It’s hard to really understand the appeal of Halo. Its success as a pop culture phenomenon may have had a lot to do with the rather vacuous quality of its game world. A low-involvement shooter for an attention deficit age. It wasn't for a lack of trying either, as Bungie have put in the time and energy to flesh out the fiction in a variety of different media. Books, anime, comics, short films; they've tried it all. In fact, the fiction comes off stronger in these ancillary outings than it does in the core video games. Unfortunately, the blame for this inability to translate a decade worth of rich lore into a tangible and believable game world lies on Bungie themselves. The gameplay may have been thoroughly enjoyable, but everything around it was very ordinary.

There was nothing there to invest in or care about after you turned our console off. Therefore, the most significant question on the eve of Reach's release was whether it would finally redeem the series, and not feel like a by-the-numbers Bungie-patented shooting gallery with candy-colored aliens and environments, tied together by a barebones story involving another uncharismatic super-soldier to tie it all together.

This just happens to be Bungie’s last Halo game for Microsoft before they move forward on their multi-platform publishing deal with Activision. Fans and non-fans alike are hoping for Bungie to deliver something special: A Halo for the ages. Something we’ll remember them by. With expectations so high, you have to hand it to them for not taking the easy way out and falling back on Master Chief for security. They’re also due kudos for setting the game during the same timeframe as Eric Nylund’s Fall of Reach novel (a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved). Anything that helps up the complexity of the game world is fair game for idea-pillaging, and a step in the right direction. Familiarity is also an enemy more formidable than the Covenant. Could Bungie build an interesting experience based on a planet whose fate most Halo nuts are familiar with, or at least know the end of? Will they finally come good on all the promises?

Note: Multi-player is an essential component of the Halo: Reach experience, but due to time limitations, this review is based solely on the game’s single-player campaign.

They have, and in style no less. First impressions are overwhelmingly positive. The menus are high on usability and unusually clean, while the cutscenes are well directed and gritty, utilizing a lot of handheld and documentary-esque camera work. It isn’t that the game isn’t fun, mind you, but the mood is more somber and introspective than any Halo title thus far. You’re also treated to a beautiful portrait of Reach from orbit as the game loads up, the calm before the storm as it were, and one that sets the tone for a story that can only end badly for our species. This is also the first game in the series that lets you bring a custom Spartan into campaign mode (either male or female). Your well-rounded squad mates, who make up Noble Team, are a bit less generic. Not only are they fully voiced, but they also have distinct characters, names and identifiable ethnicities. The game also makes it a point to show you their well-rendered faces as often as it can, especially during cutscenes and downtime between firefights.

The writing is also a lot tighter than previous games in the series. There is no bombast or bravado; only a quiet realization that the best way to go down is to go down fighting. The common citizenry also make more than a few largely ill-fated appearances. They show enough emotion to make you care about their fates as well as that of Reach. Martin O’ Donnell’s score is even more sweeping and memorable than usual. There are quiet contemplative moments in the game, where the score lets the poignancy of the events happening around you sink in. It’s a shame that the score wasn’t included with the game as a bonus CD. The voice cast loses the B-list celebrities that were in last year’s ODST and is all the better for it. You’ll know your team by name by the end of the game and it’ll break your heart when some of them eventually fall in battle.

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