Halo: Reach

Bungie bids goodbye to Halo by taking fans back to the very beginning

It's almost a decade since the talented chaps at Bungie Studios completely redefined the console first-person shooter with the release of original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved. Over the past nine years the developer continued to weave its magic through a number of sequels that continued to refine the lauded gameplay template it had crafted, wowing fans and critics alike along the way.

Cut to the present day and we come to what is, arguably, the most notable entry in the franchise since Halo: Combat Evolved. Not only does this franchise prequel promise the ultimate interpretation of Bungie's vision for first-person shooters, it's also the last game in the series to be developed by the studio (Bungie has now signed a deal with Activision, although Microsoft retains the rights to the Halo franchise).

This is Sparta!
Set before the events of the original game, Halo: Reach's campaign mode presents gamers with the chance to play the new addition to Noble Team, a six-strong squad of Spartan soldiers based on the titular planet. Investigating a seemingly innocent event on the planet quickly ushers in the arrival of Covenant forces, and before long a full-on invasion of the planet is underway.

Even if the ultimate fate of the events depicted in the story are common-knowledge to all Halo fans long before they even stick this game in their console, Halo: Reach succeeds in grabbing your interest through its deftly-told story and by keeping players continually on their back foot as things continue to get worse and worse for the human forces on the planet. But, of course, it's the quality of the gameplay that really keeps you glued to your screen for the campaign mode's duration (not to mention coming back to try it again at higher difficulty levels). Boasting an entirely new game engine, this is the most action-packed, most grandiose entry in the series to date, with excellent new enemy AI routines to keep you on your toes and a perfectly balanced selection of weapons.

To infinity and beyond...
The scale of the game even takes you into Reach's orbit for short period in the middle of the game. And if this space-based shoot 'em up isn't quite as refined in terms of shooting mechanics as the bulk of the game, it's certainly no worse than the best of the X-Wing: Rogue Squadron games it brings to mind. Back on firmer ground, the game also adds some intriguing new powers to your arsenal. Traditional speed boosts and shields are joined by a holographic double you can send out ahead of your to draw enemy fire and even a jetpack which is even more fun than you imagine. All of this serves to add extra dimensions to what was already one of the greatest FPS builds available on a console, making what was already a groundbreaking piece of sci-fi action even more fiendishly addictive than you ever thought possible.

All of which would be worth Five Stars on its own. But as fans have come to expect from Bungie, there's also a staggering array of online multiplayer modes to extend the games life and keep you scoring headshots against your friends for months to come. The aforementioned upgrades play an even greater part in changing the dynamics of the multiplayer action - there's nothing quite like grabbing a jetpack and dispensing death from above on your fellow players.

Forging better worlds
New modes include Invasion, an objective-based mode that quickly develops into full-scale warfare, and Firefight, which teams up to four players in a co-operative battle against wave after wave of Covenant troops. On top of this, there are all of the familiar modes that fans have been playing for years and the return of Forge, Bungie's exceptional map-creation tool. The latter can still be pretty intimidating if you haven't used it before, and comes with little instruction for newcomers, but this is a fairly meagre complaint about what is otherwise a truly exceptional package that melds Halo's single- and multiplayer modes into a fantastic package. Bungie may be leaving the world of Halo behind now, but it's gone out on an incredible high.

Xbox 360, Microsoft Game Studios, £50 approx, On sale now