Tuesday, 22 February 2011

"Halo: Reach" Review


This is an ugly, miserable experience. Here is a game that breaks its own rules in practically every meeting of two players. Here is a game where, when the enemy uses the Shotgun, it functions as a combination of Sniper Rifle and Orbital Laser. When you use the same damn gun he's using, cheese comes out. Like Play-Doh through a meat-grinder. Nothing in this game functions the way it's supposed to. Halo: Reach actually justifies rage-quitting.

No video game has done more to rob its consumer base of entertainment in the last decade. I can't remember a game that's pissed me off more than Halo: Reach, and I've played Mort the Chicken. That was the PSX game about a sarcastic chicken who controlled like a decomposing shopping cart while he fought cubes. There was more nuance and art-direction to be found there as well. This is Bungie's last entry in the inexplicably popular Halo series, and what a sour note they've left on. It's like ending a symphony with a fart.

I'm not asking for much, here. The cliché story and characters alone aren't what bug me. Many clichéd things have gone on to be worthwhile entertainment. Avatar is chock full of 'em. The Harry Potter series is far from unreadable dreck. It's all about what you do with your clichés. So there's a white guy leader with a raspy voice, a girl who's also a bad-ass, a crazy black guy, the asian sidekick and a big tough guy with a heart of gold. Fine. That's not why the Campaign of Halo: Reach is a failure. It's a failure because it doesn't even try to be something more. It's in for a penny, but not for a pound.

It sets up the pieces with an interesting cutscene here or there, but we don't get nearly enough of them. The levels open in the middle of the action in places we've never seen, and the game's writers fail to tell us any of the W's. Where are they? What are they going to do there? When is this taking place? Why am I suddenly in a canyon at night with only one team-mate when the last level had me defending a base with my entire team? They forget the "H" too, as in: "How does this in any way connect to previous events"?

When characters die, they are given spectacularly timed deaths. But they have no meaning. The other characters don't really sound concerned or even remotely interested when someone they've worked with for years bites the dust as their planet is conquered. If they don't care, why should I?

Nothing about this picture makes sense, and this shit happens all of the time.

Let it be said that as stand-alone episodes of First-Person Shooter gameplay, the Campaign is actually pretty inoffensive. But it's not held up by any real context. What really irritates me is how inexcusably easy it would have been to give these levels some weight, some pathos if you will. Maybe if the voice acting made these guys sound like they care at all what happens, and maybe if the characters talked to or about each other. But they don't. And whenever something cool does happen, like a space-shooter mini-game or an on-rails section, it's over just before it starts to get fun. Some of the best parts of the game last less than 10 seconds, and some of the worst go on for hours. This game is a million wasted opportunities.

Undoubtedly this is out of fear of putting too much work on their fanbase's tiny, mongoloid brains. These people can tell a story if they wanted to. Halo 3: ODST showed us that. Reach could have been a passable sci-fi action romp, except Marcus Lehto and his team had to divide attention between the Campaign and the multiplayer. With ODST, they only had to focus on the Campaign and Firefight. With Reach, they had to design and playtest the Campaign and Firefight, plus Slayer, Capture the Flag, Headhunter, Assault, Rocket Race, Invasion, Multi-Team, Team Swat, Team Snipers, etc.

The cup runneth over, is what I'm saying here. They would do well in the future to focus on one or the other, a single-player/co-op experience or all-out Multiplayer. Maybe they could do them in patterns, one after the other, so that they can focus their efforts and strengths where they belong, instead of compromising. Then everyone is happy. If they keep making games like Reach, no one will remember what happiness was.

I will laugh if Bungie's corporate headquarters gets struck by lightning and burns to the ground.

It is true that this game adds some conventions that haven't been featured in the series so far. Jetpacks, a choice of weapon loadouts at the beginning of each game, a Sprint function, a combat knife. But it also takes away variety. There are no Flood and no Sentinels, and I'm sorry, but the Covenant are too goofy to take as a serious threat. The rest of the game seems packaged to appeal to the hardcore military shooter fans. You can smell the desperation. Could it be that this company, once Microsoft's crown jewel, realized it was getting bent over a barrel by a certain wildly successful military shooter and hoped to steal away a few fans by making their game more like "that other game"?

This means more gray, more useless polygons, more time spent on tiny details no one will notice or care about instead of the parts that matter, and an infinitely more lifeless setting. The character designs are packed with so much useless clutter and pouches, you'd think Michael Bay got the movie rights to Rob Liefeld's asshole. Amid accusations of mediocrity, the Halo series has only ever really had art design and music. They sacrificed the first to appeal to the Modern Warfare 2 crowd(because "Colour? That's gay, bro").

But the music? Martin O'Donnell has never had his name attached to something so worthless. Even his failures were more interesting than Reach's soundtrack. This swan song is a stunted squawk; it does not rise or fall, instead maintaining a flatline that does nothing to elevate the experience or make what my character is doing seem at all important or necessary.

Hey, did you know that Bungie is now working for the publisher of the Call of Duty series? I'm sure that's unrelated...

If every stage has a personality, this one is drooling on itself.

Now, here's the part where I would say: "Well, at least it still has the Forge and Snapshots and Saved Films", and it is true that Forge World is good enough that I would pay for it as a stand-alone product. But they've even managed to ruin the Theatre mode. When you want to watch a video of a previous match, and you want to see a player's progress with the camera fixed on him, for some reason the camera is fixed ABOVE the character's head. So that instead of being able to see the action take place, you get to look at the top of his scalp cut out of frame and admire the putrid, mucus-ey grass far from where anything interesting is happening. This makes no sense. It was fine the way it was in Halo 3. Only an idiot would think this needed to happen, and only a lunatic would consider it an improvement.

Here's what I don't get about Halo: These games have been around for ten years. How are these people still eight years old? Have we discovered the fountain of youth, and is it tea-bagging n00bs while loudly insulting their heritage? The concept of immortality looks less appealing by the day.

This game is a frustrating, under-achieving, malfunctioning exercise in self-immolation. Reach is a waste of money, a waste of a solid concept, a waste of the developer's talents and a waste of everyone's time. I can only mourn the games these people would be making, if they weren't burdened by the enormity of success.

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