The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta was recently released yesterday to the public, on Monday May 3rd. Undoubtedly, there is tremendous anticipation on how it’ll hold up – the Halo franchise is one of the most visible and renowned video game franchises, and correspondingly, hundreds of thousands of players worldwide, from the United States to China to Australia, are playing it.
IGN recently wrote a commentary titled “Why Reach is Halo Multiplayer’s Salvation?” which vociferously argued that Reach is a “21st century Halo” game, worthy of competition with recent FPS blockbusters. How well do these claims hold up?
The Halo franchise’s ascension to blockbluster status was from its founding game, Halo: Combat Evolved, which presented novel gameplay dynamics alongside a refreshing and interesting storyline and premise (although it was not novel). Nevertheless, it captured and captivated many gamers with both its interesting dynamics and its campaign. Halo 2, its sequel, was a logical advancement in the franchise’s progression, incorporating many good improvements into the game, and it marked the first time that Halo became known for its multiplayer. While Halo 2 was not radically different than its antecedent, and its storyline was weaker, its Xbox Live-enabled multiplayer component was gripping, and that alone made it very worthy of blockbuster status.
With such compelling advancements in Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, there were high expectations for Halo 3. While Halo 3 was a good and solid game, it very much fell short of the anticipated revolutionary advancements that were anticipated to be incorporated into it. There were no substantial modifications in Halo 3 compared to Halo 2 (in terms of gameplay); the same general formula was employed, with certain flashier elements. And certainly, its campaign was extremely unfulfilling, and it did not consummate the grandiose plotline that the previous Halo games had established with supernatural elements, galactic menances, and artificial intelligences. Ultimately, Halo 3 fell far short of expectations in its campaign mode as well as its multiplayer mode and general gameplay.
This was followed by a RTS sequel, Halo Wars, which was good but not spectacular.
The fourth FPS game of the genre, Halo: ODST (set in the same in-universe time as Halo 3) was also a large disappointment. Much hype was generated over ODST because the developers described an all-new gameplay paradigm that would harken back to Halo: Combat Evolved‘s winning and inspiring formula. However, its gameplay did not represent any improvement over any of the previous Halo games, and its plotline was disappointing (and ludricuous, at some points) to say the least. This, combined with a very weak multiplayer component (Firefight), made Halo: ODST a very weak addition to the Halo franchise.
Thus, there has been a progressive degeneration and loss of expectations as the once-glamorous Halo franchise ran its course: from the stunning Halo: Combat Evolved to the solid Halo 2, and then to the very disappointing Halo 3 and Halo: ODST. Has Bungie Studios managed to revitalize Halo: Reach, the fifth FPS addition to the franchise?
IGN claims in article that “Reach multiplayer is going to be brilliant, and the best thing that’s happened to Halo since, well, Halo 1 … It’s why you should be excited”. Given my personal experiences with the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta, I feel that while it is entertaining, it definitely does not represent such a grandiose evolution and advancement in the franchise, and that it is easily out-competed by other modern FPS games (After one night of trying it out, I’ve set down Reach and have instead decided that studying for finals is probably more meaningful).
Reach certainly does incorporate some interesting additions to Halo multiplayer and has some striking revisions. Not including the expected compliment of new weapons and maps, probably the most notable addition is “armor abilities” — rechargable special powers that every character has. These powers are jet-pack (you can fly in the air), armor lock (you temporarily turn invincible), sprint (you rush very fast), and cloak (you turn mostly invisible). Each player can choose one ability, and needless to say, they really change up the battlefield quite a bit — jet-pack, as one can imagine, offers extreme tactical mobility.
However, the underlying Halo premise remains unchanged, and this is frustrating. FPS games, when deconvoluted and stripped of all their accoutrements, are really about the weapons and one’s ability to use them. And Reach‘s ranged weapons (such as the designated marksman rifle, focus rifle, needle rifle, and assault rifle) are overwhelmingly underwhelming — they are underpowered, inaccurate, and are far too short-ranged. When one sees an opponent, it’s a toss-up to stochastic factors whether or not one player wins versus another. When very overpowered grenades are added, Reach boils down 1v1 encounters into who-tosses-the-grenade-in-the-room-filled-with-enemy-players. Altogether, I argue that the weapons are ineffective and underpowered, and this really takes away the charm, excitement, and element of skill that one anticipates to find in Reach‘s multiplayer.
While it is a somewhat enjoyable experience, I argue that there are far more viable and compelling alternatives. Take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for example, whose release was the largest video game release in history (compare to Halo 3‘s release). Modern Warfare 2‘s multiplayer is fast-paced, kinetic, and compelling (my friends parallel my observations) — when you see an opponent and depress the trigger, you’re almost certainly assured a kill. There is none of Reach‘s underpowered weapons and slow pace. Modern Warfare 2 is fast and dynamic, and skill is a tremendous decider. The ability to see someone and know that you can kill them makes Modern Warfare 2 much more satisfying than Reach. In Reach when you see someone and you don’t kill them because your weapon is inherently inaccurate or underpowered, this engenders a serious frustration.
In its article, IGN claims that Reach‘s multiplayer is “a dynamic battleground, a science-fictional siege played out in real-time. It starts with small skirmishes, it ends with huge assaults, and that’s why it’s the shot in the arm Halo multiplayer really needs”.
I can respond that while I am a hardcore fan of the Halo franchise (I am former administrator of Halopedia, the Halo Wikia and I am the retired co-founder of the Halo Fan Fiction Wikia), internally I am extremely disappointed by Reach‘s lack of progression and I see manifest flaws inherent to the fundamental aspects of its gameplay. I can only hope that Halo: Reach reaches for more prior to its release this Fall 2010.