'Halo: Reach'

Halo might be the most important franchise for the Xbox. The 2001 original defined console first-person shooters with its groundbreaking precision controls, keeping Xbox system sales alive during its early years and setting the standard for nearly every modern shooter to date.

What the truly hardcore fans realize, though, is that the original game's popularity skyrocketed with prequel novels that dug deeper into the tale of humanity's desperate battle for survival against the aliens known as The Covenant. The key book in all of this was 2001's Halo: The Fall of Reach. That novel comes to life in the final game in the franchise, Halo: Reach, and developer Bungie has crafted one of the best stories in video games today while adding even more to its trademark multiplayer in what is truly the defining version of Halo.

The Covenant has invaded Planet Reach, and Earth will be next unless the Spartan soldiers of Noble Team can stop them. Right from the start we know that Reach is a lost cause, that The Covenant will win the battle and therefore set up the story of the original Halo game. But the more I played, the more drawn I felt to continue the fight. There's a compelling drama at work with a sci-fi twist behind it; the combination of watching allied bases being overtaken by the enemy, rushing to save civilians as enemy forces invade, and being witness to the sacrifices of Noble Team creates a gripping narrative that you want to see through to the bitter end. Reach might have been destined to fall, but I made sure to put as many Covenant in the ground as I could.

Gameplay remains largely unchanged from prior games, but that's a very good thing. Moving and shooting are just as tight and responsive as Reach's predecessors. New additions include interchangeable armor to enhance your combat capabilities, such as a hologram to distract enemies and a jetpack to reach new heights.

Enemy AI is greatly improved on the higher difficulties, with almost no discernible patterns. It would've been nice to see this balanced with better ally AI, but more often than not your game-controlled friends become bugs flying into the zapper.

Multiplayer has been an essential strength of the Halo series, and Reach expands the options. Cooperative play can be done with friends in the main story, or by banding together to fight waves of enemies in Firefight mode. Competitive player-versus-player games bring back Slayer death matches in individual or team-based play, along with objective team games such as Capture the Flag. On top of these modes, variant play styles are introduced with special rules such as "sniper rifles only." The super-serious competitive players have a new haven in Arena, ranked matches that can be played either solo or in teams, with worldwide rankings and champions crowned monthly - the ultimate in Halo bragging rights. With all that and the ability to create your own multiplayer maps, you've got tons of content to keep you hooked.

Watching the game in action, you can see how much extra effort has been put into Reach. Character and background-texturing details are improved over Halo 3's, with more realism added to this futuristic world. Weapons no longer look like they belong in a toy box; humans don't have mushy faces; and staring into the distance shows you a living, moving world under siege. Add in voice acting and music that deliver a sense of foreboding and desperation, and you could almost reach out and touch Reach.

The Halo franchise has run its course, and it's been one hell of a ride. Reach delivers an experience that will be remembered for its narrative and played for years to come with its diverse multiplayer. If you're on the fence about it, trust me: This is Halo at its finest.

Halo: Reach is now available for Xbox 360 in a Standard Edition for $59.99, a Limited Edition for $79.99, and a Legendary Edition for $149.99, each with varying content for collectors. For this review, the author completed the story on Legendary difficulty, repeated levels on Normal difficulty, played the Firefight mode, and played several online multiplayer modes.

Luke Hamilton is a buyer, creative designer, and online coordinator for Video Games Etc. He can be reached at ssj_4luke@hotmail.com.

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