Halo: Reach was a mournful, bombastic coda to Halo’s Decade of Supremacy
War is hell. Even when that war takes place on a fictional planet and is fought between a totalitarian human regime and a fundamentalist alliance of alien races who’s only goal is genocide. Reach is a peaceful planet harboring some of humanity’s spacefaring navy’s – the UNSC – deepest secrets. Humanity’s war with the Covenant has left Reach untouched until a crack team of Spartan super soldiers find evidence to the contrary. And so the darkest day in humanity’s history begins. The Fall of Reach was finally given the elegiac and explosive treatment it deserved.
For Halo fans in the know The Fall of Reach is one of the defining texts of that universe. Where Halo: Combat Evolved introduced the world Eric Nylund’s novel The Fall of Reach deepened that world immeasurably. The Master Chief’s story was made infinitely sadder by the fact that he is the last of his kind by the end of the novel which dovetails into Combat Evolved. Readers were given added insight to the UNSC and the galaxy it thought it conquered wrapped up in a rip-roaring military science fiction novel. But the thought going through a lot of heads was always “What if this was a Halo game?”
Bungie never really adapted The Fall of Reach but instead told a parallel story to that of the Master Chief’s. The Spartan squad Noble Team are the squad that first discover the Covenant’s arrival on the planet Reach. Playing as newest team member Noble 6 players join leader Carter, second-in-command Kat, heavy gunner Jorge, assault specialist Emile and sniper Jun in defending the planet Reach and eventually initiating damage control to ensure that Cortana – the Master-Chief’s AI companion – gets to the starship Pillar of Autumn setting in motion the events for Halo: Combat Evolved.
Nothing was the same after Halo: Reach. Bungie were at a crossroads after Halo 3 apparently ended the Master Chief’s story. Still contracted to put out two more Halo games they elected to make the more grounded Halo 3: ODST set between Halo 2 and 3 and Halo: Reach. ODST was different. Gone were the Spartan super soldiers. Replacing them were the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, the rough riders of the UNSC. It showed that Halo didn’t have to focus on the Master Chief to tell a good story and, more importantly, be successful. Halo: Reach took this opportunity and ran with it.
Halo: Reach was the last Halo game Bungie ever made. Production duties were handed over to 343 Industries, a Microsoft owned, Halo dedicated developer, while Bungie went to work on Destiny for Activision. So Halo: Reach wasn’t just a sad, desperate war story, it was a goodbye too. Halo: Reach reflected this in every facet of its design. Fighting the Covenant often feels overwhelming as the game AI throws four or five different types of enemies at you at once. As you progress through the levels Reach gradually becomes more and more scarred and cracked. Members of Noble Team sacrifice themselves one by one in desperate attempts to buy the planet and its civilian population of 700 million more time.
War stories never give you the depth of character that most other stories do. It’s even harder to find that depth when the main cast is entirely made up of super soldiers bred for war. Halo: Reach never really succeeds at wrenching the kind of tears a similar story like Saving Private Ryan or The Magnificent Seven can but it tries pretty damn hard all the same. Each member of Noble Team gets their moment and although those moments may be small they go to show how far the series has come since Halo: Combat Evolved.
All of these small moments happen within big, bombastic missions. The mark of a consistently great first person shooter is having trouble picking a favourite level. Everyone has their favourite weapon, vehicle or multiplayer game mode but each level in Halo: Reach is so well designed and unique that choosing a favourite is very difficult. It combines the point-and-click satisfaction any FPS worth its salt has while also layering in tactics among the explosive chaos of its moment-to-moment gameplay. Also you get to fight in space. Halo: Reach pulled everything great from every other Halo game up to that point with none of the drawbacks and made the one and only perfect Halo game.
That goes for the multiplayer as well. Halo was one of the first series to bring multiplayer to consoles and it’s what let it dominate the first decade of the new millennium. Only in 2008 did Call of Duty really start to catch up and outpace the series. Halo: Reach packed everything that made Halo’s multiplayer so well known into one game while improving on ODST’s co-op mode Firefight and and turning Halo 3’s Forge Mode into something that seemed to have no limits. Halo: Reach’s versions of Slayer or Big Team Battle or SWAT ultimately paled in comparison next to fan modes like Grifball, Duck Hunt and Frogger. Although considering the somber tone of the campaign it was sort of like building a playground next to a cemetery.
There was never another enemy group in Halo: Reach. Noble Team never had to go up against the Flood or the Prometheans. It was just the UNSC versus the Covenant. It gave the game a singular focus in both story and gameplay. Playing as the Master-Chief often gave players an overwhelming sense of superiority, every level completed felt like a victory. Almost every level completed in Halo: Reach feels like a push against the inevitable as if you’re trying to sweep away the tide. ODST may have been the first time players felt vulnerable in a Halo game but Reach ratcheted that tension up. It’s what makes every death hit that much harder, every sacrifice mean that much more and the shot that bookends the game’s campaign hit like a freight train. As Dr. Katherine Halsey, creator of the Spartans, says:
“Our victory — your victory — was so close, I wish you could have lived to see it. But you belong to Reach. Your body, your armor — all burned and turned to glass. Everything… except your courage. That, you gave to us. And with it, we can rebuild.“
Or in layman’s terms: “Spartans never die, they’re just Missing In Action”.