Ever since I made the trek from my shitty college apartment in Caldwell, Idaho, alllll the way into the big city—Boise!—to buy that ugly hunk of black plastic that was the first Xbox, I've been happily coming back, time and time again, for more Halo.

I'm not alone in this dedication. (Hello, this guy.) What was once intended as a third-person action game for the PC and the Mac has instead grown into the Xbox's flagship franchise—one that's spread across nine years, four ridiculously successful first-person shooters, a stab at an RTS, a failed attempt at a movie, as well as DVDs, comics, and god knows what else. When Halo: Reach came out earlier this week, it racked up $200 million in 24 hours; like Mario and Sonic, Master Chief has become an embedded part of the pop consciousness.

Which makes it all the more significant that Reach is, in some ways, a "final" Halo game. True, Microsoft will never, ever let this franchise die—but Reach is the final Halo title the games' creators and original developers, Bungie, are overseeing. Fittingly, it feels conclusive and complete—a powerhouse of a game that's incredibly fun to play and impressively refined. Halo: Reach focuses and polishes everything its predecessors have done so well; it feels as if Bungie set out to make the definitive Halo game, and I'm pretty sure they succeeded.

(Before I go much further, a disclaimer: I haven't finished Reach yet. I KNOW, I KNOW. However: I've played most of the campaign, in both solo and co-op modes, and I've played a solid amount of online multiplayer. I'm a bit torn: (A) I have to review this game, 'cause it's kind of my job, but (B) I'm really enjoying Reach, especially the campaign, and I don't really want it to end. [Also, {C} It might just be me, but I swear Reach's campaign is tougher than those of previous Halos, so it's taking me longer than I predicted to blast my way through it.] Point is: I wouldn't be reviewing this if I didn't feel like I could give you guys a thorough take on it, but I reserve the right to add a postscript to this review if the game's campaign suddenly shits the bed at the very end or just abruptly... stops, like Halo 2's did. I don't think that'll be the case, though. End disclaimer!)


First, the grumbling: What initially disappointed me about Reach was how similar it felt to past Halos (in particular, Halo 3: ODST). Pre-release, there was a lot of talk about how Reach would boast more of a focus on characterization and more team-based gamplay—unlike the other games' lone-wolf style campaigns, in Reach you're part of a squad known as Noble Team, shootin' alongside other cyber-soldiers to defend a human planet that's under attack by the alien army known as the Covenant. Alas, your teammates here make hardly any impression; weirdly, the NPCs in ODST's made made more of an impact (though that's probably thanks to that game's excellent voice casting). It's also a bit frustrating to see how little you can do with your pals: I wouldn't have minded if Bungie had gone in a Republic Commando-type direction, giving a bit of squad-based strategy to these proceedings. But they didn't: While you ostensibly have backup on most of your campaign missions, for the most part, you'll still play Halo just as you always have, like it's you and you alone versus a universe brimming with alien religious fanatics. (Some of whom are suicide bombers! Read into that what you will, but even at it's darkest, Reach still feels cartoony, a long ways off from Modern Warfare-style realism.)


A couple of Reach's other changes are fun features, but don't do a whole lot to mix up the experience: There's a spaceship-flying level, for example, and you can customize the gender and armor of your character. (Eh...) The more interesting changes are the game's armor abilities and "load outs," which give your character brief, supercharged abilities like sprinting, impenetrable shields, camouflage, or a fucking jetpack. This stuff punches up Reach's gameplay in some pretty significant ways, though experimenting with them in multiplayer—where, before each match, you can choose a special ability to "load out" with—is much more rewarding and unpredictable than doing so the campaign. (Also affecting gameplay, and especially multiplayer: Dual-wielding, the much-ballyhooed feature of Halo 2 that carried into Halo 3 but was missing from ODST—is once again MIA. I'm not complaining, as I prefer the stripped-down feel of having to toggle between weapons, but it would've been nice to have a dual wielding option, especially in particularly frantic multiplayer matches.)


Reach's other changes aren't as flashy, but collectively, they add up: With a more somber tone than any of the previous Halos, this is also the prettiest Halo yet, with its levels feeling bigger, more detailed, and impressively organic. (For the first time since the first Halo, I've found myself wandering around levels even after vanquishing all their foes, just checking out the scenery and finding different routes to get to their endpoints.) It helps that, regardless of any singular location—an abandoned, misty farm with light rain pattering into muddy dirt; a besieged, crumbling future city that's lit by the flames burning its streets; a hard, sun-baked desert surrounded by deep canyons and high, curving rock walls—the whole game feels unified, coherent, of a single place. Chronologically, Reach takes place before the original Halo, on a doomed planet known as Reach; most players will know going in that Reach's fate isn't a particularly bright one. That ominous feeling is subtly echoed in the level design and a slightly darker art style, permeating the experience—while Reach is never mopey or nihilistic enough to feel oppressive or futile, Bungie has ensured that an air of inevitability hangs over the proceedings.


But all the changes and tweaks aside, the core gameplay is the same: Do you like Halo? Then you will like Reach. Do you not like Halo? Then you will not like Reach. Gracefully moving from moments of jarring panic to calm exploration, Reach has the same slick controls, huge levels, clever enemies, and epic scope of the franchise's past games. It's a weird but astonishingly addictive alchemy that Bungie stumbled onto back in 2001, one that somehow crams together run-and-gun skirmishes, vehicular exploration, a galaxy-spanning story, and repetitive but exhilarating gameplay to make something that is, above all else, simply fun. While this franchise's remarkable success means these games are polished as hell, never surprising, and about as edgy as a marble, it's hard to argue with a series that consistently delivers this much great gameplay—and it's damn near impossible to not have a blast with Reach as it combines and punches up the best elements of its predecessors.

Like past Halo titles, it's hard to argue with the wealth of content here, with a slew of robust multiplayer and singleplayer options—from the build-your-own-level stuff in Forge mode, to the ever-escalating challenges of Firefight mode, to about a billion other modes—that should keep most Halo players busy for... well, until Microsoft comes out with the next Halo. This thing's feature-packed, with a huge amount of replay value. If you're at all fond of what Halo has to offer, this is $60 well spent—and while it's a bummer Bungie won't be cranking out any more Halo games, they certainly went out on a high note. Whoever you poor suckers are who've been tasked by Microsoft with following up Halo: Reach: Good luck, guys. You've got your work cut out for you.