Imagine a world without Halo 3: ODST. Right now, it would have been three years since you last embarked on a campaign in Bungie’s storied universe; three years since you last claimed to be sick of Halo and then spent dozens more happy hours playing it; three years since you were last reminded that some videogame franchises attain global success through more than just canny marketing.
Combat Evolved was such a grand achievement when it was released in 2002 that each of its sequels were expected to make the same quantum leap forward, and while many still protest that Halo 2 and Halo 3 were underwhelming, disappointing or just plain bad, it’s nothing more than bluster. In truth, the Halo series has offered innovation and smart design in every major instalment, but ODST is another matter. It was the first time that Bungie had truly failed to match the finished product to its own daunting standards, and the effect was jarring. It was an excellent multiplayer mode with half a game hanging off the side. It felt like manipulation; more Halo when all most fans would have been happier with a break.
Any damage the cynical undertones of ODST did to the Halo brand will be fixed by even a few hours in the company of Reach. With a new product in development with Activision and complete freedom to choose its projects from now on, Bungie has been completely transparent about the importance it places on making its parting shot the finest in the series. In concept, Halo: Reach should be the product of every lesson learned and every mistake made, a tribute to the fiction it created and the millions of gamers it inspired. In reality, Bungie has come as close to achieving that ideal as anyone could reasonably hope.
Not that Bungie is in a hurry to discard the founding stones of the series’ appeal, of course. Even as the interminable lore threatened to sink the entire trilogy, a brief taste of the sublime gameplay was all it took to restore faith in its creators. Reach is a welcome reminder that there was a time when every shooter in the world wasn’t struggling to be like Call Of Duty – they were all struggling to be like Halo, and on pure moment-to-moment satisfaction Bungie still holds the edge.
Familiar weapons have been subtly tweaked – the assault rifle now has a more lo-fi feel, giving it a wonderful sense of power and violence – and the new additions manage to fill gaps in the already excellent armoury that we didn’t even realise existed. But the one element that has always set Halo apart from the teetering mountain of possible alternatives is the AI, and in that respect Reach is virtually untouchable. Every enemy type has a unique range of tactics and responses, and all approach battle with what appears to be a legitimate desire to stay alive. The Covenant dodge, dive and take cover, rush you when you’re on the back foot and retreat as soon as the battle turns. In terms of conveying the intense cut-and-thrust of battle Halo has no peer, and Reach is the series’ pinnacle.
There’s the bigger picture to consider, too. Combat Evolved managed to get away with the gobbledygook that constitutes the Halo mythology by virtue of being new, but its sequels didn’t have the same luxury. Familiarity with the core mechanics resulted in more players actually paying attention during the cut-scenes, and most didn’t like what they saw. These interludes were expertly crafted and had a nice sense of momentum, but you were only ever being propelled into more nonsense.