“From the beginning you know the end,” reads the catchphrase from Halo: Reach’s 2009 E3 reveal. It’s referring to the fact that, thanks to the wider canon of the Halo universe, the destruction of the planet Reach and the near complete destruction of that colony’s Spartan super-soldier population are no secrets.
But in what executive producer Joseph Tung momentarily compares to the movie Titanic – another instance of an epic story where we already know the ultimate outcome – Halo: Reach tells a lesser-known subplot of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
The fact that the helmet of Halo: Reach’s protagonist, Spartan Noble Six, is shown on the ground of a charred planet Reach with a bullet through the visor in the opening cinematic should come as no spoiler to Halo fans; it’s widely established in the Halo trilogy (which takes place after the events of Halo: Reach) that the entire Spartan population bar the original trilogy’s Master Chief is decimated by the Covenant onslaught on Reach.
During our eyes-on campaign demo led by Bungie executive producer Joseph Tung, the battered and broken helmet on a war-torn battleground fades from view. We’re soon on to the start of the story where Noble Six (then known only as Six) first becomes acquainted with the rest of the Spartans that make up Noble Team. It transpires that you’re refilling a position that the rest of the team would rather not be filled, which puts Six at odds with the rest of the team from the very beginning. “We’re a team,” warns Noble Team leader Carter-A259 to Six. “That lone wolf stuff says behind.”
Guess Six will have to earn their trust the hard way… It’s worth mentioning at this early point that Reach – everything from the environments to the character models – looks fantastic, and it represents a monumental step up from Halo 3. In particular, as nice as the environments in Halo 3 and ODST looked, the character models and facial textures were left wanting, especially compared to the strides made in other games at the time. Building on the strengths of Halo 3, Halo: Reach’s new visual engine easily puts it up there with the big hitters of the current generation.
After Six meets his new squadmates, Noble Team’s soon tasked with locating a distress beacon somewhere nearby. Carter questions why a squad of elite Spartan warriors is to be sent on a seemingly routine mission. Along the way, Noble Team encounters non-English speaking farmers who attempt to relay what happened to those that set off the distress beacon.
You'll also see emulike birds native to planet Reach (called Moas), and also the game’s dynamic rain system, which help to make Reach feel like more than just a backdrop. It’s a fair while, however, before Noble Team encounters any combat (reportedly an intentional move to build tension and mystery). When it does go down, however, it becomes clear that Convenant troops – the partnership of alien races hell bent on the destruction of humanity – are (of course) responsible for the disturbance. At first it’s just the lowly and bumbling Grunts, Jackals and newcomers ‘Skirmishers’ (faster, more agile, close-range- combatant cousins of the Jackals).
However, it’s not long until the Elites burst onto the scene; they’re back and they’re bad. The aliens absent as adversaries in Halo 3 are your enemies once more in Reach (remember, it’s a prequel), and they’ve received an AI overhaul. Our preview ended when Noble Team had found those who had sent the distress signal and had to defend them against the aggressive Covenant invaders.
Those who participated in May’s Halo: Reach multiplayer beta (apparently there were only around 2.7 million of you) will have a taste of some of the new gameplay modes coming their way in September. But Bungie keeps on giving; the return of Halo 3: ODST’s popular Horde-mode clone Firefight was announced at shortly after the beta, and I briefly had an opportunity to test out one of the newer Firefight variants: Versus Firefight. It splits four players into two teams – two Spartans and two Elites.
It’s much like regular Firefight, where Spartans must survive as long as possible against the Covenant hordes with only a limited number of lives. “Sounds unfair,” you might say, and in some ways it is. But it’s also not as unbalanced as you might expect. First up, myself and my partner found ourselves in Spartan boots. With a handful of lives between us, we were required to last a set amount of time against incoming waves of Covenant minions and two player-controlled
Elites. Thankfully for myself, I was able to hijack an AI-controlled Ghost (the highly manoeuverable and deadly hovercraft familiar to Halo players), which evened the odds somewhat against the many monsters hunting me down. Also mixing things up somewhat is Reach’s inclusion of loadouts and armour abilities. A Spartan using the “Guard” class that finds themself under some pretty intense fire can momentarily activate their lockdown shield ability (rendering them temporarily invulnerable), which may save them from the clutches of death.
Or, of course, you could simply activate your jetpack if you’re thus enabled and attempt to fly to safety. Replacing ‘equipment’ from Halo 3, armour abilities increase the player’s strategic options from the outset, and clever use of these is almost crucial to your survival as a Spartan. You’ve really got to keep an eye out for the player-controlled Elites in this mode, who’ll gun for you particularly aggressively. My partner and I managed to stay alive long enough to take out that round, and then it was on to our turn as Elites.
Once you do manage to pinpoint the location of the Spartans amidst the chaos, you’ve got to do everything in your power to not only take them out and exhaust their lives, but also to prevent them racking up a large score killing your AIcontrolled teammates; victory in Versus Firefight is determined by whichever team achieves the highest score as the Spartans! I found using the Gladiator Elite loadout, equipped with their trademark one-hit-kill energy swords, particularly useful in this round.
While the Spartans were preoccupied with other enemies, it was easy enough to get in close quarters for a number of quick kills. Of course, given a bit more time with the game, I’m sure the Spartan players would have adapted to that strategy, but we managed to deplete their supply of lives and win the match overall.