The Halo series was on fire at the end of the first decade of the 2000s. It seemed like the series would stay at the top with Call of Duty for years to come, but that isn’t the way things played out. Bungie, the original developers of Halo, was planning on taking a stepping back from the property and focusing on new projects. However, they had one more Halo game they were contractually obligated to fulfill for Microsoft before they could do that.
That game would become Halo Reach, Bungie’s swan song, and a way to end everything where it started. Fans had long known about the fall of Reach from novels and from conversations from AI in the Halo games. Now Bungie was giving fans the opportunity to see firsthand what happened on that fateful day. However, Bungie threw another curveball because, like ODST, Halo reach wouldn’t star the Master Chief, but a Spartan III named Noble 6, and the changes didn’t stop there.
Welcome to Reach
Halo Reach starts with Noble Six on route to meet with the rest of Noble team for the first time. Noble team is made up of Carter, the leader; Kat, the engineer; Jun, the sniper; Jorge, the grizzled Spartan-II with a heart of gold; and Emile, the close quarters specialist. Everyone besides Jorge is a Spartan III which was the UNSCs original answer to some of the problems with the original Spartan-II program. The goal was to make Spartans faster and cheaper as they would be used for missions that many might consider suicide.
These Spartans were made to be disposable in the eyes of ONI and the UNSC, so it fits that they would be one of the final forces to defend Reach. Reach is where Spartan IIs were trained and kept while they waited for assignment. It also housed some other secret research regarding Forerunner tech and AI innovation. It was an important planet in the USNCs roster until its fall. Halo reach takes place right before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved.
The Covenant made their way to Reach to find Forerunner ruins and tech, but since Humanity had such an established presence on the planet, a full-scale war took place. The battle happened fast, so most wouldn’t be able to escape, but Noble team’s mission was to ensure as many people got out and that all the important assets were saved.
Since Noble team was acting as a bandaid to each situation, they would be moving all across the planet to assist in different battles. This is great because that made Halo Reach have some of the most varied levels in Halo’s history up until that point.
Noble Six will work with his squadmates to fend off the Covenant forces as best they can, but if you are familiar with Reach’s story, you know they were fighting a losing battle. Though it still gives some hefty emotional moments (for a Halo game) despite the tragic knowledge players knew beforehand.
The story is alright, but I have never been blown away by the events. It all felt so rushed for a story that was supposed to feel emotional weighty. The only elements that made me feel like this was a Halo game in its narrative was the connective tissue it shares with Combat Evolved and a level where the player must work with Halsey. I wish Bungie had done more to flesh Reach out and make it feel more like an entire human colony. New Mombasa had so much personality in ODST, and even small levels like “Crows Nest” in Halo 3 gave off more personality than some of the levels in Reach.
I would have loved more little insights into colonists’ lives like we got in “Winter Contingency.” We get a brief idea of how colonists see UNSC forces and Spartans. Those little moments I appreciate, but we get so little of it after. Reach has been this legendary planet, and if you didn’t read the books, I feel like it’s difficult to get a sense of why this planet was important besides the fact that humans settled there.
In terms of narrative, I feel like Reach tried to do a lot while also giving one of the biggest stories in Halo’s story thus far. It introduced a lot of characters and did an okay job at making us care about them. However, each member dying one after the other made it feel a little cliche by the end. It was like a jack in the box; you complete the wind up just to be greeted by the same surprise, so after the third time, it isn’t going to hit as hard.
However, Reach does do a great job at connecting some of the plot points of the games and making the universe feel more expansive than it did to game-only Halo fans.
Tell ‘Em to Make It Count
It’s clear from the beginning that Bungie intended this to be the biggest Halo they had made yet. Almost all of the levels feel distinct from one another, from the burning skies of “New Alexandria” to the lush greenery of “Winter Contingency.” Reach excels at giving players varied locations, weapons, and vehicles in each of its levels. But that doesn’t mean that the levels are perfect.
For what they are, all the levels in Reach can be a fun time with varied objectives, layouts, and weapons available. That being said, there are levels that miss the mark such as “Long Night of Solace” which is one of my least favorite Halo levels to play on Legendary, and it’s solely because of its saber battle. Sabers are like X-wings from Star Wars. They are single-pilot spacecraft used by the UNSC, and Halo Reach is the first instance where one can be piloted by a player.
Sounds pretty great, but the number of enemies that come can make fighting on legendary incredibly frustrating and on LASO a complete waste of time. I wasn’t able to complete LASO quite yet for this revisit, but I did finish this level, and it was the most boring LASO mission I have ever done. The only way that it could be completed alone was by letting my ship sit in the back of the station and let the AI take care of one another. Not very exciting.
The level also has you infiltrate a Covenant cruiser and uses low gravity for a brief moment. This area feels a little more interesting, and I wish they had expanded on this section a little more because it made me feel like we were on a covert mission to bring down the Covenant as we silently and slowly fell into the Covenant Cruiser where Elites stood at their consoles blissfully unaware that we were right on them.
“Tip of the Spear” feels like a great time the entire duration and includes several anti air turrets that need to be taken out as well as a short falcon ride where you use a grenade launcher to take out enemies. “New Alexandria” has you patrolling the skies in a falcon, too but this time, you are in complete control and are assisting different locations across the city.
Here is when Reach begins to feel like a losing battle. A war where time is the only asset that is being won by fighting. Each level after this seems like it is doing its best to keep that same “never give up” spirit as the player becomes increasingly aware that there isn’t going to be a happy ending here.
There aren’t interesting vertical spaces to control, no alternate routes to tackle enemies and no hidden weapons that might make the game more interesting. The biggest problem with Reach’s levels is that they can feel so one-note. Once you play through them once, you have a pretty good idea of how to enter a combat scenario. I would say Reach is split about 50/50 when it comes to interesting levels. Half of them are just okay, while the other half holds my attention from the word “go.” The last two levels especially do a pretty decent job at making more memorable moments that feel like they can change every playthrough.
Like ODST, Reach is using a new type of playable solider with the Spartan-IIIs but the problem is that they are straddling the line between Spartan-Iis and ODSTs. They can’t be as weak as the ODSTs but they can’t be as strong as the Spartan-IIs. However, the line between those two groups is already so thin that Reach’s new super soldiers feel like they have nowhere to go.
Maybe bungie wrote themselves into a corner by not making ODSTs weaker or maybe they weren’t trying to make the Spartan-IIIs that much different than Spartan-IIs. If that’s the case thouogh, why not just give us control of the other Spartans?
The main difference between playing the Master Chief and Noble Six is that that Six can’t jump as high. That’s really it. They utilize health packs too but that doesn’t feel like it’s restricted to these new Spartans as Chief had to use health packs in Combat Evolved. This is another one of those ideas that feels like it could have had more thought placed on it.
Bungie was ambitious but unlike with Halo 2 they were carefully ambitious. They delivered a game that worked while trying to cram as much as they could into it even if some of those ideas weren’t as fully realized as they could have been.
You’re on Your Own, Noble
The final two levels are really what everyone was playing the game for. The last main mission is called “The Pillar of Autumn” and has Noble 6 delivering Cortana to a waiting Captain Keyes, who is preparing the Autumn to escape. Noble makes his way to the platform and then must hold off wave after wave of Covenant so Keyes can swoop by with a Pelican to pick up the AI.
Now it feels like there is a hot iron under you as you are carrying a familiar friend and must take her to long lost friends. Purpose has been brought into this suicide mission in the last moments of the narrative once Cortona ws introduced. For a while it all felt like busy work waiting for Noble team to be picked off. The game even says as much after Jorge died thinking he saved Reach only for a groupd of Cruisers to start glassing the planet.
Cortana gives a larger purpose and a reason to keep fighting. Though “Pillar of Autumn” does highlight another issue that many of the levels have and that’s the firefight sections. There are several of these sections that are sprinkled thorughout the campaign and each one feels like filler. In fact, this last one is ripped directly from Reach’s firefiight mode with the same map.
After playing the lazy fireifght mode, Keyes shows up and offers to take Six along on the Autumn. However, just then, Emile and an elite go mano a mano and take each other out. Of course, Six declines Keyes so he can take Emile’s spot on the MAC canon and fend off some phantoms while Keyes escapes with Chief and Cortana.
Backtracking to the MAC cannon to destroy banshees and phantoms with the UNSC’s strongest weapon is immensely satisfying. Finally, as the Covenant cruiser begins to glass the area, a final shot from the MAC cannon takes it out, and the Autumn escapes. We get a brief glimpse of Chief in his pod, and off the legendary ship goes to the events of the first Halo game.
A portion of the Covenant follows the Autumn directly from Reach, and this helps to explain the urgency in Keye’s voice in the first game when he asks if they lost them. For people who haven’t read the books, this is another good example of explaining some things that have been left unsaid directly in the games since the series started.
The final level is another firefight in a sense, but Six is alone now. All friendlies are gone, and all other members of Noble team are MIA or dead. All that’s left is for Six to go down fighting and take as many Covies with him as he can in the process. It’s a bitter-sweet end, and it challenges you to put up your best fight despite it being set in stone from the start.
Halo Reach offers a nonstop Halo action experience that can often feel like it drags on for a little longer than it should. It introduces a lot of characters and expects more emotional payoff than it earned for itself. It may be one of the more heartbreaking Halo titles but that isn’t saying much for a space marine franchise.
Halo Reach is the culmination of a decade of Halo development from one studio and gives long-time players a lot to celebrate. I just wish that there were more moments that felt like there were options to tackle a situation rather than every playthrough feeling identical to the last.