I’ve been trying for a few years now to find an appropriate way to sum up Halo Reach, primarily due to its place of being the most divisive game in the series. For some fans, it’s the best in the franchise thanks to its gunplay and overall feel being tuned to near perfection, and multiplayer that brought the series up to date with contemporary shooters. To other fans though, it’s the weakest (...alright, least good) entry in the series, due to its grittier, “realistic” aesthetic, a lackluster story, and for having new features that felt like Bungie was throwing ideas at a wall to see what would stick. This year though, I think I found as good a concept as I can find to try and describe it: It’s the best game Bungie made up to that point, but it’s weakest Halo that’s been made.
I’m quasi-paraphrasing this from Top Gear Magazine’s review of the Lamborghini Huracan. In it, they said that it’s without a doubt the best car the company has ever made, but it’s not the best Lamborghini ever made. It’s a great car in how it’s built, how it handles, and even price-wise it’s not too bad. But Lamborghini isn’t known for those traits; they’re known for making insane looking, insanely fast, borderline dangerous machines. What draws people into the Halo games are its gameplay and fantastic level design, but the franchise is probably better known for its characters and the unique sci-fi future setting. Halo Reach has said mechanics, but it lacks the soul that’s defined the series for over a decade.
Whenever I talk to people about it, they always talk about how good the multiplayer was, but I’ve rarely heard them give a thought or two to its campaign. For the most part, the ten levels it has are decent to play through, but they never achieve the epic-ness or even the emotion(s) that was there in the previous games. Halo: Combat Evolved’s groundbreaking open-world levels, Halo 2’s inspired (but albeit confusing) narrative that switched between the Master Chief and the Arbiter inbetween levels, Halo 3’s cinematic setpieces, ODST’s unique noir-ish atmosphere; every game in the series had a feel to it that made them stand out from most other AAA games. Heck, even Halo 4 (the first game in the series that wasn’t made by Bungie) stood out by having actual character moments/development, and gave you an entire new planet to explore.
Halo Reach did attempt to give itself a unique identity, as the marketing it had made it look it focused on a squad of soldiers fighting in a war that they knew was unwinnable. Hell, the game’s official tagline was “From the beginning, you know the end.” This gives away how the story’s from the get-go, but before the game came out Bungie had always talked about The Fall of Reach: how it was a pivotal moment in the Halo universe, how brutal it was, and that this game would finally show it. And from the first few trailers, it indeed looked like it was going to be Brutal.
But in reality, Noble Team was more like a behind the scenes, Black Ops squad instead of full-on participants in the war. Save for one level, the game talks about how merciless the Covenant are in their assault, but it rarely shows it. The first mission tasks you with discovering an enemy recon team on a remote farming village, the second mission has you cleaning up after an attack on a (again remote) military base, and while there is a level where Noble team does directly face the alien invaders in a full on battle between two armies, they’re mostly fighting around the main event rather than in it. For the majority of the game, you’re either doing reconnaissance, cleaning up after a battle that’s long over, or partaking in missions that are off the books. Compared to the previous games where you played as the Master Chief, a supersoldier who was at the center of almost every encounter, it almost feels like narrative whiplash. And then there’s the gigantic plot hole that is the ending of the mission Long Night of Solace.
After destroying a Covenant super-carrier, sacrificing one of your teammates, and believing you’ve dealt a major blow to the enemy forces, the Covenant instead send in a massive fleet that’s greatly, almost comically larger than the one you just destroyed, seconds after the previous fleet was obliterated. Why the hell didn’t they just send in their whole fleet? Were they just waiting for one of their ships to be destroyed before going in? Did they think a whole planet, a military stronghold at that, didn’t require too much effort? This is an enemy force known for glassing entire worlds, and yet they skimp out here... why, exactly? This moment has annoyed the hell out of me for years, and I’ve still haven’t found a good answer to any of these questions.
As it happened though, there is a silver lining to this amazing moment. After crash landing back on Reach, Noble 6 (the Spartan you play as) makes his/her way to the city of New Alexandria, right as the Covenant are just laying waste to it. You still need to find a way back to your squad, but there’s a full on war between you and Noble Team. You’re going to have to fight your way through the city, which is still full of civilians and a woefully outgunned UNSC fighting force trying to repel the invaders. It’s the first time in the game (and the series, in fact) where you see up close the sheer level of destruction the Covenant is known and feared for. Halo 2 and ODST both had cities that were being destroyed, but neither of them still had a population that had yet to be evacuated.
The one moment that almost perfectly symbolizes what’s happening is the sub-section aptly named “I Should Have Become a Watchmaker.” To reach an important beachhead, you board a VTOL to fly past the battle, and all you can really do is witness the war. You do man a turret, and you can take out as many enemy ground forces as you want... but you can’t save all of the civilians down below. You’re also forced to watch as a ship packed with passengers is shot down as it’s taking off, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The dialogue that you listen to is a bit corny, but the score that plays over it still gives this section the impact it deserves. This is also one of the few times where the game delivers on what it’s been hyping up: even though you’re a cyborg supersoldier, there’s nothing you can do to prevent the destruction of this planet. All you can do is watch, try to save as many lives as you can, and find some way to make some kind of difference in the war’s inevitable outcome.
The missions after Exodus unfortunately don’t keep this new found momentum going: the following level tasks you with (again) partaking in a few behind the scenes objectives as a huge battle wages around you, the one after that has you returning to a base you previously defended to clean up any remaining military secrets (defending it before wasn’t time well spent, apparently), and the following and final mission has you escort and deliver a special package that has to escape the doomed planet. Through all of this, the rest of your squad is either KIA or MIA, but even their deaths don’t really help in raising the stakes.
Exodus still stands out after everything’s said and done because it doesn’t actually say what the stakes are. It shows you why you should care instead of telling you, unlike the rest of the game’s missions. It’s one of the very few times where you see Reach being destroyed, instead of seeing it before or after its fall. It’s the most memorable mission in the entire game, it stands out like a sore thumb, it’s the one time the game truly delivers on what it’s marketed. And it still remains as the best mission in Halo Reach.
TGRIP is a film student studying in Portland, OR. TAY’s resident Xbox and racing game fan, he also (part time) reviews and does opinion pieces on games, movies, television, comics, and anime. He also runs his kinja sub blog Work(ing Title) In Progress. You can follow this third person narrating weirdo on Twitter @Dennis_wglasses, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SV”.