“Halo: Reach” marks the end of an era. Bungie, the developer that created “Halo” and its various sequels and spinoffs, is moving on to a new project with publisher Activision. “Reach” is their last go-round with the old gal, and after 2009’s uninspired “Halo 3: ODST,” it’s reasonable to question their commitment.

Is “Reach” a farewell tour, or a contractually obligated blow-off? Are five games in nine years too much “Halo”? Is there any doubt that “Reach” will make hundreds of millions of dollars, whether it’s good or not?

As with any “Halo” game, “Reach” is split in two. There’s a story-driven single-player campaign, and a deep set of multiplayer playlists for online and local play. It’s easy to dismiss the campaigns as afterthoughts, as the franchise’s reputation is built on multiplayer. You’d miss a solid prequel to the original “Halo” trilogy if you ignored “Reach” ’s story, though.

It starts with a whimper. You and a few stereotypes masquerading as squad mates confront invading Covenant aliens on rural outposts of the planet Reach. Repetitive shootouts, nondescript environments and the always frustrating controls of “Halo” ’s land vehicles make these early levels drag on. Co-op and new abilities such as jetpacks and active camo help smooth out the rough edges.

“Reach” ’s campaign hits its stride in the second half, with a brief but exciting outer-space dogfight and a return to a bombed-out metropolis similar to the one in “ODST.” The atmosphere is appropriately apocalyptic, and as you scurry between burning buildings, losing partners along the way, you get swept up in the life-and-death struggle between civilizations. These scenes expand your view of the conflict, underlining the planet-threatening nature of the invasion. Stakes matter, even in shooters.

Multiplayer’s always the main draw with “Halo” though, and “Reach” doesn’t disappoint. Beyond the expected Capture the Flag, Oddball and Deathmatch modes, there are new game types, including Headhunter, where players tussle over the skulls of fallen enemies, and the zombie-filled Infection. Forge remains the best map editor for any console shooter, and it’s now easier to make and share movies of your conquests. And Firefight, the team survival mode that basically justified “ODST” ’s existence, makes a welcome return, with wave after wave of Covenant enemies bearing down upon you and your friends.

“Reach” obviously wasn’t rushed out the door. Bungie might be running off with Activision, but at least Microsoft got a nice parting gift in the divorce.




The Gallian militia returns in the tactical RPG “Valkyria Chronicles II”, and this time you can take them anywhere. “Valkyria Chronicles” remains one of the best exclusives for the PlayStation 3, and the PSP sequel brings back the military strategy in a portable package. You don’t have to hang out at home anymore to fight a barely fictionalized anime version of World War II.

Once again you control the fighting forces of a vaguely Swiss country called Gallia. In the first game Gallia was stuck between two warring stand-ins for the Axis and the Allies. “Valkyria Chronicles II” picks up two years later, as a civil war over the status of the Darcsen ethnic minority in Gallian society threatens to tear the country apart.

Okay, it sounds ridiculous, but transparent allusions to mid-century European politics are part of what makes “Valkyria Chronicles” so interesting. The distinct setting allows for a sweeping but soapy storyline that treats real-life issues with taste and respect, and without having to resort to tired “Greatest Generation” hagiography.

Like the original, “Valkyria Chronicles II” consists of several turn-based tactical missions. You whittle a squad down from dozens of characters among five classes, including a new melee-based unit. You place them on the overhead battlefield map and directly control each unit’s movements from a third-person perspective. You aim their weapons, but it’s not a shooter; combat results are calculated based on character and weapon statistics. Goals change depending on the mission, but usually involve capturing enemy bases or defeating an entire squadron.

The characters, which are all new, can’t die permanently this time. The biggest change, though, is what happens between missions, when your teenaged squadmates hang out at school. You can still upgrade your troops and weapons, but “Valkyria Chornicles II” spends more time on character development than the first. Most characters in the original were summed up by brief text bios; the sequel features dozens of vignettes that devote time to everyone. The high school setting and teen drama recalls the “Persona” series of RPGs, but here it’s more window dressing than a vital gameplay mechanic. Still, the game nicely fleshes out even its most insignificant characters, which is important when the lead is an unlikable dude-brah.

There’s also multiplayer this time, with both co-op and versus maps. “Valkyria Chronicles II” doesn’t stray far from the original, but it changes enough to forge its own identity.


Hopefully the RICO Act applies to video games. It’s time to break this mob up. We should take the mobsters, the vampires and the zombies and ship them off to the same cultural wasteland that cowboys have roamed since the death of the western. Whatever it takes to avoid the tedious stereotypes of “Mafia II.”

“Mafia II” could’ve been great. It’s a beautiful game, with vivid backgrounds and fantastic facial animation. The acting is better than many movies, almost approaching the quality of voice-acting in “Grand Theft Auto IV.” The cut-scenes are convincingly cinematic, with film-quality camera-work and editing. It’s a slick product you’ll love to watch.

“Mafia II” ’s greatest strength is its environment. The fictional Empire Bay is a gorgeously realized mid-century American city, with period-specific architecture, automobiles and clothes, and a soundtrack full of jazz, standards and early rock ’n’ roll. It looks and sounds amazing, and you owe it to yourself to explore the town and soak up the ambience.

Too bad all this sterling technical work props up a boring game with more cliches than shootouts. “Mafia II” is burdened with repetitive missions and a generic story full of overly familiar Mafioso claptrap. It’s like playing “GTA” in a Bertucci’s, but without the delicious rolls.

An early mission sees you steal a car from Empire Bay’s black neighborhood. In a cut-scene you briefly see two African-Americans in 1940s garb before a ridiculous gunfight drops six bodies in broad daylight. There are very few games with black lead characters, and none that take place in the 1940s. That would be something new and interesting. Instead you’re a Sicilian named Vito who shoots them all in the face.

Outside of missions, sightseeing is about all you can do in Empire Bay. The city’s almost completely closed off to you. Other than a few select locations, you can’t go inside anywhere unless it’s part of a mission. That’s an issue with most sandbox games, but “Mafia II” feels especially empty.

The game’s also completely linear. You head from one straightforward job to another, with little to do in-between. There are no side missions or minigames, no random encounters like “Red Dead Redemption,” nothing to break up the driving and shooting.

With its incredible setting, “Mafia II” starts one step ahead of most games. If only the story took any risks at all, and didn’t just draw straight from the goombah style guide.