“Beautiful, ain’t it? Someone should take a picture” The Last Hurrah for Bungie with Halo Reach
It feels odd to begin this retrospective series at the end of Bungie’s Halo journey, but as I have decided to do this replay of the Halo games in chronological order, it shall be where we begin. For some quick housekeeping before we dive in, I shall clear some things up. This is just a look at all the campaigns of Halo, not their multiplayer components, although I will probably do a post talking about all of them at some point.
Furthermore, I will be playing all the campaigns on Heroic difficulty for two reasons: One, Bungie have always stated it to be the canon difficulty, and this trend has been carried on by 343 Industries. Two, Halo 2 on Legendary is a living nightmare in which the older I get, the more painful it becomes as I rage and swear at god-damn sniper Jackals, and the bizarre reality in which the Master Chief, saviour of humanity is the weakest character in the sandbox.
Halo Reach was released 11 years ago, and at the time Bungie faced many questions; how are you going to make a proper mainline Halo game without Master Chief? Is it possible to top Halo 3, which for some fans (this one included) is still the magnum opus of the franchise, if not all console FPS’s period?
The answer was to take things in a different direction. Up until this point, Halo was a space opera, a Star Wars-esque trilogy where a big green super soldier shot the ever-living shit out of aliens. For both franchises, there genius laid in their ability to create genuine emotional stakes, which was combined with great world-building to create a universe where you genuinely cared about what was going on, albeit with the sprinkling in of ridiculous plot points.
And that is where the difference lies between Bungie’s original trilogy, and this swansong to the franchise that they created. Halo Reach is Saving Private Ryan gone Sci-Fi, a full-blooded war movie where the good guys brutally sacrifice everything they hold dear for the greater good, a good which they will never see. To carry on with the Star Wars analogy, I often suspect that Gareth Edwards is a secret Halo fan and decided to masquerade Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as a spiritual successor to Reach, considering how similar they are narratively. Well, at least in my head cannon anyway.
You get the sense of this new direction the minute the opening cutscene rolls in, with the GOAT of Video Game composing Marty O’Donnell’s impeccable soundtrack. Back in the original trilogy, there was a more ethereal and upbeat quality in the music as you fought the Covenant, mainly due to the narrative setup of the Master Chief being humanity’s last hope. In Reach, you are immediately presented with these foreboding military-esque drums, a new continual motif in the soundtrack. This leads to Donnell remixing so many of the notes and melodies so familiar to Halo fans to create a brand new, somewhat grounded take on the Halo music fans have grown to love.
That pretty much sums up the entire stance of Halo Reach as a whole, especially the way that Bungie treats the characters and overall plot this time round. Although Reach was given fantastic reviews by most critics when it came out, there was criticism regarding the perceived shallowness of the characters, and lack of detailed explanation when it came to the story. In this humble writer’s view, this was a perfect move on the part of Bungie. This is all about the fall of Reach, and the characters that we follow are small, but still integral parts of the overall story.
Still, what is given to us from veteran writers Joseph Staten and Peter O’ Brien, shows the growth in the Halo franchise. When we are introduced to Noble Team, they are not larger than life in any way, in fact they are quite reserved due to a recent loss in the squad that your character, Noble 6 is filling. Although you play as Noble 6, he is not really a protagonist and like the Master Chief, he does not speak much. But the way that Bungie animate him, with his smaller stature and underdog like personality make him a much different proposition. Like many of Reach’s heroes, all he can do is his best, but he does not possess Master Chief’s ability to carry humanity entirely on his overpowered back. This reserved nature also applies to the dialogue, which is efficient in how it conveys the character arcs of Noble Team, for example: Carter is the leader but is not stuck up and is fully behind his squad, whereas Kat is the second in command, constantly disobeying orders but always doing it for the good of the team.
This may not sound like much but it is the way that Bungie use these character types to develop a genuine bond within the team, with small exchanges giving just enough of a backstory into each character, without ever becoming dumps of exposition. When the time comes for all these characters to inevitably meet their maker, Reach never falls into overdramatic parody, with each character solemnly mourning the loss and moving on in a somewhat cold manner, because in a situation where you are facing insurmountable odds - there is just no time to grieve properly. A few of these deaths come out of nowhere, especially Kat’s, whereby she is shot through the visor of her helmet by a sniper, therefore perishing before she can even process what has happened. It lends the game an unsettling realism unseen in the Halo franchise until this point.
This is also the Halo game that does true justice to the terrifying power and scale of the Covenant. They have always been a force to be reckoned with but due to the sheer badassery of the Master Chief, you always felt that they could be beaten. In Reach, Bungie do a brilliant job of stating that this is a battle that has already been lost. One of the most powerful scenes comes in what I believe to be the best level in the entire game, Long Night of Solace, where you start by infiltrating an old bunker which contains a UNSC ship, fly into space while dogfighting with multiple Banshees, then board a Covenant space cruiser with the attempts of manipulating a slip-space drive to destroy it. At this point, the game does a great job in making you believe this the only space cruiser in the Covenants arsenal, so when one of Noble Team, Jorge must sacrifice himself for the plan to work, it is a truly heartbreaking but ultimately satisfying moment. That is when Bungie really put the hurt on you, when it is revealed moments after his death that one cruiser was one of hundreds, if not thousands, and that essentially, Jorge’s death had been for nothing. It is a brilliant sleight of hand from a company that are operating at the near peak of their powers, in both story and gameplay.
Speaking of level design, Reach features the standard high quality that Halo fans had come to expect at this point. No mission tries to ape the expansiveness of some of Combat Evolved and 3’s biggest levels, but there are a few quite large sandboxes to play around in, along with some great cinematic moments that are the culmination of what Bungie had been working towards in their past 4 Halo campaigns. The gameplay is a satisfying blend of being a weaker, more agile Spartan, but also retaining the general feeling of being an elite warrior that must fight insurmountable odds. The game is far less bombastic than previous Halo’s and does not feature set pieces that are on the scale of Halo 3, but due to Bungie fully committing to the tone of a war movie, you never feel short changed — just invested in the drama.
Each weapon has Bungie's classic sound design, as well as being useful in the games overall sandbox, and multiple vehicle sections really lend to accentuate the scale of Halo’s bigger-than-most FPS’s level design. I am a bit of a purist, and still believe that armour abilities were not a great addition, but in my opinion, they fair a lot better here than they do in Reach’s multiplayer.
As a swansong, I cannot think of many properties that had a better game than Halo Reach. Not only does it give players an exciting experience in line with what they had become accustomed to, it also shook things up, blending genres in order to create the most emotionally devastating Halo game ever made. Some developers go on to do greater things, but as much as I admire what Bungie have done with Destiny, I truly believe that they will never top the work they made over 9 years with this glorious franchise.