every-soldier-is-equal dynamic that has long defined Halo multiplayer, but they do it in a very specific and knowable way. Once you see your opponent tumble laterally in an evade maneuver, you know exactly what kind of ability you are dealing with (at least, you do until he respawns). Rather than creating an imbalance in the battlefield, these armor abilities enrich combat and offer even seasoned Halo veterans new ways to flex their strategic muscle. They also go hand in hand with the concept of loadouts. Rather than always spawning every player with identical equipment, Halo: Reach often lets players choose which guns and armor ability they want to equip, sometimes offering new loadouts as the match progresses. The ability to change loadouts can cause strategic shifts in the battlefield, forcing players to reevaluate their combat options, and figuring out the many tactical possibilities of each armor ability is an engaging challenge. These invigorating new elements inject a new energy into one of the traditional strengths of the series, making Halo: Reach's competitive multiplayer better than ever.
Doing well in online multiplayer, the offline campaign, and most other gameplay modes earns you credits that can be used to buy new, strictly cosmetic armor pieces for your Spartan. It can also earn you progress toward commendations and daily or weekly challenges, which in turn earn you more credits, a higher ranking, and of course bragging rights. Your service record displays your Halo stats and accomplishments to anyone who cares to look, and the Theater lets you capture a screenshot or video clip of any moment that you care to show off. Halo: Reach automatically saves your recent matches regardless of what mode you play, and watching replays is a lot of fun even if you don't care to preserve them for posterity. Recording clips, taking screens, recommending them to your friends, and uploading them to your file share is as easy as ever, and the only real drawback to the Theater is that you can't bring any party members along with you.
You can, however, bring friends with you into Forge, the amazing editing sandbox that gives you astonishing creation powers. There are nine Forge-able maps, including the massive Forge World, and they are all at your mercy. From building a brand new level structure to tailoring an existing one to fit your unique game variants and from stacking absurd quantities of objects on top of each other to engaging in all-out vehicular mayhem, Forge ranks among the most impressive and versatile creation studios available on consoles today. And even if your interest in Forge is limited to spelling your name in the sky with traffic cones, you can't help but be excited by the possibilities. Since its introduction in Halo 3, the Forge community has generated a lot of clever, exciting, and downright fun content, and Halo: Reach promises to continue this trend into the foreseeable future.
Halo: Reach is not only brimming with excellent content, but it's also bursting with possibilities. The exciting campaign, addictive Firefight mode, and dynamic competitive multiplayer make it one of the best shooters around. The extensive customization options, powerful Theater tools, and staggering Forge capabilities make it one of the most malleable and socially engaging games on consoles. And the slick menu system brings it all together with remarkable simplicity. Though its deep roots may not win over those who haven't enjoyed previous games in the series, Halo: Reach is a towering achievement that delivers an enormous amount of engaging content that players will no doubt be enjoying for years to come.
Editor's Note: Though they are clearly present in the matchmaking menu, campaign and arena matchmaking were not playable at the time of this review.