While it may be Microsoft's umpteenth entry in the "Halo" franchise, Halo: Reach is an absolutely excellent shooter, and easily the best game in the series by far. It's got an absolutely stellar presentation, a fantastic single player campaign with a decent plot, and the best multiplayer action this side of "Call of Duty." What's not to like?

For those of you really keeping track, Halo: Reach is the 6th title in the Halo series, following Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo Wars, and Halo 3: ODST. Thematically, it's a prequel to the entire thing, and its single player campaign tells a new chapter the story of human/Covenant war that unfolds over the course of the other games.

Halo: Reach for Xbox 360

And that story is as epic as they come. In Halo: Reach, you play a member of a team of Spartan warriors, sent to a planet named Reach where you're tasked to put down what is believed to be an insurgent uprising. You should be so lucky: Reach is instead the target in a surprise attack by the alien race the Covenant, and you don't have to be an expert in Halo lore to know that things aren't going to go well there.

 

Fortunately, Halo: Reach is like the movie version of "Titanic": You know a disaster is coming, but it's so beautiful to look at that you have to see what happens next. That's because unlike previous Halo titles on the Xbox 360, the developers at Bungie have finally upgraded the graphics to true HD resolution. This is a pretty, pretty game, and it's very clear that, ten years in, the Bungie guys really get how to present this kind of title.

The developers do try to mix things up in the single player campaign a bit by bringing back the tired "team" concept from Halo 3: ODST, but it's as lame now as it was then, with horrible teammate AI and stereotypical characters. That said, there is a bit of mystery to your own character, who is a decidedly Master Chief-like enigma with a mysterious background. It's probably not giving anything away to note, however, that--spoiler alert!--you're not Master Chief at all. In fact, you're literally nobody, just one of the many millions that die on Reach in the human's first losing battle with the Covenant.

Halo: Reach for Xbox 360

That said, by the time the game is over, you do accomplish a lot, including making the events of the first three games possible by providing humanity with the technological puzzle piece they need to defeat their enemy and, no small feat, discovering the origin of one of the Halo series' most excellent characters, Cortana. It's a nice wrap-up to the storyline that really brings the games (well, except for Halo Wars) together.

Aside from being prettier, Halo: Reach also finally dispenses with the most tired aspect of the previous Halo shooters: There are no hugely repetitive scenes where you traverse an entire alien landscape, or station, or whatever, only to have to do it all again, in reverse, with freshly-stocked monsters at every turn. I think this is the first Halo shooter to dispense with this cheap form of game play extension, and indeed there are entire battles you can just skip over if you like, especially early in the game. In fact, the first time I played through the second level I think I drove past about 50 percent of the battles without any ill side effects.

Halo: Reach for Xbox 360

Like the newer STAR WARS movies, Halo: Reach suffers a bit from being much newer technologically, but telling a story that is supposedly further back in time than the previous titles. So even though this is all happening longer ago, in Halo time, there are far more powerful weapons and capabilities. In Halo 3, we got armor abilities for the first time, but in Halo: Reach, which happens "before" Halo 1 and 2, we have multiple abilities to choose from, including, for the first time, the best of them all, the jet pack. (Yes, it's as awesome as it sounds.)

In addition to the stellar single player campaign, Bungie supplies the expected multiplayer stuff, which looks and works much like it always has, and comes with an updated version of the Forge map editor. I'm no fan of Halo multiplayer, but millions of people clearly live for this experience, and Halo: Reach won't disappoint. People will be playing this thing online years from now.

Halo: Reach for Xbox 360

There's also a Firefight mode, just like in Halo 3: ODST, which is Bungie's answer to the excellent "Nazi Zombies" mode from Call of Duty: World at War. Here, you and some friends can try to outlast hordes and hordes of enemies for as long as possible, racking up points (and, if you're good enough, Achievements) all the while. This, along with the cooperative play capabilities, makes Halo: Reach far more team-oriented than most shooters. I spend a lot of time in Team Deathmatch on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for example, but there's nothing team oriented about that game at all.

Speaking of COD, you can see that franchise's influences all over Halo: Reach. The most obvious example is a new player investment feature where you earn credits for all the things you do in the game, whether it's single player, firefight, multiplayer, or whatever. These credits allow you to go up in rank, and let you "purchase" new customizations in an online armory, decking your in-game character out in better ways the more you play. All that's missing is 10th prestige. I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

Halo: Reach for Xbox 360

No matter. Halo has certainly had its own profound effect on the rest of the video game world, and it deserves to sop up whatever influences it can in order to be the best shooter it can be. I'm still more of a COD fan than anything, but Halo: Reach--especially the single player campaign--is simply an excellent, excellent game. And it's got the most professional and engaging presentation I've ever seen in a video game. It may break no new boundaries, but it doesn't have to. This is Halo done right.