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'Halo: Reach' doesn't deserve all the praise

Halo: Reach is a spectacular technical achievement and a nice exclamation point on Bungie’s involvement in the franchise, but there isn’t much “there” there.

Bungie Studios

Halo: Reach is a spectacular technical achievement and a nice exclamation point on Bungie’s involvement in the franchise, but there isn’t much “there” there.

I'm going to take a calculated risk and make a hugely unpopular statement.

I don't think I like Halo: Reach.

Not in the technical sense, or in the fanboy sense, or even in the disappointed XBox 360 owner sense. No, in those myriad ways, Reach is a pinnacle of achievement for Bungie Studios, Microsoft and gaming in general. That much is proven by the game's $200 million first-day sales on Sept. 14, an entertainment-biz record. That the game has beaten Halo 3's 2007 launch record of $170 million and is on track to slaughter the trilogy capper's first-week $300 million mark is all the math one need pay attention to.

No, my problem is that despite the stellar graphics, despite the fan service supplied by the storyline, despite the technical envelope of the 360 being pushed to its limits, this dour (albeit engaging) game does little to expand on the formula Bungie created in 2001, when we first met Spartan John-117.

While Metacritic scores it a 92, while reviewers praise its "difficult" campaign, while the XBox Live crowd raves about the new multiplayer options, let me tell you what I've experienced in the past week: A tired fiction populated by characters so underdeveloped, they don't even qualify as archetypes. Gameplay so repetitive it feels lifted from Master Chief's 9-year-old trip to Installation 04, despite the developer's insistence that Covenant AI is improved and the number of onscreen allies and enemies has expanded. An online experience plagued by the usual roving gangs of 14-year-olds taunting me with insults, reminding me age continues to rob me of my reflexes. And a campaign so easy on Normal difficulty that I blew through a $60 game in eight hours.

This is Bungie's swan song? This is the prequel we've anticipated so much? This is the culmination of a decade building the Haloverse?

I don't think I like Halo: Reach.

Don't get me wrong, dear readers — every free moment at home has been spent battling Brutes and Elites, dissecting the ever-so-purposeful (and well-acted) dialogue and turns of phrase, and parsing out the dynamics of the ill-fated Noble Team, re-customizing my armor with every save. Reach is a marvel of a title that will placate the faithful. But I expected it to be somehow more epic, more revelatory … simply, more.

One of the limiting factors is that it indeed is so evocative as the original. On a hunch, I replayed Halo: Combat Evolved, to see if I was only remembering the original being more difficult. It was, although mostly through repetition and cheap shots. Along the way, I also concluded Reach should be lauded for its slight variety in levels — that is, it doesn't repeat fully one-third of the game by forcing you to play those same stages in reverse, like the original did.

What Reach does is take the best parts of the Halo trilogy, give them a facelift, throw in a single-shot marksman rifle and a chance to pilot a Longsword fighter, and call it a new game. It isn't. It's improving on an old model until that model is all but perfected, then convincing hundreds of thousands of gamers that it's the ultimate Halo experience.

That certainly wasn't the case with Halo 3: ODST, which was simply an expansion pack that mostly subtracted from what players could do. And that wasn't true of Halo Wars, which was more a side project that reskinned Command & Conquer with Haloverse vehicles. In the end, I felt this is what Bungie wanted Halo 3 to be in 2007, but hadn't figured out how to do yet.

Not that my opinion (nor those of any other detractors) matters. Microsoft has a license to print money with this series, and rest assured that through future games we will either see what happens to Master Chief next or, hopefully, how the war with the Covenant began.

But if this is the benchmark, the result of making the same game over and over and over again until they finally get it right, then I have only one sad, terribly disappointing conclusion.

I don't think I like Halo: Reach.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

'Halo: Reach' doesn't deserve all the praise 09/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 8:01pm]

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