Halo Reach: Space operatic
Updated: Feb 28
The Halo series has passed me until now. It’s not really my fault per say. My parents never got me an Xbox when I was kid (or any console for that matter). When I was given the opportunity for a console (midpoint of the Xbox one and the PS4 generation) the series simply didn’t interest me.
But with the release of the Halo Master Chief Collection (a collection that I hope to complete), I can finally look through the older Bungie titles for the first time. Annnddd its fine. It’s fine.
Set up as a prequel to the first Halo game. Halo Reach sees you as part of a unit of Spartan warriors (super power soldiers in super amour) fight back against the alien horde known as the Covenant. Now as someone who has never played the Halo games before, a prequel seems like a good place to start. On paper a lot of the elements seem to line for a compelling experience. No band names with plot armour (Master Chief for example) and an unstoppable antagonistic force should provide an excellent source of tension. In practice unfortunately something got lost and I hope I can explain it. I suspect it might be me.
The score and that final scene
I first want to talk about the effectiveness of the music. It’s great, one needn’t say more than that considering its Bungie. Have you listened to any Bungie score in the past? They are superb at creating any sort of atmosphere on command. This is includes the times with tragic endings of the squad.
Every single time a noble sacrifice occurred or a tragic death befalls a character, the music swells and I found my heart strings strung like a violin. It’s manipulative in the best kind of way. One that feels authentic despite the lack of any investment on my part (more on that later), I will be on the look out of the soundtrack to Reach I tell you that.
The final mission (or epilogue) was a truly haunting moment in the game. You, as the final member of the squadron have to fight for as long as possible against the Covenant. There is no way to escape; you simply have to survive for as long as possible. Bungie successful capture the hopeless determination that situation would inspire. Going down in a blaze of bittersweet glory.
That mission captured (at least to me) the thematic hopelessness of Halo Reach. Little things like how your helmet gets crack after each near fatal blow bring across the thematic hopelessness that stretches across Halo Reach. But Bungie don’t simply leave the player feeling miserable with themselves, like with any good dark story: there is always hope. There is always a chance for survival (as demonstrated by the ending narration).
For all my gushing in the previous section, I cannot ignore a big problem. It lies with my personal experience with the story. For about 98% of Halo Reach’s campaign I drifted through it completely numb. I simply could not find any reason to get invested. It’s an experience that I have been trying to understand, to see if it is a flaw with me or with the game itself. Was it just to the helmets preventing emotional expression thus emotional investment?
Was it the fact they were all super soldiers thrust into world ending situation before we know their names? Maybe it was the inability for there to be some downtime? I went through all of these theories but I am not convinced that they were problems.
So what went wrong? Who was in the wrong? I cannot really say it is the game. Its well told and paced. I have not seen anything flawed from a writing level. I suspect that the problem is with me. Art has different effects on the beholder. Sometimes you hate its guts and can see the flaws where others cannot see.
Some love games that the majority do not while others are simply indifferent. I suspect that is what happened. An indifference that I cannot really explain, (which is not good considering that I am supposed to just that). I will not hold my indifference against Halo Reach. It’s not its fault but merely human perception.
(I have played some of the multiplayer but my opinion is not good enough to be written down)
Like most of Bungie’s titles. Halo Reach is you average FPS. The level design is linier with small open areas for the shoot outs. Cover is needed to regenerate shields but its not an essential mechanic (for reasons I will go into). It’s important to note that the shooting in this FSP is perfectly great going forward.
The guns are satisfying to use, they pack quite a punch both firing and impact. The alien weaponry does suffer from the problem that science fiction weaponry tends to have where there is little punch. However it’s a minor problem as Bungie do try to compensate for the lack of punch by having them overheat if used too much.
There is a cover system in theory but (as mentioned previously) asides from waiting for the shields to regenerate there is very little reason to stay in cover. At any given time enemies are always on the move, always trying to outmanoeuvre you. As a result you too have to be on the move. Jumping in and out of cover to take shots, before side stepping the next shot. The game has a somewhat high octane pace as a result.
Feeding the high octane pace is the interesting mechanic of scavenging weapons. As there is no guarantee of you finding ammo sometimes you have to snatch up the guns dropped by your foes. You use up your weapons fighting the seemingly endless waves of Covenant then you pick up the weapons they dropped and use their own military power against them. It’s a very enjoyable and rewarding loop. It also grows back into the theme of hopelessness. You are scraping by and using everything possible to fight back against an unstoppable force.
Post EVE Online and ABZU I thought I was simply not good at moving in three dimensional spaces. Turns out with Halo Reach, that I might not be incorrect. There is one chapter that takes place almost entirely in a space ship. And the steering was perfect. Bungie captures perfectly the balance between steering that does not feel like you are driving on ice or stuck in quick sand. The space ship was a joy to steer and fly and it gives me hope for the future.
However I cannot say same for the land vehicles. The physics for the cars are hilariously bad. They can go flying by going over a bump too fast or get stuck in a slight incline in the ground. The steering is terrible, as the car turns like it’s stuck on ice. Reversing feels like reversing out of mud with roughly the same results. I personally dreaded the car sections as the AI drive like suicide bombers from Red Alert 2 and me driving them was a chore. It’s a strange stain on an otherwise well polished game.
Art style and Graphics:
There is a noticeable improvement in the graphical fidelity between the original and the remaster . The game enters something of a timeless state. Similar to that of the System Shock 2 strangely enough, Halo Reach is a surprisingly beautiful game to look at (just don’t expect God of War 4, don’t be stupid).
The tragically limited colour scheme (dull brown and green, in favour of the so called ‘realism’) make the visuals somewhat drab. The use of purple blue and the skyboxes however do add some variety to the visuals. Bungie’s art direction (at least for the skyboxes) is stellar.
Asides from one stretched texture it is perfect.
I am most certainly convinced of Bungie’s pedigree when it comes to shooters. I am definitely in awe with the flawlessness the ported games deliver. So why did the story leave me as numb as seeing Kim Kardashian cry? I really wish I could explain why. The story was on paper thrilling, the threat (on paper) was palpable and that final mission was effectively haunting. But I struggled to give a damn during and after the campaign.
My opinion seems to stand that Halo Reach is perfectly fine. Enjoyable but has the impact of a pringle. Please keep in mind that this might not be your experience. Maybe you might get engaged with the story and if you do, I will be so happy. I wish I got engaged and I wish even more that I could explain it or place it on the fault of the game. Unfortunately, sometimes art just does not engage, sometimes art just does not inspire. In this case however, it appears that it happened to me.
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02/28/2020: Edit: Changed thumbnail to something better.