It has been a little while, hasn’t it? That happens every now and then, life gets in the way and prevents me from doing the truly important things – like writing copious amounts about fictional universes (and, boy, have I written a lot for you all to digest today).
I had actually written up a post to be released on October 27th, doing a one year retrospective on ‘Halo 5 Cortana’ following the story Dominion Splinter in Tales From Slipspace. But I simply lost the will to finish and post it. Even after the passage of a year, the mere thought of that and the years we’re going to have to endure it instills a sense of fatigue in me that just puts me off writing.
Instead, I decided to turn to the last Halo game that made me feel this way and do a proper rumination on it to see the extent to which my opinion of the campaign may or may not have changed. (I should probably preface this now by saying that it has… a little bit.)
So come beat this dead horse with me one more time for a lengthy and critical look at Bungie’s ‘swan song’, Halo: Reach.Replaying Reach was a weird experience for me because I’ve barely touched it since 2012, when a different Halo game which I much preferred and I felt touched up a lot of Reach‘s more egregious gameplay missteps came around. Aside from the immensely fun Forge and customs, there was very little value I found in the thing that matters most to me – the campaign.
I almost didn’t write this post, to be honest. The reason I haven’t done it sooner is because I didn’t think I’d have anything new to add to the substance of the discussion about this game.
I think back over the last six years and the sheer weight of discussion this kicked up on the old Reach and Universe forums on bungie.net back in the day, the numerous group chats I’ve had about it, having a whole lore community come together on the Halo Archive in its formative years to talk about every minute detail of difference between the game and the books.
It felt like this was a rather fruitless topic to attempt to talk about from an individual perspective because I didn’t have anything new to say.
Having replayed it, I feel that I do.
To preface this: This is not meant to try to change anybody’s mind.
If you love this game, power to you – and, my goodness, do I wish that I could share your perspective of certainty and appreciation for it because, for me, this game leaves me feeling conflicted.
No, this is simply my own perspective, born from the culmination of over six years of analysis and discussion, put squarely in one post.
I should also note that I will not be discussing the Assembly in this rumination because they practically warrant their own post (and, looking at the scroll bar, you can probably tell how ludicrously long this is already going to be – such as it is with my content). I might end up doing a follow-up to this focusing more particularly on certain things, whereas this post is meant to be a little more broad in what it covers.
Let’s begin with what I would consider to be one of the biggest problems with Reach‘s story. You all probably know what I’m talking about…
THE RETCON – ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH (OF CANON)
Yeah, this game sure has a lot of major (and unnecessary) retcons to the long-established lore. But the one I’m talking about specifically is the alteration to the timeline of the battle of Reach itself. Note that I will not be discussing the patch-up job 343 has done over the last five years, I’m taking this as Bungie made it.
Y’see, in Eric Nylund’s beloved novel, The Fall of Reach, which released two weeks prior to Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001, the actual battle of Reach itself happened in a single day.
On July 17th (2552), the Covenant suffered a tactical loss during the battle of Sigma Octanus IV where the legendary manoeuvre known as the Keyes Loop was performed. Jacob Keyes took on four Covenant ships (a DDS-class carrier, two frigates, and a destroyer) in a single ship, the UNSC Iroquois, and won the engagement – destroying all but the carrier, which deployed troops to Sigma Octanus IV and then fled into slipspace.
It remains to this day one of the most memorable and brilliant moments in the series.
The Covenant troops deployed planetside were attacking the city of Côte d’Azur, as the Natural History Museum there housed something of significant importance – a crystalline Forerunner artefact that contained a star chart with coordinates to Installation 04.
The Spartan-IIs of Blue Team managed to prevent the Covenant from obtaining this artefact and successfully delivered it to Catherine Halsey, who could not decipher it because she tried to analyse it as a form of language rather than a star chart.
It was Cortana who later managed to decrypt its contents by analysing it as a set of coordinates when Keyes initiated the Cole Protocol and ordered the Autumn to flee from Reach. Here is the passage, with not even a hint of the Forerunner plot device nonsense from this game:
Under the Cole Protocol, they would be jumping away from Earth… but it would not be a totally random heading.
The Master Chief had been right when he said he recognised the shorthand navigation symbols on the NAV display.
Cortana accessed the Spartans’ mission logs. She sifted through the data, and filed it into a secondary long-term storage buffer. When she reviewed the databases of his mission reports, Cortana learned that Spartan-117 had seen something similar on the Covenant vessel he had boarded in 2525. And again – the symbols looked almost like those on the rock he had extracted from Covenant forces on Sigma Octanus IV. ONI reports on the symbols found in the anomalous rock had defied cryptoanalysis.
Keyes’ order to plot a navigation route sparked a connection between the data; she accessed the alien symbols, and rather than compare them with alphabets or hieroglyphics, compared them to star formations.
There were some startling similarities – along with a number of differences. Cortana reanalysed the symbols and accounte for thousands of years of stellar drift.
A tenth of a second later she had a close match on her charts – 86.2 percent.
Interesting. Perhaps the markings in the rock recovered on Sigma Octanus IV were navigation symbols, albeit highly unusual and stylised ones – mathematical symbols as artistic and elegant as Chinese calligraphy.
What was there that the Covenant wanted so badly that they had launched a full offensive against Sigma Octanus IV?
Whatever it was… Cortana was interested, too. [Halo: The Fall of Reach, page 335 (Kindle edition)]
There was a slight snag, however, as the Covenant managed to plant a tracking device on the UNSC Iroquois to learn the location of more human colonies – leading them to Reach when the Iroquois returned to the planet in late-August, as the Spartan-IIs were recalled to get their new MJOLNIR armour and prepare for Operation: RED FLAG.
The Covenant then arrived in full force with the Fleet of Particular Justice, over three hundred vessels strong, lead by Supreme Commander Thel ‘Vadamee, and steamrolled the planet in hours.This was the thing, right?
There was no battle for Reach.
The story in the novel had brilliantly built up this feeling of hope – the victory at Sigma Octanus IV, the clear demonstration that the Covenant could have even some of their mightiest ships forced back through the kind of tactical ingenuity possessed by the likes of Jacob Keyes, was a key part of building that up.
The second aspect of the novel focused on the Spartan-IIs and their fight against impossible odds. The prologue of the book begins with a scene where John, Kelly, Fred, and Linda – just four Spartans – go up against an army of one thousand Unggoy. They then have to evacuate Jericho VII, and John watches it get glassed from orbit – an ominous precursor to the ending of the book.
While many of their victories came with great sacrifice, which is what John’s character arc revolves around from start to finish (the dichotomy of lives spent versus lives wasted), everything was building up to this one day that would change everything for humanity.
Operation: RED FLAG was an initiative where the remaining Spartan-IIs would be sent to capture a Covenant flagship, take the vessel to High Charity and capture one of the three San’Shyuum Hierarchs to force a truce with the Covenant. With the end of the war seemingly in sight, the Covenant arrives at Reach and crushes that hope the entire novel had built up.
It drove home the harrowing reality of how utterly outmatched the UNSC was by the Covenant.
There was this persistent theme throughout Nylund’s trilogy of books (the follow-up in First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx) that humanity alone could only hope to survive the war, not win it.
This is why the alliance between humanity and the Sangheili that was forged at the end of Halo 2 was even more meaningful than just the notion of two enemies calling it quits to fight a common enemy (particularly considering that if Joyous Exultation and Imperial Admiral Xytan hadn’t been NOVA bombed then the Sangheili could have pretty much taken on the Covenant loyalists and humanity at the same time, won, and we’d be looking at a very different galaxy).
This is ‘The-Fall-Of-Reach-That-Was.’
The fall of Reach we see in the game is very different.While retaining the base concept of ‘a human world that falls to the Covenant’, that’s pretty much the extent of the novel that survives in Bungie’s… interpretation of this particular story. More on this later.
In the game, the timeline for the fall of Reach is not simply a single-day steamroll affair, but a military campaign that extends over a month.
From the isolated skirmishes beginning July 23rd, leading up to August 30th, the entire framework of this story quite pointlessly changes the entire structure of events.
Why is it pointless, you ask?
Well, this is something that I have barely seen discussed in the six years this game has been released.
The time skips.
Winter Contingency, the first mission, takes place July 24th. Noble Six (I will be using they/them pronouns for Six since their gender is player-determined, and as a reminder to 343 of how easy it is to acknowledge that – rather than setting a definitive gender in canon when Six doesn’t need one) joins up with Noble Team, they take a Falcon ride to Visegrad and discover that the Covenant have invaded Reach. Carter informs Colonel Holland and we cut to black.
We then pick up with the second mission, which is, for some reason, two days later – July 26th. Okay… that’s not too egregious a skip, it’s not really believable because this game’s events all happen on a single continent of the planet and air transport for getting a group of soldiers as valuable as Spartans from Visegrad to Sword Base is the kind of thing that should take a couple of hours at the most… but we’ll roll with it.
Except… Nightfall, the third mission takes place on August 11th. Sixteen days later.
What does this accomplish?
You’ve completely restructured the battle of Reach from a day to a month for no real reason, and instead of actually working with making that a meaningful change you’re just jumping across weeks without showing us what these characters we’re supposed to care about are doing and skipping over the main action of the actual fall of Reach in the process.
Oh, but it gets worse…Long Night of Solace, the fifth mission, takes place August 14th – from the raid on the Sabre facility, through the battle in space, and capturing the Ardent Prayer to spearhead Operation: UPPER CUT where Jorge sacrifices himself to ‘detonate’ the slipspace drive.
Exodus picks up seemingly in the immediate aftermath of that with Six recovering from the fall back down to the planet, but then there’s another time skip. Exodus then occurs more than a week later on August 23rd.
What exactly was Six doing in those 9 days from when they woke up after falling from the Ardent Prayer up to when they arrive at Eposz?
Was that a nine-day trek?
Why wasn’t Six picked up by anybody?
Why was Six out of contact with Noble Team?
The next mission, New Alexandria, starts later on the same day – August 23rd. This seems like a good sign, right? All the way up to Kat’s death, this mission happens over the course of a couple of hours, which is great… and then, after Kat’s death, it skips to August 26th.
So Noble Team spends three whole days in a civilian bunker and we get to see none of it. We just skip the majority of the actual battle and fall of Reach and it’s not even substituted with anything particularly meaningful.
There’s none of the raw, immediate emotional fallout of Kat’s death. Carter just sounds a bit glum over the comm with Holland in the opening cutscene of the following mission, and then dies in the one after that.
And it’s not just that, but the lack of civilian perspective here as well – it’s really hard to care when the extent of their presence and relevance in this game is to serve as little more than a gaggle of additional AI who run around like headless chickens while you’re fighting the Covenant.
There’s no meaningful interaction with them, except for that one scene with Jorge and Sára Sorvad in the game’s first mission. (More on her later.)
Speaking of the next mission: The Package happens on August 29th.
That means there’s three time skips over the course of one mission leading into the next… And then, finally, The Pillar of Autumn takes place on the fateful day of August 30th.
Do you see the problem here? The timeline of this game occurs over the course of over five weeks and we get to see events play out over the equivalent of about one week.
This restructuring is not only pointless, but it’s detrimental to the overall flow of the game. Just take the transition between the end of The Package and the opening of The Pillar of Autumn, for instance, where Carter is fine in the former and then, seconds later when the latter loads up, he’s critically wounded with blood spattered all over the Pelican’s cockpit.How did that happen?
Why weren’t we shown this?
And what exactly was the point of having Carter being mortally wounded?
If he’s going to die anyway from these wounds he’s acquired off-screen, then his sacrifice loses a lot of its impact because it’s going to happen anyway.
It seems a far more fitting demise to me that Carter would choose to sacrifice himself on his own terms, rather than essentially being forced to because he’s already dying and has to get the Scarab out of Six and Emile’s way. It’s already a major flaw in this story that none of the characters make any of their own decisions.
Back briefly on the subject of time jumps: they can work, but more often than not they lead to a stilted narrative structure which adds nothing to the story and ultimately serves to detract from the focus on the characters. It ends up feeling like a convenient ‘get out of jail free’ card for the writers where the majority of the character development is done off-screen.
It’s exactly the same issue that Halo 5 has, articulated in a different way but still being emblematic of how awkwardly paced a story’s structure is when so much of it happens off-screen in a way that doesn’t make sense (like Osiris reaching the Guardian’s Shelter on Meridian before Blue Team despite them being over a day behind and having to deal with Sloan and the Prometheans, whereas Blue Team completely bypassed them both; or Blue Team being in the Gateway wandering around in circles for two days while Osiris plays catch-up).
This is, to me, one of the biggest issues with Reach.
The alteration to the timeline from one day to over a month made no sense and the events of the game could have very well been condensed down into just under a week – that would be somewhat easier to swallow.
It’s sadly been left up to 343 to reconcile these issues with a new canonical framework to try to smooth things over, something which is still in the process of being worked out with lore from Fleet Battles. The damage that this story caused to the lore is one thing, but the damage it caused to the overall point of the fall of Reach is practically beyond repair.What made this all the more frustrating was the introductory scene where we meet Noble Team, which was originally shown in the December 2009 VGAs (which I vividly remember staying up to watch) that has a number of notable differences from what’s in the final product…
And it’s so much better in this trailer than the game in… well, almost every possible way.
The saturation of the lighting, the music accompanying the scene, the reference Jorge makes to Operation: TORPEDO where Beta Company was wiped out (although this is followed up by Carter’s cringe-inducing “Spartans never die, Jorge. They’re just missing in action,” line which this game all but ruined for me).
It just feels a lot more ominous as the Falcon takes off and you see the column of fire blaze up through the clouds to reveal a Covenant ship appear for a moment.
And that’s what you’re heading towards.
I loved that, it got me ridiculously excited, but the scene in the game is notably more tame because of the retcon to the battle of Reach.
The set-up here shows Six being thrown into Noble Team as a replacement on the squad as everyone is just trying to find their feet and mobilise against the Covenant, who have suddenly appeared.
It sets a hell of a tone for what’s to come, but, as is all too frequently the case, the advertising and the actual game just don’t line up (oh yeah, make no mistake, Bungie sure-as-hell was guilty of this too – and I’m willing to be completely insufferable about pointing that out throughout the rest of this article).
But this brings me along to my next major point…
THE PREMISE – AND THE BOOK YOU RODE IN ON…
Linking with my previous segment on the timeline restructuring, the warning signs were there from the opening comments of first ViDoc…
Joseph Tung: “Whenever we finish a project, we do a lot of soul searching. A lot of reference got kicked around – The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven – we’ve talked very early on about showing off a more human approach to Spartans.”
Sage Merrill: “We definitely focused on trying to go back to, sort of the core of what made Halo: CE […] the sort of phenomenon that it is.”
Steve Scott: “I remember my first time playing Halo, and I was in that first level, and after winding through these technical corridors, fighting aliens and then, I step out into this world, and it just opens up in front of me, and it’s beautiful, and alien, and huge. That was a sort of a seminal moment for me and I think that’s part of what we want to capture in Reach.”
Marcus Lehto: “Something that was core to the game at the beginning was that sense of wonder and exploration. We started with a series of events, we’d basically set out like, okay, from this date on Reach to this date, we built a military campaign.“
Marty O’Donnell: “We all had a desire to really flesh out the backstory of what happened prior to Master Chief and Cortana even entering the picture. We knew there were other Spartans and it just seemed like such a rich area to tell a character driven story with new characters.”
Lee Wilson: “We wanted this team to feel like Delta Force-type team, that are usually a smaller number. This particular team, Noble Team, they’ve survived by staying together. You’re Noble Six, you’re a replacement for a Spartan that’s died. You’re experiencing this, this story ‘boots in the mud’.”
Scott Shepherd: “We looked at the story of Reach, and it was obviously a more intimate character-driven story.” [Once More Unto The Breach]
(Guess we should have known the end from the beginning regarding the timeline retcon from Lehto’s comment there, not that it makes it any easier to swallow to know that they basically began this project with a “Let’s just ignore the book when it suits us” approach.)
This sets out about five major pillars for the things they wanted Reach’s campaign to accomplish:
– Tell a more ‘human’ story with the Spartans.
– Tell a character-driven story.
– Recapture Halo: CE‘s feeling of wonder with its world.
– Have the fall of Reach framed as a military campaign.
– Flesh out the backstory of other Spartans just before John and Cortana take centre-stage.
The extent to which they succeeded in these endeavours is, of course, wholly down to one’s opinion. In my mind, these are some admirable goals, but the way and degree to which the game actually delivers is… all over the place.Since I’ve already discussed the whole ‘military campaign’ thing at length regarding why I feel it not only doesn’t work and wholly misses the point of the fall of Reach in the previous section, let’s focus on the other four pillars.
They wanted to tell a more human story with the Spartans, which I think they do achieve, sort of, better than they had previously done with their “have your cake and eat it” approach to the Master Chief’s characterisation in Halo CE–3 (but nowhere near to the quality of Thel’s arc).
I feel they fall short of truly accomplishing that by having six main characters, which strikes me as odd because Lee Wilson’s comment about wanting to have a Delta Force-type team specifies that they are smaller in number.
It’s not quite as many major characters to juggle as Halo 5 had, but it’s still more than enough to the point where I feel it’s detrimental to the characterisation of the team – and they even started with another Spartan on the team, Rosenda.
The solution that I propose would be to cut the two characters who I feel contribute the least to the game – Carter (forgive me, Toa) and Jun.
Despite Carter being the leader of Noble Team, he does very little throughout the story. It seems to me that Kat would be far more effective as the leader.
She’s the character you spend the most amount of time with one-to-one.
She’s the one who is constantly on comms, telling you where to go and what to do.
She’s the one who comes up with pretty much all the plans for Noble Team’s activities for the major beats of the story (the Nightfall sniper op that leads to the discovery of the Covenant’s invading strike force and the following assault in Tip of the Spear, the raid on Ardent Prayer to destroy the Long Night of Solace, the effort to evacuate and rescue civilians and military personnel in New Alexandria).
She’s even the one who begins the decryption process for the unexplained Forerunner plot device the game throws in, which has significance even beyond her death as it connects to the plot that suddenly materialises in the final act.
She’s the one who was in the same Spartan-III company (Beta Company) as Noble Six – meaning that she’d have trained and grown up alongside them.
Kat is the most relevant character to Reach‘s overarching narrative. She’s not just “the tech expert” archetype, she does more to command Noble Team, drive the narrative, and plot the military operations than Carter does. He just gets on the phone to Holland to be like “so, Kat came up with an idea and I’m just calling you to say we’re doing it, okay?”
Therefore, it makes sense for Carter to be cut and have the whole relationship dynamic transfer to Kat and Six because they actually have history together grounded in the established lore.This set-up presents a far more interesting opportunity to fulfil Bungie’s aims of having a character driven narrative that is more heavy on backstory by having your character and the squad leader be these two people who were raised together, became Spartans together, dodged the battle of Pegasi Delta together – Jorge’s line in the 2009 VGA trailer (which, for some reason, was cut from the game) that he “didn’t think anyone survived Pegasi” gains new relevance, meaning, and context when applied to Kat and Six because they both dodged the bullet that was Operation: TORPEDO which ended all of Beta Company, save for Tom and Lucy.
And it all culminates in the two of them having come the long way round to end up on Reach where they will die together.
I feel I should note that I really like Kat. I think her and Jorge were the two best-realised characters in this game, that the two of them were genuinely well-written.
Jorge, admittedly, is because he is written to more of an archetypal role, whereas Kat is actually more complex in her own right. You can’t put her in the box of just being the tech expert of the team – despite her occasional technobabble, she is written as so much more.
My reasons for cutting Jun are less focused on the poetry of narrative parallelism than it is the fact that Jun’s set-up as a character is a bit too similar to Six.
Both are ‘lone wolf’ type characters, both have history as specialised assassins (Jun was a Headhunter, which was established later by 343 but for his skills to allegedly be so unmatched it’s a semi-obvious inference to make)… one could simply transfer Jun’s quirks to Six and you’ve got a favourable dynamic set up between Six and Kat – Six as the lone wolf, Kat as the team leader.
Oh, not that you’d actually know any of that stuff about Six if you only played the game because it’s only explained in the narration of the A Spartan Will Rise ViDoc. But 343 are the only ones guilty of tucking away major details in out-of-game materials, of course… (“Ah,” I hear you say. “But it’s not a major detail at all.” Yup, that just makes it worse. But I digress.)
The result is more breathing room to give Emile and Jorge time to shine both in gameplay and in the story, as they are the other major dynamic in the squad that never really goes anywhere.
By cutting the team down to its four most essential and best developed Spartans, you have a much stronger opportunity to articulate the relationships, history, and subtleties of these characters.Further on the subject of ‘cutting down’, Isaac Hannaford stated on his blog that Sára Sorvad (the civilian Jorge interacts with at the end of Winter Contingency) was actually supposed to have a larger role in the game as Noble Team’s science advisor before she was made, in his own words, “a barely there sketch of a character”:
It’s been a while…but I believe she was intended to accompany Noble team and serve as the science advisor…sort of a cortana…she was supposed to be tough as nails and have a slightly antagonistic relationship with Halsey who she didn’t trust…and there was more to the relationship with Jorge. Like she was a foil to bring out the humanity of the Spartans since they’re supposed to be so cool and stoic…almost naive or absent of emotion. Instead we imbued Jorge and Emile with more emotional depth…which to me always felt cheap. The Spartans shouldn’t show their emotion in their speech or body language but in the choices and actions they take.
that’s kind of a mix of what she started out as and my own opinion about how it should have gone down…had we the time… 😦 [Isaac Hannaford, Halo Reach work]
While I can’t say that I agree with Hannaford on his perspective of how Spartans should convey emotion (not only on the principle of how to write characters, but also because it was established in The Fall of Reach that Halsey is able to tell each Spartan-II apart while they’re in their identical armour because of their unique body language), it’s rather interesting to know what was planned for this story…
This actually sounds interesting to me. The idea of more antagonism between the main and secondary characters would be an interesting way to elevate the drama within the context of this story where one would expect humanity to be united – of course, we know from the literature that this is decidedly not the case.
Not to mention, having a civilian be one of the primary voices for Noble Team, which, as I noted in the previous section, is a perspective the game sorely lacks.“Ah”, I hear you say. “But Haruspis, you’re missing the point. This isn’t a story about the characters, it’s about the setting.”
And that’s true, to an extent.
It has been pointed out many times that Reach is somewhat unique in how it is a story more about a place than it is about people, but that is one hell of a double-edge sword which makes it one of Reach’s greatest strengths but also one of its greatest weaknesses.
The importance of setting is critical to any story, as, without setting, your characters are just in a vacuum.
One of the most definitive aspects of Halo‘s universe is the use of its wide variety of weird and wonderful settings – from giant ringworlds, through artificial bomb shelter Dyson Spheres, immense alien space stations, and the desolate glasslands of a dead world.
Setting is one of the big draws that makes the Halo series (whether it be in the games or in other media) so eminently recognisable through how unique and irreplaceable each major location is. Installation 04 can’t just be replaced by any other Halo ring; High Charity can’t be replaced by any other Covenant space station; Requiem can’t be replaced with any other Shield World, and so on.
Setting provides the landscape of context to your story. It sets the mood, the tone, the atmosphere. Its importance cannot be understated.
But it’s only one of three pillars in a text.
The setting is the context in which a story takes place, but that context is meaningless without a plot to affect the setting and characters to drive the plot.
The setting can be a metaphor for your themes, it can be a fully realised space to function as its own kind of character, but without those other two pillars then all you’ve got is a place that goes from one state to another with little reason to care why.
This is why I question Bungie’s decision to make the majority of Noble Team a group of Spartan-IIIs…Reach is perhaps best known for being the ‘birthplace’ of the Spartan-IIs. It’s where they were trained, it’s where they grew up, it’s where they were gathered for RED FLAG, and it’s where a whole bunch of them died.
The Spartan-IIIs, on the other hand, were comprised of three companies (numbering around 300 to 330 across Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Company) who were orphaned on their homeworlds and picked up by ONI during or following evacuations, and taken to the planet Onyx to be trained as suicide soldiers.
Not only do they have absolutely no relation or relevance to Reach, but Bungie had to effectively retcon them into existence.
Jorge, the only Spartan-II on Noble Team, is the only character in the game who actually has any emotional relevance to the setting itself. But he’s killed off at the end of Long Night of Solace, half way through the game. Indeed, from the beginning (when you discover the Covenant’s presence in Winter Contongency), he’s the only one who actually seems to give a damn that the Covenant are on Reach at all.
In The Lord of the Rings, our main character, Frodo, is very much an extension of the Shire – his beloved home. Whether you’re experiencing that story through book or film, the setting comes to mean so much more because it represents the heart of the story and what everyone is fighting to preserve.
No such emotional relevance is granted to Reach’s band of disinterested Spartans.You can effectively substitute Reach with any other human world being overrun by the Covenant and nothing about the characters or the story would change, the setting loses relevance to the overall theme of the game because the overwhelming majority of its cast have no emotional investment or purpose in the overarching series of events that is unique to them.
You are not fighting to defend your childhood home, the place where you grew up, the place that defined who you were.
You’re fighting simply because the Covenant happen to be there.
This is exactly why this game misses the point of the fall of Reach, and this is why the plot that suddenly appears in the final act that affects a grand total of about two missions is such a cheap way to make Noble Team important to the larger mythos.
So, when considering why there aren’t very many stories where setting is prioritised over other aspects of writing – it’s because that there has to be a balance of focus on the interplay between the setting, the plot, and the characters.
When you focus too much on one, it comes as the detriment to the others, which is why I’m not convinced by the “Reach is a story about setting” argument.
As far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of other instances in the series that manage to be setting-heavy stories while facing up to the onus of having to juggle the balance of character and plot as well- Installation 04, New Mombasa, High Charity, Requiem, Sanghelios…
All the pretty skyboxes in the world can’t save Reach from having an interchangeable setting (featuring unique locations, such as: farmland, military base, big city, and wasteland… I’m being half-facetious here), a majority cast of characters with no relevance to that setting, and no tangible plot until the final act of the game.
What exacerbates the issue for me is how often it feels like you’re in the least interesting part of the action, which is a first for Halo. The mission Tip of the Spear is pretty much representative of this issue in a nutshell.
The opening cutscene of Tip of the Spear really should have been playable. It was a massive tease from Bungie because they were going on about how Reach could handle 40 AI and 20 vehicles on-screen at once, and the only time that is ever demonstrated is in Tip of the Spear’s opening cutscene.
There are also two on-rails turret sections. This is one of the most boring and unimaginative tropes in FPS design, I can’t believe that Bungie actually put this in their game when it would have been so much more in-keeping with their design philosophy to have the player pilot the Falcon and take it where it needs to go while fighting enemies.
Your objective is to take an AA gun out here……while, literally in the background behind you, there’s a battle raging between the UNSC with Warthogs and Scorpions going up against Ghosts, Wraiths, and three Scarabs. The design of the mission itself has us doing the less interesting thing, which is jarring because it’s so rare in Halo that you’ll look off into the distance and think to yourself “I wish I was fighting over there”.
Traditionally, not only do you end up going to the places you see off in the distance, you’re also typically thrown into the most interesting battles from the start.
It certainly doesn’t help that Reach doesn’t have any Scarab battles, despite featuring them in several missions (and New Alexandria was originally intended to have you drive a Scarab).
There’s that tease in The Pillar of Autumn as well, where two Scarabs land in your path, which fell totally flat when they don’t actually do anything.
But, in all fairness, looking at the Scarab models in Reach, it looks like they may have been late additions to the game or simply weren’t finished because not only is the texturing on them really not very good (whereas Reach‘s texture work is some of the best in the series even to this day), but there are parts of the interior that aren’t properly rendered (like the ‘screen’ on the lower level).
Anyway, you destroy the AA tower, which allows two UNSC frigates to come down and rain fire on the battlefield where the Scarabs are. Then you move on to the next area…
It’d be far more interesting – and very different – to be on the receiving end of that. To be an ant in this huge battle. You could be able to kill the Scarabs yourself if you’re quick enough to do so, but if you take too long then the comm chatter just says that your allies took down the AA tower and you’ve now got to take cover as the frigates bombard the area you’re in.
That, I think, would be some great sandbox gameplay.
But I really should note the obvious fact that I am not a level designer, which means that my criticism can only go so far before it’s just presumptuous babbling about a job that the developers no doubt killed themselves over to make as fun as possible. What I imagine to have been the more exciting scenario by no means translates to it being possible.On a similar note, Nightfall – the level just prior to Tip of the Spear – really sticks out as one of my least favourite missions in the series…
This is supposed to be the stealthy mission of the game, but the limitations of the AI’s behaviour really screws that up. When you assassinate the Sangheili at the beginning, the two Grunts to its right almost always see you, which wakes up the Grunts on the cliff below you who start shooting.
From there, any semblance of ‘stealth’ all falls apart.
When you move to the next area, you’re given a similar set-up where you aren’t seen. But the second you actually kill an enemy, everyone else just snaps to your location and starts firing.
And then there are times where Jun just opens fire on the Covenant and alerts everyone.
And then there are time where he opens fire on you and alerts everyone.
This was clearly intended to be the The Truth and Reconciliation mission of Reach, but the difference is that you can literally make it all the way over to the ship’s gravity lift without being spotted on Legendary if you play it right. I lost untold hours doing this with a friend back when the game first came out, seeing which of us could get the furthest without alerting the Covenant.
Nightfall just doesn’t even begin to compare.
It’s the interplay between the narrative pitfalls, the moments where you’re not doing anything particularly interesting or new, and the moments where the intentions of the developers for the atmosphere and approach to a mission fall apart that significantly degrade the experience of playing this campaign for me.
THE STORY – THIS PLOT IS NOT A NATURAL FORMATION
So, how about the story and plot itself?
To define the distinction between these two things in the most concise way possible: A story is a sequence of events, whereas plot is the structure defined by the causality of those events.
Halo: Reach does not have a plot – not until the final act of the game. It has an inciting incident at the start which disrupts the status quo (the Covenant are on Reach), but there are no actual plot points that occur until Halsey gets you to take Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn.
Now, in some instances, a weak or barely-there plot can work. But this tends to apply to the second act of a trilogy – the The Empire Strikes Backs, the Mass Effect 2s – in a three-act structure, at the end of the second act, your story threads reach a confluence point and are funnelled into a couple of simpler beats.
Rescue Han Solo from Jabba; destroy the second Death Star to take down the Empire; Luke faces his destiny, where he has to defeat Vader and the Emperor.
The second act is where you take all that build-up from the first act and apply it to the progression of your characters and the setting, setting the stage for the third act – which is why the second act basically tends to be very thin on the ground with plot. It’s a character-driven story.
Well, we’ve already established that Reach really isn’t much of a character-driven story. The disruption of the status quo has no relevance for anybody on Noble Team besides Jorge, and even that comes to an abrupt end when he’s killed off half way through the game.
Worse still is the contrivances and downright ludicrous stretches that are made to one’s suspension of disbelief in order to make this story happen. The most significant example that comes to mind is how the Long Night of Solace (hereby abbreviated to ‘LNOS’) is on Reach in the first place…Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, there will never be a truly logical explanation for how the LNOS managed to get to Reach without being spotted, the idea that not a single human on the UNSC’s main military stronghold would just look up during a training exercise with night vision goggles and see this almost 29,000 meter heat signal that looks suspiciously like a Covenant ship in the sky.
The Spires were deployed and used to teleport troops, weapons, vehicles, and supply caches from the LNOS to Reach. But the LNOS had to actually be there to get the Spires down in the first place. The notion that the LNOS was cloaked and made landfall on Reach, which simply isn’t possible because… y’know, weather satellites are a thing that exist, along with the orbital MAC stations and scanning outposts which would have picked up literally the largest class of ship the Covenant has – the largest class of ship in the modern Halo universe prior to Mantle’s Approach.
Additionally, active camouflage generates heat, which is one of the things that put humanity and the Covenant on “even-footing” in combat:
“Within a matter of minutes, six three-person fire teams, all equipped with heat-sensitive night-vision goggles, were busy working their way down through the mazelike complex. The Covenant’s camo generators didn’t block heat, they actually generated it, and that put both sides on an even footing.” [Halo: The Flood, William C. Dietz, page 238]
Now apply that to a 28,960 metre-long Covenant ship. It’s going to go up like a flare before it gets near Reach.
You’d have to literally make sure that all military personnel, all scanning equipment, anyone with night-vision goggles, and so on, were on the other side of the planet for almost a month – the LNOS made landfall July 23rd, it was not discovered until August 12th. And, funnily enough, this is pretty much the explanation that 343 has given with the Data Drops to make this possible.
In addition, at the end of Nightfall, we see at least three uncloaked Covenant Corvette vessels sitting pretty over Reach’s surface.
When you board the Ardent Prayer and see the holographic map of Reach in the bridge, there are about half a dozen Corvette signals spanning different parts of the planet – and we know from what we see in Nightfall that this doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s just six Corvettes there, but is representative of Corvette sites where a number of them are gathered.
Nobody reacts to this.
Nobody questions how this is possible.
Because it isn’t. And when you do this with a planet like Reach, it further undermines the point and significance of the setting as humanity’s military stronghold by making humanity out to be a bunch of morons.Y’know how this could have been fixed?
Colonel Urban Holland: “ONI thinks it might be the local Insurrection. Five months ago, they pulled a similar job on Harmony. Hit a relay to take out our eyes and ears, then stole two freighters from dry-dock. That cannot happen here. Reach is too damn important. I want that relay back online, Noble One.”
We have the Insurrection teased to us in the very first cutscene of the game…
Oh, what is the Insurrection?
Sorry, Person Who Only Plays The Games, you gotta read the books to find that out. Bungie doesn’t tell you and wasted the perfect opportunity to introduce them along with all that rich backstory they were talking about wanting to explore by contriving a Covenant invasion instead.
This is probably 343’s fault, somehow.
Here, we had the opportunity for a completely different kind of conflict, one which is just constantly passed over in the games despite how prevalent its importance is in the lore.
Having Noble Team fight rebels would do a whole lot for the worldbuilding of the Halo universe in the games and it would also be an opportunity to engage the player with Noble Six’s specific skillset because they were used as an assassin to make “whole militia groups disappear”, as Halsey says in that out-of-game ViDoc regarding Six’s operational history.
Even if you were to keep the story in-place so the Covenant have already invade at this point, it would be a lot more effective to have the first mission start off with you fighting rebels, only to discover at the Visegrad relay outpost (towards the very end of the mission) the presence of the Sangheili Zealots.
They were there to retrieve sensor data for Forerunner artefacts (leading to SWORD Base), the rebels were simultaneously planning to take down UNSC communications there, they ran into the Zealots and ended up slaughtered – the relay station going dark as a result of the ensuing conflict between them.As a side note: Speaking of those Zealots, Emile literally had one job – guarding the exit to the relay station. Somehow an unshielded Sangheili manages to get past him at close quarters, which is supposedly Emile’s speciality.
I actually went back to count just how long Emile had to react to this situation from Carter telling him “We’ve been engaged,” up to the unshielded Zealot blowing past him, and it was twenty-seven seconds.
So much for the value of those invaluable neural augmentations the Spartan-IIIs get which decreases their reaction time by 300%…
Back on-topic: You’ve still got the illogical framework of the Covenant even being on Reach at this point, but the presentation of revealing the Covenant’s presence is a whole lot more effective than Jun somehow not being able to spot a small army and multiple Spirit dropships with his thermals while in a Falcon that are barely a hundred metres away from him.
As it stands: the first encounter with the Sangheili is woefully underwhelming. You run up a hill and there’s just three of them there, standing around.
No build-up or tension like there is in previous games for far lesser moments. You just face a mob of enemies on a hill and then three Sangheili at the top.
Who is Halsey?
Well, the game doesn’t tell you.
Sorry, again, people who haven’t read the books. Bungie threw in a titan of a character whose appearance in the games was long overdue, but didn’t do see fit to articulate who she is or why she’s important.
She shows particular favour to Jorge. Why? If you’d read the books, you’d know it’s because she’s the mind behind the Spartan-II program and was looked at by the candidates (who were conscripted at the age of six) as a mother figure.
That is never acknowledge or hinted at. In fact, to this day, I still see people who misinterpret Jorge’s pronunciation of “ma’am” when they meet at the end of the first SWORD Base mission to be him calling her “mum”. And there’s nothing in the game to actually contradict that, to point to and say “um… no, this is where Halsey’s role is defined.”
You gotta read the book for actual context here, rather than rely on context-by-osmosis from fan discussion about Halsey.
What’s more, her presentation in the game is really quite out-of-character at times because there’s an irritating tendency for some of Halsey’s writers to just have her be pointlessly antagonistic. Threatening to send Kat to the brig within the context of the game makes very little sense, as does her line “Are you a puppet or a Spartan?” to Carter over him pursuing his mission’s primary objective.
She knows better than anyone that Spartans are puppets.
They were made to be puppets.
Her antagonism does make more sense with First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx in-mind where she discovers that Spartans that are not hers have been created and she is immensely critical of them (particularly as she knows that Colonel Ackerson’s name is attached to them)… but I don’t think that Bungie really had this in mind when they wrote these scenes. And even if they did, it’s yet another instance where one has to read the books to actually understand the context here.
Gosh, these instances sure are racking up, aren’t they? Perhaps this isn’t a 343-exclusive issue after all!
Anyway, Halsey exists in this story to make Noble Team’s deaths relevant in the larger context of the series, which is… fine, but it’s done in the most unbelievably artificial way.
This is where the plot turns up – having missed seven busses, lost its luggage, and sprinted to its destination when it started to rain.
As it turns out, prior to being killed, Professor Laszlo Sorvad made a “latchkey” discovery about an artefact underneath SWORD Base – a Forerunner vessel.
There’s no indication that they ever knew a thing about Forerunners, that they even existed at all, beforehand – so the sudden revelation that there’s this ancient race of aliens with super advanced technology that has been on this planet the whole time and could ultimately change the course of the war (somehow)… it means nothing to them.
“Commander, you’re wondering what your Spartans died for? They died for this.”
The thing that none of you know or care about.
The thing that the game literally never explains – what is this Forerunner vessel? Why is it on Reach? Did it crash? What is in its databanks that means so much to humanity – that is such a huge leap for humanity on-par with FTL travel?
We’re supposed to infer that this made some kind of contribution to the discovery of Installation 04, but Halsey had no idea what Halos were or that they even existed until she’s briefed about it in First Strike. Until the very moment the Pillar of Autumn arrives in the Soell system, no human since Forthencho had any business knowing what a damn Halo is.
And, again, the coordinates to Installation 04 were found during the battle of Sigma Octanus IV long before the battle of Reach. They were ‘translated’ by Cortana on the Pillar of Autumn because she changed the way in which they were analysed – not as a language (which Halsey had been trying to decipher it as), but as a map.
So, within the full context of the lore, this immense store of data – this latchkey discovery – was effectively a Google search term corrector.
Search “Translate Forerunner language”
Did you mean “Translate Forerunner map”?
You’re still yet to explain how Halsey somehow knows about the Domain in Halo 5. This blanket plot device is your ‘get out of jail free’ card for that…
Anyway, back to the plot, it turns out that our mission is to escort Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn because she’s carrying this data.
Oh, except it’s not actually Cortana, it’s a fragment of her. A copy made to study this artefact. You might not have known that if you hadn’t spent extra money to purchase and read Halsey’s journal because this information is not actually in the game.
What was the common interpretation made instead by people unfamiliar with the lore?
That the Big Twist™ here is that Cortana is actually a Forerunner AI that Halsey found in this ship…
I mean… you know you’ve not done a particularly great job with the writing when you’ve got these two huge misconceptions established by simply not making any effort to explain who Halsey is or what this Forerunner ship means for the story of the game and the larger universe. Based on the presentation of these scenes, the natural assumption becomes “Oh, so Cortana is a Forerunner AI then?”
If you’re going to use stuff from the books, you’ve really got to do it right rather than trying to have your cake and eat it.
In a series where continuity is mostly valued, you can’t just take stuff that another author has written and fleshed out over a period of almost a decade and misrepresent it because you’ve decide you want to tell your own story. In that case, do something else.
Why make the majority of the cast Spartan-IIIs when them being Spartan-IIIs never actually has any effect on the plot, setting (as I’ve covered, it’s detrimental to this more than anything), or their own characterisation?
Nobody grows, nobody changes, nobody makes their own decisions. Six deciding to stay behind is not because they intended to just die on Reach, that this was the destiny set out for them. It’s because somebody has to operate the Onager MAC to take out the inbound Covenant cruiser or else it’s going to obliterate the Autumn before it even gets a chance to leave.
The endgame of the story is to shoehorn in a half-baked plot that plays on peoples’ nostalgia for Halo: Combat Evolved in order to make Noble Team relevant.
As I said in my post about Requiem a few months back, the plot itself with Reach doesn’t even substitute its inherent weakness in being thrown in at the eleventh hour with being at all unique.
Halo CE: You stumble upon an ancient Forerunner installation and conclude the game by blowing it up.
Halo 3: You stumble upon two Forerunner installations, one of them a replacement for the one you blew up in the first game, and conclude the game by blowing it up again.
Halo Wars: You stumble upon not one, not two, but three Forerunner settings across three worlds and progress through the story by blowing each of them up – concluding the game by blowing up the Shield World with its own sun.
Halo: Reach: You stumble upon a crashed Forerunner ship underground, it holds knowledge – “A game-changer, on the level of the conical bullet in the nineteenth century, or faster-than-light travel in the twenty-third”. What is this knowledge? Why are you even asking? Get on that Pelican right now because we’re blowing it up!
Halo‘s plots got far too comfortable and more than a bit overly reliant on the same basic formula, to the point that it was plugged into Reach’s narrative as an extremely artificial way of lending some sort of significance to Noble Team’s actions without ever taking the time to explain what exactly the Babd Catha vessel held that was such a huge discovery.
You know the music, time to… not so much dance, but awkwardly sway to the repetitive, droning rhythm that fizzles out before it seems to go anywhere.
There are a great deal many more issues to discuss, but I feel that they’re the ones that have been talked about a lot more than some of the things I’ve brought up. As such, I am moving on to something that may surprise you, given how critical I’ve been thus far…
THE STUFF I LIKED – (AND I DON’T MEAN ‘WHEN THE CREDITS ROLLED’)
Yes, there is, in fact, stuff that I love about this game.
There are instances where I think the writing was strong.
There are moments that I think are among the best in the franchise (the above image is one of them).
Firstly, I do have to mention this because it just hits you right from the beginning: the user interface.
The menu UI of this game is probably the best and most intuitive of any I’ve ever played, and the background image of the menu changes depending where you are in the campaign which is a really nice bit of attention to detail.
Where I’ve criticised the overly truncated nature of the first mission with regards to its enemy encounters and introduction to the Sangheili, I still think that the first mission starts off really well.
The ‘tutorial’ is just to look at your objectives and press a button to accept your settings. I like that. There’s none of the overly long, drawn out “look up at light, look down at light, look across at light, oh you accidentally wiggled the looking stick the wrong way for a nanosecond let’s run through this inverted, repeat process, you don’t like that okay let’s change it back, repeat process”…
That really bugs me in the other games, it’s why I can never play Halo CE‘s first mission on Easy or Normal because I really hate that tutorial.
Halo 4 kept it simple as well by just having you look up to pull the release of the cryo chamber. This is how you do it – have the player perform a relevant action and adjust the settings to how they did it. Reach makes it nice and simple, and weaves it into the mission design. Good stuff.
Oh, and there’s rain! That’s got to be brought up. The engine can handle rain!
There’s probably at least a few people who read that and are scratching their heads, but I suspect others are nodding along. This was a big deal back in 2010 because the Halo 3 engine would start misbehaving when Bungie tried to implement rain into ODST, which the music certainly substituted well in terms of making you feel like there was rain off in the distance, but it’s not at all the same as having it there.Jorge and the farmer having a conversation in Hungarian was a really nice touch to the game, a good little bit of worldbuilding presented by showing rather than telling – as many of Reach’s original settlers were from Eastern Europe.
In fact, I dare to propose that Jorge just has this effect on the writing where it becomes significantly better whenever he speaks Hungarian… like the scene where Jorge interacts with Sara Sorvad, which I’ve brought up a few times over the course of this post (particularly considering what that was all supposed to lead to in the story).
I feel it hits the right notes with its characterisation, and Emile’s uncomfortable antagonism here makes sense because the Spartan-IIIs were largely composed of jaded orphans who jumped at the chance to get revenge against the Covenant (but you still gotta read the books to know that). That kind of detachment fuelled a lot of them and I commend Bungie for making this a part of Emile’s character.
Also the music in that is really reminiscent of ODST with its light piano notes. That’s an instant winner in my book.
Another great, ‘Hungarian-propelled’ scene is the one mid-way through Long Night of Solace where Jorge asks Auntie Dot to look up Sword Base because he’s concerned about Halsey.
Dot notes that his pulse is elevated as we see large-scale explosions erupt over the continent, she then says “there is nothing you can do for Doctor Halsey and the others inside Sword Base,” which really effectively lays the groundwork for his upcoming sacrifice where it seemed like he was saving the planet.
That was some good writing.
While I criticised the uninspired landscapes used for confrontations with the Covenant (particularly in the first half of the game), I have to at least give credit where credit is due to the level of detail in these civilian settlements throughout the more isolated areas we visit. A lot of thought went into making these spaces, I just wish that the same kind of attention had been put in having more moments like the one between Jorge and the farmer where Noble Team is interacting with the people they’re fighting to save.
The first and second mission of the campaign are structured really well with its mix of vehicular and on-foot gameplay, wrapped within an optional layer of being able to do the two objectives in whatever order you want. It’s not quite on-par with The Silent Cartographer as a truly open sandbox level, but it’s far more compelling than many of the game’s more linear missions and segments.
On the subject of the second mission, the visuals for the ONI aesthetic are captured beautifully. Interestingly, there are a number of times where it’s very reminiscent of Forerunner Builder designs (the opening area of SWORD Base looks a lot like some of Halo 5‘s Forerunner Builder architecture too – of course, these were, at the time, the only Forerunner designs we’d seen with the exception of Halo Wars, but the concept of rates in Forerunner society hadn’t yet been introduced) which is fitting.
One of the interior segments of The Package is actually a rather subtle recreation of Installation 04/04B’s control room tower, but on a smaller scale (pictured below).I like the Deathclaws… I mean gúta. It sucks that they were only in one mission (and that mission happened to be probably the worst one in the game), they were intended to be in others but time and resource constraints made that impossible. But it’s really nice to have ambient wildlife present that you can choose to fight or ignore.
The Sabre launch facility in Long Night of Solace is beautifully detailed. The lighting in that room where the shutters open is stunning, it oozes atmosphere. And the space segment is just… incredible to look at.
You might be expecting me at this point to include the actual space combat here, but… I’m personally not a big fan of it.
It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s endlessly repetitive on campaign replays because the spawns are exactly the same, the enemies are exactly the same, the method of taking them out is exactly the same. It would have been nice if Bungie randomised them because, as it stands, there’s a distinct lack of variety in what is made to feel like a sandbox part of the level – whereas it’s actually one of the most linear parts of the game (short of being one of those dreadful on-rails Falcon rides).
I do appreciate what Bungie was going for, and it being something they hadn’t done before along with the novelty of having a space battle in a Halo game is enough for some people – which is totally valid. But it’s a bit tedious for me.
I prefer the presentation of Halo 4‘s Broadsword run as being more of an exercise in manoeuvring than combat, something that is meant to reflect the momentum the plot has picked up as we get closer to the climax and focuses on driving home a feeling in the player. I tend to enjoy replaying that more.
To bring this back to a positive though, this is actually the first Halo game to properly utilise low-G gameplay. It’s very briefly in Halo 2‘s first mission, there are two short spacewalks you get to do on Cairo Station as you work your way to the space pickle (er… bomb), but here it lasts a lot longer and adds a lot to the particular encounter design aboard the Ardent Prayer.
Speaking of which, this is where I have to segway into praising the audio of this game as well.
The game dynamically recognises your proximity to characters who are talking and changes whether their dialogue is said over the comm or in your ear, the sound is muffled in the low-G environments, the gradual muffling of the sound when you use active camouflage…
Additionally, for the recreation of Halo CE‘s opening cutscene at the end, I remember it being said in the developer commentary (might’ve been Marcus Lehto) that they actually went back and got the original audio recording of those two lines of Keyes and Cortana from Halo CE, which took them ages because they thought they deleted it.
At the same time, it’s unfortunate that they just show the Autumn heading towards Installation 04 for ten minutes – they don’t show any Covenant ships or anything when the Autumn was actually engaged in battle and destroyed four CCS-class battleships. But that’s a bit of a nitpick, it just would have been nice to see them go all the way with that.
The point is: Halo has always been at the cutting-edge of truly great sound design and Reach is no different in that regard (in fact, in many ways, I think it damn well upped the standard).While I have lengthily whinged about the story, there are some moments that are so genuinely well-crafted that they stand as particular favourites of mine in the franchise at-large.
To choose three particular examples:
1 – The immediate aftermath of Jorge’s death scene, where the dozens of Covenant ships arrive at the planet as the camera cuts to static and you just hear the panicked voices of people trying to talk to each other while Auntie Dot repeats “Slipspace rupture detected,” over and over again.
That moment was chilling.
But what elevates it for me is that it was actually ‘foreshadowed’ (this is a bit of a technical use of the word because we did know it was coming) on the bridge of the Ardent Prayer.
Next time you’re there, look at the holographic map of Reach – there’s one side of the map which is covered in a whole bunch of dots signifying the exit vectors of the fleet that’s on its way. That was a really nice, subtle piece of design that can easily go unnoticed.
2 – “We’ve got reports of Covenant suicide squads.”
This line isn’t a particularly important one in the grand scheme of things, but it really stands out to me – and the delivery is good as well. I mean this really says a lot about the Covenant simply through their actions and the fact that the UNSC know that suicide squads are a thing to the point where informing the people you’re fighting alongside of their presence is almost a mundane expectation.
Unggoy are being sent into places occupied by civilians, people who literally have no hope of fighting back, and they’re blowing themselves up with plasma grenades.
Not only that, this is where Jiralhanae start appearing and they’re attacking civilians as well.
That is just… horrific. The game conveys this really well.
I also think they got Jiralhanae just right in Reach from a gameplay perspective – they’re stronger than Sangheili at close quarters and they can take a fair bit of damage, but they’re not bullet sponges like they are in Halo 2. And they don’t feel like they’re trying to fill the kind of combat function they basically served as ‘not-Sangheili-but-made-to-play-like-Sangheili’ in Halo 3.
Having said that, Bungie aren’t winning any points for visual design with me on this because they look more like your average Orc design than Jiralhanae in this game – with the exception of the Chieftains who do actually come across as genuinely threatening.
3 – My favourite cutscene of the game, the opening of New Alexandria.
Just Six sat in the Pelican looking out at the smouldering ruin of the city as the Covenant move in… no dialogue, just that gorgeous music to set the mood.
The mission itself is one of the best in the series too (even though 90,000,000 roentgens should vaporise Noble Team on the spot).The epilogue mission – Lone Wolf – stands out as a truly unique experience and end to a campaign in Halo as well.
The chapter title coming up, saying “There’ll be another time…” with your only objective being to “SURVIVE” gauges a genuinely emotional reaction out of me – despite not particularly caring for Six or many of the preceding events leading up to this point. The cracks on your visor are a brilliant visual touch as well.
Speaking of which, it would be remiss of me not to say that the visuals of this game still hold up. Despite my issues with the setting, Bungie’s skyboxes are a key part of what sold the moments where it did feel like you were actually experiencing the fall of Reach.
It’s vibrant and colourful, even during those missions where you would think the colour palette would just switch to washed out greys and browns.
No, it is entirely to Bungie’s credit that this entire campaign experience is kept visually interesting from start-to-finish.
That, I feel, is a staple of Halo.
There’s a really nice visual effect on Lone Wolf as well where the layer of fog makes the character models, vehicles, and environmental features look like they’re silhouetted. It has a distinct Western feeling, which is wholly appropriate considering the ‘final stand’ that is the point of that mission.Another subtle visual cue that bookends the game is the presence of that mountain you see in the very opening cutscene where Six’s helmet is lying in the dirt.
When you get to The Pillar of Autumn – the penultimate mission – you can see that mountain looming over the backdrop, a clear indication to the player that with every step you take you’re getting closer to the place of your death.
That was really effective.
There’s this dichotomy I have with Reach where there’s all these intricately crafted details within the campaign, but it’s all wrapped in a layer of fiction that is so utterly nonsensical to me. I just don’t know how to truly feel about this game, this added layer of hindsight in the wake of Halo 5 has only further complicated my feelings towards Reach.
I don’t particularly intend to replay it again. I would not go out of my way to do so because, ultimately, it’s just not a Halo story that speaks to me or the lore and characters I’m interested in. But I don’t ‘hate’ it nearly as much as I did a few years ago.
There’s more I can appreciate for its value and depth of detail, but the quality jumps around so much at so many points that I just can’t pin it down to a net-positive or net-negative.In the end, do I think Bungie succeeded in achieving the goals they set out to hit with Reach? Yeah, I think, to an extent, they did.
They definitely told a human story. They were at least somewhat successful in recreating various aspects of Halo CE – the tone, atmosphere, and large environments were absolutely a success. But I feel that Bungie’s best, definitive ‘human story’ was in Halo 2 with Thel’s character arc, which remains one of the most beautifully compelling pieces of character transformation in the series for me. I feel that CE and ODST achieved this to better effect too.
What I do hope is that we get a book about Noble Team one day.
I want to like these characters and see them get the same treatment the Alpha-Nine ODST squad got in New Blood and the Helljumper comic, but I don’t know whether that’s ever really likely to happen.
In any case, it’s yet another instance of an out-of-game piece of media being needed to provide Reach with essential context.
I’ve been astoundingly critical of 343 across these last 14 months, the very least I can do is give Bungie that same treatment here because they absolutely fell prey to the same problem that people are accusing 343 of.
“This is not irony; it is echo. The way of the Mantle. If we who are honoured with life do not perceive the obvious, then we are forced to live it again, around another corner, from another angle.”
And, with that, I feel I have said all I have to say on the matter (at least, for now).