The original Halo was many things—space opera, technical achievement, irrefutable proof that first-person shooters on consoles didn’t have to be mediocre, etc.—but above all, the first game was a love story between a 7-foot-tall super-soldier and a tiny blue virtual woman. Within seconds of seeing each another, Cortana asks the Master Chief if he slept well during his cryogenic sleep. “No thanks to your driving, yes,” he quips. She smiles, cocks her head, and says, “So you did miss me.” For the remainder of the game, these two flirt and banter like a new-media version of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
The new Halo: Reach doesn’t have a single relationship—or for that matter, a single moment—that displays this kind of relatable humanity. Instead, it gives us a squad of anonymous super-soldiers who, over the course of the game, literally disappear inside their own hyperbolic armor.
The star of the game is Noble 6, a blank-faced cipher who, along with a crew of de rigueur action-movie stereotypes (the Black Guy, the Woman, the Guy With The Foreign Accent, etc.) are out to stop the alien race known as The Covenant. The game’s storyline predates the 2001 original, recounting the events that led up to the Master Chief needing to be roused from his slumber.
But what banal events these are. For the bulk of the single-player experience, you’ll infiltrate bases, defeat waves of enemies, hit a switch or two, retrieve arbitrary objects, defeat more enemies, then get scooped up by a dropship so you can be whisked off to another area to do this all over again.
Combat still has a satisfyingly organic feel. You’ll deplete the ammo in your assault rifle, switch to the pistol, pop off a few rounds, then grab a Covenant weapon from a dead alien and use it against foes. Along the way, you might highjack a vehicle or two, get into mêlée with a few Brutes, and lob grenades into fleeing packs of Grunts. Halo has always distinguished itself by making you feel like you’re improvising your way across a battlefield, doing things no one else is capable of achieving. Reach effectively recreates that feeling. What’s surprising is how familiar this is. There are new enemy types—mostly older enemies outfitted with armor—and weapons to monkey with. But gamers have fought these battles countless times before.
Reach’s goal, as with every previous Halo before it, is to make the Halo experience more epic. The game’s scope—which now includes intergalactic space combat—has certainly never been more expansive. Yet this movement away from humanity (characters not only disappear inside armor, they disappear inside spaceships) makes Reach the least personal Halo to date, and by extension, the least interesting.
The original Halo was a small, humble game that featured strong, indelible characters. The game’s blessing and curse is that its ongoing success is inextricably tied to the success of its multiplayer action. And multiplayer does impress in Reach. New modes like Headhunter, Stockpile, and Invasion, alongside series staples like Firefight, are in full effect. Invasion, in particular, with its multiple objectives and team-based play, is an absolute standout, and a must-play for any multiplayer fiend. Better still, the game’s matchmaking ability is eerily intuitive. You’re rarely dropped into a match where you can’t handle yourself. But many thousands of people are playing online at this very moment. That high-fiving, frat-house, epithet-spewing, tea-bagging culture has had the unfortunate side-effect of making the Halo universe increasingly less soulful, rendering the subtitle of the original game—“Combat evolved”—something of an oxymoron.