Friday, September 24, 2010

GLAG Review: Halo Reach

After months of speculating on whether or not to give in and pre-order Halo Reach, the crew at Game Like a Girl reached a conclusion.  For Stephanie, it was go with Amazon and get a $20 game credit toward future purchases.  For Renee, it was continue to be poor and sponge off her friends until she could scrape together a few extra bucks to buy her own copy.

Last night (after hectic and exhausting weekends) we finally got the chance to sit down and play together.  And now, for the first time, we present a GLAG tandem review, by Renee and Stephanie.

Renee: Is Halo Reach the best Halo ever?  Yes.  Yes it is.  But is anybody surprised?  Probably not.  From my experience (as an avid Halo 2 and 3 player) Bungie is a company by Halo players, for Halo players.  And all the things that the general public wants, Bungie wants, which is why everything (as far as we can tell) that you would've changed about Halo 3 has been changed for Halo Reach.

Stephanie: Well mostly. Because I'm the cynic of the pair...but, we'll get to that after Renee shows off her Halo knowledge.

The game is, obviously, beautiful, and the increased crispness of the game play makes certain things much easier, especially head shots.  The maps are one of my favorite aspect--Bungie brought back suped up versions of some of my favorite Halo 2 maps.  I'm thinking specifically of Ivory Tower

Halo 2

Halo Reach (fuck yeah!)

which went from looking like an office building with a cool layout to looking like an awesome nouveau French-Asian fusion restaurant (this is a good thing, as anyone who has ever wanted to kill everyone in a French-Asian fusion restaurant will know).  The new maps are also slick and stylized throw backs to previous games.  Pinnacle (below)

calls to mind Halo 2's Ascension map

and The Cage is a floating base that looks like it's situated just around the corner from Valhalla.

Apart from just maintaining what's become a clear Halo aesthetic, Bungie's choice to weave the old in with the new also makes the game feel immediately familiar, which is what you want when you're playing a sequel (alright, prequel...) to a favorite game.  When Halo 3 came out my friends and I had to spend a few weeks adjusting, learning the new maps and figuring out how to play on them without being completely disoriented.  After one or two games last night, I already felt pretty oriented, and I credit that to 2 things: 1)Bungie's call backs to older maps and 2)Bungie's designers having finally gotten really good at what they do.

As much as I love the rehashed maps, I (and most of the community if you can tell anything by map voting trends) also really like the new maps.  Boardwalk

seems to have already become a crowd favorite and (before we muted them) all the little boys kept yelling at us to vote for it.

Speaking of voting, the voting thing has gotten even better.  In Halo 2 a map would come up and you'd have to play it, but you'd be happy about it because hey, playing on Xboxlive is awesome!  When Halo 3 came out and you suddenly had the option to veto the map, fuck yes!  And if your veto resulted in an even less popular choice well then, oh well.  Play it anyways and be happy that you even had the veto option--remember Halo 2 where you just had to play the first thing that came up?

But, like I said, Bungie is very FGBG (for gamers, by gamers) so this time around you get not one, not two, not even three, but four options as far as the next game goes.  Three games will come up (this is in Team Slayer, FYI) on different or sometimes the same maps, Classic Slayer, Elite Slayer, Swat, Snipers, etc., and your team (because if you're playing on the same console you automatically put all your votes into the same map) can choose to vote for one of those maps, or go for the fourth option, None of the Above.  It feels so S.A.T. multiple choice section, only in a good way.

Frankly, I think the potentially best new feature of multiplayer happens before you even enter matchmaking. The great thing about Halo is that because it is such a popular franchise there are approximately 3 billion people playing at any given moment. The downside is that approximately 92% of those players are potty mouthed homophobes, racists or misogynists - or the fourth option, All of the Above. It feels like a junior high PE class, only in the worst way.

The new psych profiles aims to reduce partnering respectful players with people that want to tell you to make a sammich (aka: people who will only ever make sammiches for a living), by determining if you are quiet or talkative, cooperative or a lone wolf, here for fun or competitive, rowdy or polite. This doesn't really seem to work all that well since we ended up with chatty cathys in most matches. However, the best news is that if you end up with some gay-bashing jackoff you can mute them. And if you mute them and enough of the poor souls paired with them also mute them, they will eventually be permanently muted. And to that I salute Bungie.

Once the game starts, there's a whole bunch of new fun things to do in addition to the old fun things.  Everyone's absolute favorite is the amped up assassination (watch video for montage of many different ones).

It's hard to choose a favorite--I'm torn between the shank (where you stab someone through the chest with a knife, unlocking the "That's a Knife!" achievement) and the jump-on-their-back-and-twist-their-neck-til-it-snaps version.  Both are so incredibly satisfying that if you kill someone that way it almost erases the fact that you only killed one person during the entire game.

But, seriously, it is an awesome kill. There also seem to be a lot more gravity hammers available which in my book is always good.

Also sweet: the load out feature, where during deployment (not just in the opening round but in every respawn) you can choose the weapon you're sent out with (in some instances) or the special ability you want (sprint, active camo, jetpack...).  The special abilities are a pretty sweet idea, especially since they include the jetpack, which isn't really that awesome in terms of game play (though it might just be that I don't know how to make strategic use of it yet) but is awesome because it's a fucking jetpack.

Speaking of jetpacks...I was really bummed to find out that Grifball isn't a permanent feature in Reach.  It looks like some folks have created Grifball courts through the Forge feature, and some include jetpacks! Thanks guys!

There's also some minor tweaks--having the scope widen out on the sniper rifle for up close shots=BRILLIANT, and fewer power ups and shields scattered around, but who cares when you've got jetpacks?--but apart from that, I can't think of much more to say about Reach, except possibly that I have zero complaints, and that's kind of the best thing you can say about the most recent addition to a very successful series of games.  At $60, it's totally worth the purchase price, and I'm happy to report that (being a total genius) I managed to convert my credit card rewards points into a gift card that I will use to buy a copy for myself ASAP. 

Minus my gripe that Grifball isn't a permanent option and my criticisms of the co-op campaign, I agree. Now, lets go find some gravity hammers. 

But with limited Grifball access, the game does retain a certain Christmas type specialness--it's Grifball weekend, it's Grifball weekend, the children cried!  Oh, and there's one more thing I forgot to mention entirely: the flippin' campaign.  How, might you ask, did I forget to mention it?  Well, truth be told, I could take or leave the campaigns in any Halo game.  Wha-wha-what?! you ask?  It's pretty simple, actually: when I started playing Halo, I played it with friends, against random other real people online.  And this is what hooked me--not the graphics, not the style, not the dorky sci-fi plot, but the fact that for the first time ever I could pit my skills (or lack thereof) against other REAL people.  It's my favorite thing about the game, and most of the time I completely forget that there's anything else to it.  Lucky for you, Stephanie didn't.

The best thing about Halo games is that you know that when you drop 60 bucks on the game you are going to get your money's worth and then some. Online multiplayer is the heart and soul of Halo. With tons of different types of games, and hundreds of thousands of people to be paired every minute of every day, 60 bucks breaks down to fractions of pennies for the hours of gameplay you will get out of it. And at Game Like a Girl we like getting our money's worth.

But, I felt like Reach was worth my money just in the campaign - well almost. While most folks hate cut scenes I love them. Being immersed in the world that has been created and learning about the characters is part of the fun. The Reach cut scenes are beyond gorgeous (though it makes the animated cartoon seem like a wasted opportunity) and they are substantial, mini movies to give your thumbs and right index finger a rest (which gets a lot more action now that melee has smartly been moved to the right bumper).

Unfortunately, there is a fatal flaw in the campaign storyline. At Game Like a Girl our motto is pretty much Co-op 4 Life. Part of the fun of playing video games is that we get to play them with our friends, whether they are sitting on the couch next to us, or an ocean away. That is one of the reasons we loved Halo 3 - not only could you play with 8 friends online you could also go through the co-op with a buddy.  The great thing about Halo 3 was that multiplayer awesomeness continued in the campaign. When you played the campaign in co-op it made absolute sense within the story, now it seems like whoever logs on second functions as a permanent version of the Hologram Armor Ability, which in the scope of the storyline really doesn't make much sense.

The fun of the prequel is you get to be a part of a team of Spartans. Granted, the characters are somewhat sterotypical (the hard-ass lady, the black guy, etc) but the storyline relies on only one player going through the campaign for it to work. You supposedly play as 6 who joins the unit after the previous 6 is killed and you are immediately initiated into the team and told to get over the "lone wolf stuff." Well, sure, except that we aren't alone. Looking at each other during a second of down time we figured out, nope we were the same person just with different colored armor. This was a bit confusing at first because it seemed like with 6 characters to work with the second player would just become one of them. Even as you move through the different missions you are always with one of the other five characters, and while that would be kind of weird for player 2 since that character is usually dead at the end of the mission it could also be kind of awesome since they all have different specialties.

As we neared the end and our team was dropping off like flies we figured the reason that player 2 was a hologram or player 1 split personality was because the last Spartan standing would be Master Chief. That would be awesome, right? Nope. I'll save the details but lets just say every one gets it in the end...or rather the postscript. I'm sure Bungie thought this storyline was imperative to the Halo universe, but it seems odd to make it so unconducive to co-op when the greatest strength of the Halo franchise is its players love of multiplayer.

If you can get past this weirdness in the story, the campaign itself is pretty fun. It seemed a bit harder than the Halo 3 campaign, but in a good way. You really had to strategize to get through some of the missions and in some cases that meant having to start them over. Did you get yourself and your tank blown up halfway through? Better start again, cause that is a really long walk and some big guns ahead of you. You also get to play with new guns and toys. I was really excited by the mission in space, but it seemed really short and didn't give you the opportunity to get familiar with the controls. Also a lot of the missions that involve flying cut away just as you are about to land, which seems an odd time for Bungie to decide to baby us. If we are going to suck and crash land and kill ourselves and the remaining Spartans, let us do it.

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