- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Halo Reach: Limited Edition (from Microsoft Game Studios, developed by Bungie Studios, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $79.99).

One of the year’s most anticipated first-person shooters continues the saga of humanity’s fight for survival against the multispecies war machine known as the Covenant. This package not only offers players the full game, but also includes a fantastic history lesson about the creation of the United Nations Space Command’s most famous weapon.

What’s the story? From the package: It is the year 2552. Welcome to the planet Reach, the heart of the UNSC’s military power and home to the iconic Spartan supersoldiers. For decades, humanity has fled from the relentless Covenant threat, and now the largest Covenant fleet ever witnessed looms in the darkened skies over Reach. Noble Team, equipped with a deadly arsenal of high-tech weaponry and abilities and bolstered by the full might of the UNSC, must stand and face a full-scale planetary invasion.

Play the role: During the solo campaign, the player assumes the role of Noble 6, a newly trained Spartan ready to defend Reach.

With help from five more team members, including silent killer Emile (his helmet is to die for) and heavy-weapons specialist Jorge, he will go on missions to help fellow Spartans, rescue citizens of Reach, and engage and destroy the Covenant on the ground and in the air.

Noble 6 gets a fully customizable helmet and body armor (down to individual pieces) and successful players earn credits to create the most stylish and ferocious-looking Spartan in the galaxy.

Get to the action: Noble 6 can carry two arms and will have access to about two dozen types of weapons from the Spartans and Covenant forces as he battles Grunts, Brutes, Elites, Jackals, Hunters and Drones.

New weapons include the needle rifle, fuel rod gun (it blasts green-hued projectiles) and plasma launcher (hold the trigger down and shoot four tracking plasma grenades).

An assortment of temporary power-ups (one can be carried at a time) is available to the Spartan (look for the florescent glowing stations) and range from holographic decoys to jet packs to an impenetrable shield.

Additionally, Spartan eventually will find vehicles he can drive or whose weapons he can control, including the Warthog, Scorpion, Wraith and Falcon gunship.

Space battles are now part of the action as Noble 6 takes control of the Sabre orbital fighter in an aerial dogfight.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Using the Target Locator, a hand-held GPS-type system used to define an area and have UNSC’s orbital fleet unleash a bombardment to vaporize a Covenant Phantom; sniping an Elite from a misty, mountainous location after sending out a holographic decoy to confuse him; watching my hands pop off an overheated plasma rifle; and speeding along on a Ghost, skimming over a pond and looking at smoking Grunt carcasses.

Violent encounters: Blood of many colors will be spilled in Halo Reach, but the action is nowhere near as graphic as I have seen in dozens of other shooters.

Amid the explosions, head shots and crumpled bodies strewn about comes a better version of assassinations. Basically a glorified finishing move, it is executed by holding down the melee button to release a third-person level of hurt on unsuspecting enemies.

Read all about it: Marvel Publishing presents the four-issue limited series Halo: The Fall of Reach - Boot Camp ($3.99 each). Adapted from author Eric Nylund’s 2001 best-selling novel, the story highlights the origins of the famed Spartan Master Chief Petty Officer John-117.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. Plunged into a pretty world that’s part Pandora, part national park and part Disney future world, the player has little time to admire his locations as he is mired in vintage Halo combat.

Gritty cut scenes along with those nonstop firefights help the story play out. This Halo epic looks and sounds great and maintains the traditions and minutia of the franchise, down to the detail afforded to energy swords and a fallen Jackal’s bony noggin, all brought to life in high definition.

Multiplayer: At the heart of Halo Reach is a deep multiplayer experience highlighted through Xbox Live. Among the possibilities, the community of combat-savvy virtual veterans can compete on teams of up to eight Spartans and Elites, and the Firefight mode seen in Halo 3: O.D.S.T. is expanded.

Specifically, multiplayer action includes load-out customization, better matchmaking and the ability to view an active roster of friends playing the game as well as more game types, such as Rocketfight (a Spartan team survives with help from an unlimited amount of rocket launchers) and Gruntpocalypse (waves of those mumbling, pint-sized death machines attack).

The game also includes a robust map and object editor found in Forge World to enable a Haloite to build and share his multiplayer creativity.

Unlockables and extras: The limited edition of Halo Reach arrives in a black box recovered from a classified Oni facility. Besides the game, the box holds Dr. Catherine Halsey’s personnel journal, which provides about 100 pages of handwritten, classified information and sketches about the origins and development of the Spartan project.

Additional content found in the journal sleeve includes Halsey’s security badge, Spartan candidate health records, maps, photos, a UNSC cloth patch, blueprints and clipped news articles.

This book covers entries from the years 2510 to 2552 and allows the mere gamer to transcend the first-person shooting and truly feel privy to the Halo mythology. I ended up spending a couple of hours just reading Halsey’s notes and analyzing the materials before even bothering to play the game.

I also should mention that a code for an exclusive helmet for the Spartan is included.

Furthermore, turn on the game and download Halo Waypoint to find another incredible resource about the sci-fi universe, including lots of videos and a personalized history of the player’s accomplishments during all of the Halo games.

What’s it worth? Die-hard fans of the Spartans will not be disappointed with the expansive limited-edition package. With a careful allegiance to story canon during the campaign (I wish it were longer), near limitless multiplayer potential and a map-enhancing extravaganza, Halo Reach defines the immersive experience that this pop-culture franchise richly deserves and acts as a fitting swan song for its developer.

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