Video games are well suited to pulse-pounding action, but heart-rending drama? Not so much, though that hasn't stopped them from trying. Halo: Reach, the latest entrant in Microsoft's cash-cow franchise, arrives on a tide of hype that has often included overly enthusiastic praise for a somber, elegiac tone born from this prequel's focus on the human race's defeat by invading alien Covenant forces on the outpost planet Reach. Composer Martin O'Donnell's soaring melancholic score cascades over cutscenes of armored soldiers attempting to grapple with impending failure and the immense loss of life it entails, the images often striving for iconographic sorrow: a sole Spartan, head downturned, in a military aircraft, or a group of squadmates cast in silhouette against a torched-city-in-ruins backdrop (less-than-subtle shades of WWII and 9/11). Amplified by the fact that the title stands as a Halo swan song for original producers Bungie Studios, such a morose mood seeks to counterbalance and complicate the franchise's traditional one-against-many heroic template with an air of gravity. And, in almost every meaningful way, it fails in this respect.
But then, who cares? Halo's FPS calling card was never narrative profundity (despite its increasingly convoluted plots, as well as tie-in novels and peripheral stories), but sturdy mechanics that were second-to-none in terms of effective, thrilling simplicity. The Call of Dutys and Bioshocks of the gaming world may have more intricate control schemes and afford more complex actions and reactions, but Halo's fundamental gameplay remains a surefire genre standard-bearer, and with Reach, Bungie has refined its template to near perfection. With only slight tweaks to the formula (the inclusion of Armor Abilities—like speed-running, camouflage, and jet packs, which first appeared in Halo: ODST—and an aerial combat sequence set in space), the interface is at once wholly familiar and yet smoother and more robust than before. Like the gorgeous HD graphics and sound design, it feels more muscular, and never sluggish or unintuitive. To play Reach is not only to be reminded of why Halo has become such an industry titan, but to understand that all prior installments were, at least with regard to gameplay, merely preludes to this current state.
The franchise's finest clashes always featured wave after wave of armed adversaries, presenting a challenge that—visually, practically, emotionally—initially seemed overwhelming and unreasonable, and yet proved achievable with only moderate skill and effort. The same is true of Reach, except here, nearly every other encounter with the Covenant is equal to the best moments of 2 or 3. This is partly because the game's levels are so varied and provide a variety of attack options, and partly because the enemy A.I. has been greatly enhanced. The approximately eight-hour campaign involves racing from one centerpiece battle to the next with only minimal time to take a breath—or, disappointingly, any chance to soak in the quite lovely environmental artistry of the various stages. If Reach's underlying construction has a nagging failure, it's that many of the areas are large enough to invite exploration, and yet reward that inquisitiveness with absolutely nothing. Still, if I'd have liked more of an excuse to take my time investigating every available nook and cranny of Reach, the trade-off—namely, blistering, flexible warfare that can be carried out in a host of inventively different ways—is ultimately well worth it.
As for the aforementioned story, well, let's just say awards aren't in its future. This isn't because Bungie has regressed from the already average levels of its earlier efforts; in fact, there's far less wannabe-humorous banter to grate on one's nerves this time around. Rather, the problem is that it just doesn't matter. Yes, it's 2552, years before Master Chief, and you're the newest team member of a Spartan outfit tasked with saving Reach as it's laid to waste by the Covenant. It's a mission doomed from the outset, and thus outfitted with all sorts of pseudo-funereal trappings that aim to make you care about the planet's, and your featureless comrades', inevitable doom. But in reality, your anonymous character, Noble 6, is still a personality-free proxy, and all the jibber-jabber regarding your objectives and what's happening to Reach are so much superfluous nonsense. Whether you're blowing up cannon defense systems, protecting airship convoys, or activating gigantic machinery by pressing one of many buttons that need to be pressed, Reach remains fundamentally about proceeding straight to the next skirmish, killing every enemy in sight, and then escaping to a checkpoint so an ignorable, if attractive, cutscene can begin. To even try to think about actual plot details, either during the game or afterward, is to ponder the inconsequential.
If storytelling isn't Reach's strong suit, that makes it no different from all but a select few FPSs (like Bioshock), and if its form and content share little relationship (largely because there is no narrative substance to be found), the title nonetheless confirms the preeminence of well-executed mechanics. And as usual, does so most fully in its smorgasbord of multiplayer modes, which, following in its predecessors' footsteps, are so plentiful and diverse that ultimate value is found not in the single-player campaign, but online. In Slayer death matches, games of "capture the flag," and many other multifaceted contests, one comes to recognize the remarkable craftsmanship that's gone into Reach's levels, weapons (some familiar, some new), and brawny, intuitive control scheme. It's there, amid firefights and zombie outbreaks alongside the great Internet throngs, a venue free from distracting plotting and affected solemnity, that one can fully appreciate the exquisite rightness, in look and feel, of Reach, a farewell effort that stands as Bungie's finest accomplishment to date.