When Halo 3: ODST was released last year, the once vibrant Halo universe felt exhausted, as though even its creators at Microsoft's Bungie Studios were bored with it.
Thankfully, they had one more story in their arsenal. Bungie may be moving on to new worlds, but Halo: Reach (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99) is a more energetic farewell for the company largely credited with popularizing first-person shooters for video-game consoles.
Reach is a prequel. (We all know how well prequels turned out for Star Wars.) Reach itself is a planet, long mythologized as one of the last human colonies to fall to the alien Covenant before the events of 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved. Since we already know that things aren't going to end well, there's a sense of futility about this campaign — although your actions here will have a profound effect on the war between humanity and the Covenant.
You are part of Noble Team, a group of elite Spartan troops whose missions largely involve evacuating humans and sabotaging Covenant installations. Most of the scenarios involve sustained, ground-based firefights against hordes of aliens whose aggressive artificial intelligence will torment even the most experienced Halo player. Bungie also throws in a couple of beautifully executed aerial battles — one over an urban skyline, one in outer space — that could be the foundations of whatever project the studio tackles next.
Meanwhile, some of the franchise's more exasperating elements remain. Driving a Warthog jeep still feels awkward, like pushing a grocery cart with a broken wheel. Unlike in, say, Gears of War, there's no reliable way to take cover (other than, well, ducking). And while you go into battle with a whole new crew, they never develop distinctive personalities. The story is more straightforward than previous Halo plots, but doesn't match the sophistication of even a middling Star Trek episode.
Still, it's unfair to judge a Halo title simply on the strengths and weaknesses of its solo campaign. Halo pretty much defined online console competition at the beginning of the century, and it's only recently that Activision's Call of Duty has overtaken it. Reach clearly is Bungie's attempt to win back defectors and reclaim the top spot of Xbox Live's most-played list.
It offers all the multiplayer modes that fans have come to expect, from your basic death match and capture-the-flag to more recent inventions like Firefight, in which you and your buddies have to stay alive against ever-increasing waves of enemies. In Gruntocalypse, you're swarmed by the lowest-level Covenant critters; in the chaotic Rocketfight, your team is provided an unlimited supply of rocket launchers.
All of these games are fully customizable. You can choose what types of aliens you want to fight, what weapons are available, or how strong and fast your soldiers are. If you prefer quiet, win-at-all-costs teammates to chatty, fun-loving ones, Bungie's matchmaking lets you be picky. And the Forge editor introduced in Halo 3 is back and more powerful than ever, letting you build your own battlefields from scratch.
If multiplayer mayhem is your thing, Halo: Reach is essential. If you're looking for a satisfying solo adventure — or if you've been immune to Halo fever in the past — it comes up short. Our review score splits the difference.