“Space troopers wearing space armor carrying big space guns” was a cliché long before humanity even got to space. But video games can pump new life into even the soggiest genres, and, for the last decade, the Halo games have turned Starship Troopers-style outer-space militarism into a relentlessly enjoyable shoot-’em-up experience. The franchise has undoubtedly been swooped by its imitators—Gears of War’s visuals are more gorgeously bleak, Mass Effect’s storytelling is infinitely more complex, and my serious gamer friends seem to have moved on to Call of Duty for their all-night Live sessions—but there’s no denying Halo’s pure, iconic power. Halo: Reach, released at midnight last night to presumably-ridonk sales, is the last game in the series to be produced by original developer Bungie. I played it for a few hours before dawn, and I have an important news bulletin: Killing aliens is still fun.
Reach is technically a prequel to the first Halo, but it proves my theory (patent pending) that video game prequels are really just perfected versions of their original game. The look and feel of Halo hasn’t radically changed: I spent a few hours playing a co-op campaign with my roommate, and it was a vintage Halo trip through forested environments surrounded by mountain ranges, attacking metal fortresses, and then defending them. The Warthog is still impossible to drive, and there’s never enough sniper ammo, but every battle still requires its own particular strategy, making Halo sort of a geometric thrill ride.
Talking about Halo’s campaign mode is sort of besides the point, of course. The multiplayer has a few nifty add-ons. You can fully customize your armor, for one thing. (I think I saw helmets inspired by a TIE Fighter and Cobra Commander. But that might have been the sleep deprivation.) There’s also the return of Halo 3’s Forge, a system which lets you build your own multiplayer levels. (I look forward to pretending I will actually use Forge at some point.)
Other than that, the multiplayer feels pleasantly unchanged: It’s all about the simple pleasures of plasma grenades, rocket whores, the pleasant “thwack” sound when you melee an unsuspecting victim, the terrible horrible fifth graders who’ve been playing the Beta for months? It might sound funny, but for gamers of a certain age, Reach will be the nostalgia trip of the year.