Some of you are reading this and thinking “no kidding, you think I’m going to let my kid play Halo: Reach?” But you’d be surprised how many parents out there still don’t pay attention to the ESRB ratings of games, and are fooled by the idea that violence in space is not violence.
You know, the whole “tree falls in forest” thing. If someone gets their head cut off in space, did it truly count as violence?
What makes this review especially tough is that Halo: Reach is a great game, and it’s really fun. But it’s just not appropriate for kids. It’s probably more violent than other games in the Halo series, and because of that, you should be wary of it when your 10 year old tells you that everyone’s playing it and he’s GOT to have it. Read on for the full review.
Back when Halo was the top dog FPS on the Xbox, it had graphical limitations. It was a beautiful game, lush and bright, with not much human blood being spilled around you. It was almost passable as a “lesser of the evils” violent game. The character you played as, Master Chief, just kind of jumped from cartoon-colored environment to cartoon-colored environment…all the while, kicking alien ass. Not much has changed – the same idea is at work here, but you can see the effect of other popular video games on the Halo series. You now play as the newest member of the “Noble” team, which means you’ve got real, tangible teammates – not just faceless green-clad marines that you knew would end up disappearing into a grenade blast. You now get to know the five other members of your team – their personalities, backgrounds, etc. Then, you watch them all die. This is no secret, as Halo fans know, since Reach takes place before Halo 1-3, and, as the lore goes – the destroying of the planet of Reach was kind of the reason why Master Chief was woken up from cryo-slumber. It’s an interesting mechanic for you to know in advance that more or less anything you do in this game doesn’t matter much, knowing that the war between the humans and Covenant rages on for five more games in the chronology after Reach. And because you get to know your teammates through the game’s storytelling, it works. You don’t feel like it’s all for naught.
But, here’s the thing – more humans means more “realistic” human deaths. Again, I said other Halo games could almost be passed of as the “lesser of the evils”. If you had a teenage kid who wanted to play a violent game, it almost felt like Halo 1-3 were “fantasy violence” since you watched highlighter-blue blood spraying out of unidentifiable aliens. One looked like the next. It was like stepping on a line of ants…sure, it was violent, but you weren’t emotionally engaged in it because the violence was very one-note. Reach‘s storytelling plays out a lot more like the Call of Duty series now that you’re getting to know the other five members of your team – and mentally, it feels different than other games. You start caring about your teammates. You’re taking orders from them, and providing cover fire for them while they do some task. For this reason, it might invoke a different set of feelings in your child that the other games wouldn’t have. I’m not necessarily saying that the other Halo games were absolved of their violence because it was just you killing aliens, but there’s something to be said for the mental bond you create with teammates, even if they’re just AI. Too much? Too deep? Fine.
Multiplayer modes in Reach are fun – and you can play games with your friends adversarially or in co-op. In Firefight mode, up to four people can take on the Covenant in a battle arena of sorts. You spend most of the time backed into a corner, fortifying yourselves from waves of attackers. It’s really fun – and there’s a good amount of customizing the game to your preferences. Adversarial multiplayer is back, and deathmatching in the Halo series has never been so fun. You now, depending on the mode, get to choose your class of soldier – and each class starts with a different powerup. Jetpacks, a sprint button, and our old favorite, active camo (invisibility) are just a couple of the powerups that you use in different classes. Some modes only allow for particular classes – for example, in a “Snipers” game, players could only choose between two classes (whose names escape me at the moment), one with a sprint powerup and the other with a hologram powerup that sends out a fake “you” at the tap of a button, running in one direction until it hits something or is destroyed by gunfire. Multiplayer feels fresh because of these classes, but the weapons still feel limited. While people are using all of the different classes for their powerups, most people online will stick to the same few weapons because of their efficacy. There is a system of credits that you earn in multiplayer games, and you use it to buy armor “upgrades” – which are purely visual, as they do not offer any real increase/decrease in defense or movement (even though they indicate that they will from their descriptions).
The graphics and sound in Halo: Reach are immersive. The sound design in the Halo series has always been top-notch, and with Marty O’Donnell on the job once again, the soundtrack is moody and appropriate. The graphics are better and better in each iteration of this series, and Reach is no different. This is another thing that makes this game less appropriate for your kids. Visually, this game is stunning. And the game looking better makes it look “more real”. Now, again, I guess we kind of stray into the argument of whether fake-looking violence is really violence. We’ll have to field that one someday. But in the meantime, I personally think that watching a newer Halo game looks more violent than the old ones. Even the moves are more violent – you can now (as of last year’s Halo: ODST) do “silent” kills – where you hit your melee attack button and your character grabs the enemy and goes into one of a few possible animations – a neck-snap, throat-slitting, etc. To an adult Halo fan, this is a great addition; a real “in your face” move that makes you feel…well…awesome. But totally unsuitable for kids. Otherwise, the environmental effects and sounds in Reach really step it up and sound better than ever. I’m impressed.
Overall, Halo: Reach is a great game – and getting top scores from all of the online and print outlets. I’ve had a fun time with the game, but being the tech-emotional-parenting-hippie I am, I won’t let my 20-month old watch me play it. I wouldn’t let my child play this unless he was probably in his teens – the ESRB, as I mentioned, rates this game “M for Mature” because of “blood” and “violence”. Father your family accordingly.
(Halo Reach is out now for the Xbox 360)