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First Look: Halo Reach

Jonas Mäki took the flight to Seattle to take a closer look at Bungie's next project - Halo Reach.

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Reach is a dead planet. All its 700 million inhabitants are dead. They just don't know it yet. A distant radar station stops working. Reach separatists are thought to be responsible and a UNSC team is sent to investigate. A routine mission, but all communications are lost with the team.

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UNSC reacts by sending a team of Spartan III soldiers, Noble Team, to deal with the rebels. You are one of these soldiers. A young lieutenant with limited experience, who joins the mission as a replacement. At the scene there is an uneasy atmosphere of calm. Everything is deserted. There are plenty of settlements from the time when pioneers settled on Reach about 100 years ago. Cut into the rocks in order to withstand the harsh climate of Reach.

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Reach is a harsh and inhospitable place. The early settlers had to dig down in order to survive the rough climate.

Everyone is gone. Dead. No signs of life. Something terrible has happened here. It's more than just an angry group of separatist, whose only wish is that UNSC leave their planet alone. This is when the battle begins. It's intense, it's hard to see the enemy as they bounce between walls, jump off roofs and run up the streets.

Halo players will quickly identify Jackals with their shields, and the grunts of the Grunts, but they will have a harder time placing the jumping enemies. But the Spartans have no idea what they are up against. This takes place before Halo: Combat Evolved, an Covenants are still something that belongs in outer space. When the battle is over it is with ill concealed disgust the officer in charge Carter, notes that it isn't humans they have fought, but Covenants.

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There was no time for evacuation, so there will be civilians to consider on Reach.

All of this took place early in December. A select group of journalists had been invited to Bungie in Seattle to get a first glimpse of Halo: Reach.

When I arrived at Bungie I'm greeted by a stern guard, who had no intention of letting just anyone walk into the studio. He was only doing his job, but he was the perfect fit for the job, the neck of a bull and deep, intimidating voice and piercing eyes. While I wait for Bungie's community manager Brian Jarrard, my guide for the day, to come pick me up I take some time to adore the lobby packed with various awards, as well as statues, replicas and characters from the Halo universe.

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There was plenty of replicas from the Halo Universe in Bungie's lobby. And the writer of this article on this particular day.

Brian Jarrard takes me on a tour of the Bungie offices and tells me that they have long since grown out of their current locales, which is in fact an old grocery store. Jarrard points to desks, walls and tables and explains that all of them have wheels for quick and easy relocation, something that happens a lot. There is also a Bungie team located across the street, working on something top secret we are not allowed to see. All of the Halo: Reach team is, however, kept under one roof. Soon all of Bungie will move to a location large enough to house the entire developer under one roof.

We entered Bungie's press room and meet Marcus Lehto (Creative Director) and Joseph Tung (Executive Producer), who show us a short film on Halo: Reach. A presentation of what the planet is all about, that informs us that it went down in the single largest Covenant attack in history and that its 700 million inhabitants perished with the planet. But they didn't go down without a fight and Halo: Reach is the story of how these brave men and women met their fate.

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The writer of the article Jonas Mäki (on the left) and the Creative Director on Halo: Reach Marcus Lehto (on the right). Lehto has been working on the Halo franchise ever since the first game and was the person who designed Master Chief. A fun fact for those of you who managed to film under the visor of the Spartans in Halo 3 is that it is Marcus' face you get to see.

During the presentation my thoughts drift away and I think of Titanic. A movie about a disaster where everyone knew that the boat was going to sink and that most passengers would not survive. Just as the presentation comes to a close Joseph Tung makes the same comparison. But there is also hope in Halo: Reach that takes place in the year 2552. Just a few decades earlier, 2509 to be exact, the Pillar of Autumn was constructed in orbit around Mars.

The same ship that just barely got away from Reach and carried Spartan-117, Master Chief, just to run into the first ringworld in Halo: Combat Evolved. Most of us know that this was the beginning of the end of the Covenant in Halo 3. What happens to the brave Spartans of Noble Team is something we don't know and won't know until the game comes out later this year.

I can't help but wonder if this won't affect the level of suspense I will experience when playing the game. I and many others have read Halo: Fall of Reach, and we all know how this ends. However, Marcus Lehto gives me his word that no player will feel disappointed in the story and that there will be plenty of surprises.

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Four members of Noble Team. From the left we see Emile (S239) and Kat (S-320), a female Spartan III soldier, then its Jorge (S-052) who passed the reqiurements to become a Spartan II. And finally it is you, the player, and sixth member of the squad.

It should also be noted that this is not the playable version of Halo: Fall of Reach, but something that stands on its own. There will be a lot going on, that no one outside the Bungie offices have ever heard of. Once I have been reassured that there will be plenty of excitement the demo of the level I started out telling you about kicks off.

As Carter kneels down and realises what he has just fought against, I can't help but feel that Bungie have managed to reinvent the Covenant, make the scary and mysterious again, even though I know them well. Most of them anyway. But during the attack on Reach there also some up until now unknown relatives of the Jackals, called Skirmishers. Faster and more mobile they make a welcome addition to the easily disposable Grunts. Better resistance makes for better action. Bungie explain to us that the reason why we haven't seen them before is that the last of them perished on Reach.

This is also true for several weapons and other new items that flash by. The explanation is similar to the one George Lucas used to explain why technology seemed so much more impressive in the prequel trilogy. It was at an earlier stage of the war when the military was operating at full capacity, and on top of this it takes place on a separate planet with its own traditions and methods.

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Skirmishers are a new type of enemy, think of a ninja version of Jackals (you know the ones with shields) and you get a pretty good idea of what you are up against. Bungie tells us they are relatives of the Jackals and that the race went extinct during the battles that took place on Reach.

Halo: Reach looks really nice and is a major step up from Halo 3 in graphical terms. Everything is moving with much better animations, there are more details and the lighting is of the highest quality. Other effects are also of the highest calibre. This includes the amount of debris a grenades kick up as they hit the ground. The measly firecrackers are gone and replaced by massive bombs that there the ground in pieces. The warthog has also been upgraded and now sports individual suspension, and rolls around nicely over rough terrain. The deep grooves of the tires rip into the ground and you could easily think that some kind of giant garden tiller with a mounted machine gun was making its way towards you when you see it coming.

Despite all of this I cannot help but feel a bit underwhelmed. I was hoping for more, and I quickly jot down "graphics?" in my note pad to remind myself that I need to ask Bungie about about over lunch. But there is more action to be seen before I get to tangle with whatever food gets served at lunch. Team Noble bravely battles on and even though there are place holders in places I still manage to spot a few other new features.

There are civilian vehicles such as tractors, execution moves in close combat if you sneak up on enemies, rain of sparkles as you rain down bullets on a concrete wall, how much more powerful the Covenant weaponry appears and the return of Elites. The warriors who later left the Covenant sect, and were replaced by the not nearly as interesting Brutes.

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By sneaking up on an enemy and holding down the melee button, you will deliver and instant killing blow. The idea is to allow the player to play a more tactical, almost stealth like game, if the player opts for this over the more traditional Halo approach of open warfare.

The Elites make a welcome return. Bungie tells us they had a lot of unused ideas from Halo: Combat Evolved, when it came to both game and the Elites. Bungie describe them as the samurai warriors of the Halo universe. Noble, smart, calculating and completely ruthless when they need to be. There will be several variations of Elites in the game, although I only got to see two of them.

Finally I got to see a small part of a night level. Apparently the third level, as I was first given a glimpse of level one. Something drastic happens during the second level and Bungie did not want to spoil anything. During the night level I got to see another new feature in Halo: Reach, as you can now pimp your armour.

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Spartan III soldiers is despite the higher number (Master Chief is a Spartan II), something of a "wear and tear" version of the Spartans. They don't have unison equipment, aren't as high tech and are cheaper to producer. This is why Carter, Catherine, Jorge, Jun and Emile will use parts from the battlefield to upgrade their armour. You can add abilities and looks to cater your own taste and the character you create is also the one you will take online in multiplayer. Bungie did not want to give too much away about the multiplayer, but one concrete thing is that the power up items from Halo 3 have been removed.

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Elites make a return in Halo: Reach as the game is played out before the prime of the Brutes. Bungie see the Elites as the samurais of the Halo universe. Noble and with a sense of honour when it comes to combat.

Instead of picking up the invisibility bonus, its a trait you can equip your character with. As soon as the meter fills up you can go invisible. The effect looks a bit different and it also works slightly differently. You knock out the radar of everyone in the vicinity, which works both ways according to Bungie. Your opponent will have a harder time spotting you, but he will also be aware that there is an invisible foe close by. Another ability that you can give your character is the ability to sprint at a nauseating pace.

Time for a lunch break. After lunch a visit with Marty O'Donnell the composer of all the music in Halo had been scheduled. Before we head of to lunch the folks at Bungie reveal that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a big hit in the studio at the moment and that Marty is the one who is most caught up in Nathan Drake's adventure.

Lunch was taken at a close by restaurant and while I shoved a mountain of a hamburger down my throat I asked about the graphics. Comparisons to Gears of War 2, Killzone 2 and Bungie favourite Uncharted 2: Among Thieves were unavoidable. Halo: Reach looks great, but its not as visually striking as the games mentioned above.

Marcus Lehto got my message, but felt it was an unfair comparison. All of them are action games, but those games are more limited. You cannot take a Banshee at any time and fly across the whole level, and see all of the action in minute detail. The levels in Halo: Reach are much bigger than in previous Halo titles and still allow for co-operative action for up to four players. Add to this the fact that everything is still recorded while you play, so that you can end your session at any time, view what you have played, edit your own movies and capture stills.

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Bungie are of the firm belief that they have squeezed out every ounce of power out of the Xbox 360 when making Halo: Reach. Even with a graphical leap as large as from Halo: Combat Evolved to Halo 2, they have managed to create larger worlds, improve the physics, increase the polygon count, redo the lighting, and add many new weather effects. Despite all of this the number of vehicles and characters on screen at any one time has now been increased to 20 vehicles and 40 characters. There is still four player co-op and it is possible to record anything for screen captures and movie making.

It's a reasoning I can buy. A Halo where you cannot play co-operatively with four players, where you cannot be in four different corners of the level, where there are no flying vehicles, where everything wasn't recorded and saved, and that does not have a physics engine that allows you to blow a Warthog up into the air just to come crushing down on a Grunt a kilometre away, and without the big open world there would be more resources left over for visual delights. But would it have been Halo? Bungie themselves compares the step between Halo 3 and Halo: Reach with the one the made between Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. And that's just how it comes across.

As we return to Bungie it's time to meet Marty O'Donnell and see the trailer you have probably all seen by now (the one that premiered on the Spike TV Video Game Awards). As is customary with Halo games, the cut scenes are rendered in real time, and this is also true for the Halo: Reach trailer that gives you a fairly good idea of how the finished game will look. Bungie tells us that they have worked very hard to make the first level and the trailer look like it will in the final product.

Marty O'Donnell came across as a particularly friendly and positive person, and he is naturally a legend in Halo circles. The idea behind the music of Halo: Reach, is for it to be darker and illustrate the fact that its far from a cheery chapter in the Halo saga. There is no hope, Reach will fall. Marty also told us that he is a little fed up with the Halo music at the moment and that he wants to try something different with Halo: Reach. He wants to portray what fantastic warriors Spartans are, how they walk up on their targets, never stressed or in a rush, but very relaxed and assertive deathbringers no matter the odds.

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Bungie's composer Marty O'Donnell is responsible for all sounds in Halo: Reach. He came across as very down to Earth, and showed no console prejudice as he cited Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as his current favourite game.

O'Donnell has now involved in all decisions with the regards to sound design at Bungie. Exactly how this will impact Halo: Reach is to early to tell, since much of what I witnessed in terms of voices and sounds were place holders. One thing that sets Halo: Reach apart from previous Halo titles is the use of motion capture.

This includes facial animations and brand new technology to render faces. This will enable Bungie to easier create a more serious atmosphere as the poorly synced and ghostly characters are done away with. They have used different individuals to create different facial patterns to distribute amongst the characters in the game, increasing the realism. You can see traces of this in the Halo: Reach trailer and if you compare it to the cut scenes and dialogues in Halo 3 you will notice the difference.

My visit to Bungie is coming to its end, but one final presentation remains. It's held by Sage Merrill, with the somewhat odd job title of "Sandbox Design Lead". A gentleman with braided beard, piercings and tattoos shows us visual effects, weapons balance and things of that nature. Halo: Reach will feature larger battle than we have previously seen in the series with up to 40 soldiers (friends and enemies) and 20 vehicles on screen at any one time.

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Many have criticised Bungie for not using motion capture. This is something that Bungie have taken to heart and it will be fully implemented in Halo: Reach. Even facial animations have been improved to a point where you will see the Spartan III soldiers remove their helmets to have conversations.

It doesn't sound like much at first, but it means that literary the whole screens will be overflowing with action. We got to see an unfinished, but completely outrageous sequence with a swarm of Warthogs going forward with Hornets to meet up an almost as large army of Covenant vehicles (think of the enormous Halo Wars battles). The showdown was immense as smoking Banshees crashed down into Warthogs on the move, resulting in a mind blowing metal massacre. It was a far cry from the pedestrian pace we have gotten used to in previous Halo games.

The Warthog has been my favourite vehicle across all action games for a long time. Bungie have had the ambition to create a flying equivalent. Something that's just so much fun to pilot that you'll just want to take it for a spin. The answer is the Falcon. A new vessel that was stationed on Reach that is reminiscent of a small helicopter. One player pilots it, while other players can man the mounted machine guns. Although I doubt that it will be as popular as the Warthog, it looks like it will top Hornets and Banshees as far as pure enjoyment goes.

The arsenal of weapons has been looked over to resemble the one from Halo: Combat Evolved more, but also in order to bring in a few additions. The Needler will create a larger explosion when the needles blow up so there might be collateral damage to nearby enemies, the plasma pistols EMP explosion is also considerably larger. A new addition is the Needler rifle that appeared mean in the best possible way.

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The warthog is something that Bungie have every right to feel proud of. The Falcon is an attempt to make something just as entertaining to command in the air.

The main talking point among fans will probably be the DMR (Designated Markman Rifle), that replaces the Battle Rifle. It comes across as a more balanced Battle Rifle, a weapn most consider as one of the best. The ambition is to make every gun work as intended. Today some gamers have become so adept at using the sniper rifle that its used at all distances rendering some of the shorter distance weapons completely pointless.

Exactly how Bungie would go about dealing with this issue and the sniper rifle in particular had not been decided yet, but they were experimenting with fewer rounds, more time between each fired shot, and longer reload. Personally I applaud this change, but I think it will create some tension among the elite and create more custom made game modes for these players. Another change in the arsenal is to trim down the number of different grenades, it reached four types in Halo 3: ODST, without really differing enough to motivate it.

And with that my visit to Bungie ended and thanked for what I had gotten to see. They were a bit tense as they had yet to show the world the trailer that premiered at the Video Game Awards.

Since then I have had a month to digest and think about my impression from the visit. Halo: Reach will definitely stick out from the rest of the Halo games, since it is guaranteed not to get a sequel and includes more new elements than any other instalment in the series (with the exception of Halo Wars). Halo: Reach is likely to be Bungie's final farewell to the series, and after it comes out they will look to create new titles in what will most likely original game worlds as the independent developers they have once again become.

A half-assed Halo: Reach would lead to lower expectations on the next game from Bungie, so there is no room for complacency. And Bungie are very proud of everything they have achieved with the Halo series in terms of critical acclaim, awards, sales numbers and perhaps most importantly response from fans. Therefore it is important to go out with a bang, and after my visit I believe that is exactly what they will do.

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