I'm piloting a futuristic helicopter called Falcon between the mile high sky scrapers of New Alexandria when the message reaches me. A group of UNSC soldiers are having problems at a night club. I quickly turn around to assist them, when a squadron of hostile fighters close in on my tail. I set my wounded bird down on roof top so high up that I can't even make out the ground below, and I head off to assist the troops.
My worst fears are realised as I see them in the clutches of a group of Hunters, the most horrible menace in the Halo universe. It's a Halo fight unlike any I have previously fought, as I make my way over bar counters, tear down drink glasses on the floor, and empty clip after clip into the armoured giants who return the favour in kindness with powerful fireworks. A disco ball rotates silently in the ceiling, and creates a weird atmosphere of death and decadence. Death of a disco dancer indeed.
It's been three years since Halo 3 was released and concluded the story of Master Chief that Bungie begun with Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 on the original Xbox. The Covenant have been defeated, and secrets of the ringworlds uncovered, and all holes in the plot filled. Where do you turn next? Back, of course. Bungie looked backwards, towards a time when Covenants were still mysterious and alien beings, and when Master Chief was just one of many Spartan warriors.
Halo: Reach is Bungie's equivalent of Titanic, a comparison they have drawn many times in interviews. The story revolves around the planet Reach, one of the most important human outposts in the galaxy, and a centre for the military industry and research. But as we could read in the instructions booklet of Halo: Combat Evolved nine years ago, Reach is a doomed planet. The Covenant attacked with a force previously unheard of, and Master Chief was the sole surviving Spartan, and his escape lead him the first and now legendary first ringworld.
With that we know that Reach will fall and that the fates of the Spartans is sealed. Halo: Reach is a dark and gloomy chapter where you struggle against an overwhelming enemy. The story is one of heroics, and a will to defend mankind to the last drop of blood.
You are the newest addition to Noble Team, a group of Spartans made up of six strong willed individuals with their own unique set of skills. There is the Jorge (the giant), who gladly juggles a mini-gun, tech savvy Kat, and sniper Jun. As part of Noble Team you're mission is to save as much as possible of Reach.
That is if you don't invite friends to join Noble Team as the campaign is playable for up to four players. It is highly recommended to play Halo: Reach co-operatively as this is how it is meant to be enjoyed, and the difficulty is adjusted accordingly. The idea is that you will be able to flank the enemy, use vehicles more efficiently and work together across the massive levels.
Bungie have been boasting about the artificial intelligence, and rightly so. There are more enemy types than ever before, and they all appear deadly. Bungie wanted to make the Covenant fearsome again. These Spartan soldiers don't have the handy built in translator that Master Chief had in later games, so you'll hear the unique language of each of the Covenant races. Cannon fodder like Jackals sound real menacing all of a sudden, and the alien tongues sent shivers down my spine on several occasions.
The Covenant races also appear different. Bungie have gone back to the original sketches to reinvent the looks of the Coventant races. For technical reasons they were given simpler looks on the original Xbox, but now we can really see that Grunts are wearing an armour that lets them enjoy the ice cold climate of their homeworld. And if you happen to hit one of the tubes in their life support system they are sent flying and as they hit a wall you will hear the satisfying thump of meat being smashed into something hard and unforgiving.
The sound is also better than ever heard in the Halo series. Heavier sounding weapons, and louder bangs. The graphics have also been rebuilt from the ground up. Bungie have also succeeded in making the planet Reach a believable and varied world, where no level resembles each other. There is lush vegetation, harsh mountain regions, space ship, the enormous city of New Alexandria, distant ruins, night levels, and much more. Add to this lots of animal life, and civilians, and it feels like a much more living world.
Without giving away too much of the story, I will tell you that there are more grand, epic moments in Halo: Reach than in previous games. The Covenant attack on Reach turns its heaven into a burning inferno, and to this background there are silhouettes of mile long Covenants ships, and swarms of Banshees all over the place.
One level breaks the mould and lets us jump into a space craft that travels in orbit around Reach and engages Banshees and other crafts the Covenant sends your way. It could easily have felt pointless and gimmicky, but it is really well done and turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire game.
While time is running out for Reach, I bravely struggle on with Noble Team, who with time get more and more worn down. The controls are excellent as always, and given the intensity it's much needed. You will fight off Covenant ships on foot, rip their tanks apart with your bare hands, call down orbital support and wrestle with hairy Brutes.
You don't want to stop playing, you can't stop playing. Throughout you get the feeling that the Spartans know what their fate is, but it doesn't bother them. Halo: Reach is the longest campaign Bungie has delivered, and it took me about nine hours to complete it and then I rushed past a lot of content.
But no matter how epic, or interesting the story in a Halo may be, it is multiplayer that adds longevity. Halo 3 is still the second most played game on Xbox Live, and the main attraction on the American gaming league MLG (affiliated with ESPN). Halo 3 offered up multiplayer perfection that no other console games comes close to, so it's a tough act to follow.
Since Halo: Reach takes place before Halo: Combat Evolved, they have tried to return to the original concept. This means that the dual wielding introduced in Halo 2 is almost completely gone, the items from Halo 3, and the extra grenade types from Halo 3: ODST are also gone. We are left with a more bare bones multiplayer mode, that feels more intuitive.
Instead of quickly trying to grab your favourite weapon and objects such as invisibility after spawning, you know get to pick your weapon and special ability each time you respawn. You immediately start with a weapon you are comfortable with, and if invisibility is something you enjoy you can use it as soon as your special ability meter is fully charged.
Personally I quickly took a liking to the shield, and the classic Halo: Combat Evolved pistol. It's extremely powerful and the shield comes to good use as it also protects my team mates if need be. But there are also lots of other options such as holograms that can draw fire, jetpacks, and the ability to sprint.
The weapons arsenal is bigger than before, and Bungie have made some interesting design choices. One example is the sniper rifle, that's no longer the super weapon it was once, the once obvious first choice Battle Rifle has been replaced by the much less potent DMR, and in order to regain your energy it's not enough to duck into cover as you'll have to pick up medkits. Nothing has been left as it was and I applaud it. As much as I love Halo 3, I was afraid that Halo: Reach would feel too much like its predecessor and not fresh enough.
My personal favourite among the maps was Spire, that features a ridiculously tall tower in the middle from which you can see the entire level. You can get to the top with an elevator, or a so called "man cannon", but there are also Banshees that can be flown to the top, and lots of other vehicles including the new helicopter, the Falcon.
Firefight is back from Halo 3: ODST, and it's better than ever with matchmaking and a lot of detailed settings. I also want to mention Forge. It's been around since Halo 3, but now it's been redone from scratch so that anyone can build great levels without limitations. Race and Rally are also a couple of slightly surprising features Bungie have added, likely due to the fact that fans created so many racing levels in Halo 3. In Race and Rally it's not about gunning down Covenants, but rather about different events featuring the 4-wheel drive Mongoose vehicles.
Halo: Reach is most likely Bungie's final farewell to the Halo series. And they have succeeded in creating the most expansive and overwhelming Halo experience to this day. Bungie have given 343 Industries are tough target, as they take over development of the series, and if we look back on the series ten years from now I think that Reach and the sacrifices of Noble Team will be what people remember best.