So the Halo series celebrated its 12th birthday yesterday which is why you’re getting this post a day late, as I was busy gunning through Halo: Combat Evolved on Legendary and didn’t want to moan about what I’m about to talk about.
The thing that I’m going to be moaning about today is Halo: Reach. I have said in some previous posts that I have some pretty negative feelings about this game, primarily for story and character reasons, so I’m going to explain what I thought was wrong with it and how I’d have changed things.
For those of you who may not know, while it is officially the 12 year birthday for the games of the series, the literature of the Halo series goes back a little bit further to October 30th 2001. This marked the release date for Halo: The Fall of Reach, a prequel novel written by Eric Nylund which provided some incredibly detailed contextual information about the Spartan-IIs, the Master Chief’s history, the battle and fall of Reach itself, and how Installation 04 came to be discovered.
Somewhere along the line, about 7 or 8 years on from that, Bungie decided to unnecessarily change things. One of the biggest things about the battle of Reach in the novel is that it lasts a matter of hours, as this was one of the rare occasions where the Sangheili themselves became directly involved and completely decimated the UNSC. According to the game, the battle now takes place over the course of more than a month – from July 25th to August 30th 2552. What a way to ruin the presentation of humanity being so desperately outmatched, not only that but even in the game there are numerous time jumps where days have passed and we don’t see anything of what’s happened in that time.
And, apparently, the Covenant have somehow been on Reach for some time. The planet-wide map on the Long Night of Solace shows about half a dozen Corvettes having been stationed around the planet with this massive supercarrier having been cloaked right under humanity’s nose. Now the thing with active camouflage in the Halo series is that it generates A LOT of heat, so anybody wearing thermal goggles would simply have to look up and see a massive heat anomaly sitting over the horizon. Any simple weather monitor would have picked up this anomaly, Reach is largely inhabited by civilians as well as military personnel and yet the Covenant was able to just jump into the Epsilon Eridani system and sit around Reach for a few weeks while the most advanced human fortress colony sat around with their thumbs up their backsides.
This brings me to my next point – the plot. Unlike most of the other Halo games, Reach doesn’t allure the player by providing an interesting and suspenseful plot complete with interweaving strands of narrative, but instead allures players by making them wonder exactly where the plot actually is. So when does the plot kick in? The end of the campaign’s penultimate mission… when we finally did get this ‘plot’, it was so horribly contrived with practically no explanation, it just came off as Bungie further trying to inject the ‘nostalgia factor’ into the minds of the players by shoehorning in Captain Keyes, Halsey , Cortana, the Pillar of Autumn and Installation 04.
Okay, you might say, so Reach wasn’t big on plot – but surely this is a character-oriented story? That’s sure to make up for the shortcomings of the story, right?
The only characters who were even remotely interesting were Kat and Jorge – the latter had some good potential, but he was just a character copy of Kurt from the Ghosts of Onyx novel and he died just about half way into the game. Everyone else was bland, sterile and one-dimensional. I can’t say that I ever felt anything for Noble Team as characters, there was no history explored. Bungie said that they wanted to deliver a “human story” (Marcus Lehto’s EXACT words) with this game, yet they decided to make the characters so dull the narrative declined into a ‘who can have the noblest death?’ competition. The only character who has what can even remotely be called an ‘arc’ in the story is Kat, as she transitions from largely disliking Noble Six to liking him. Does this make sense? No, not really. For the moment we’ll ignore the fact that she’s barely even around him to actually warrant a change, but the reason why she dislikes you is because your character is the replacement for the previous Noble Six who died sacrificing himself in an operation Kat had organised – as you can see in the Deliver Hope trailer:
Then, all of a sudden, she decides that she does like Noble Six a bit more towards the end of the game. Not that this lasts long though because Kat is disposed of by the narrative mere seconds later as a Phantom approaches overhead and a Zealot shoots her through the head. Goodbye, potential character arc!
At this point, I really have to wonder why Bungie seemingly paid no attention to what they did best in ODST? Their narrative method in that game was flawless, absolutely masterful in the way they drew direct inspiration from classical literature like Dante’s Divine Comedy and the film noir genre to craft a narrative that was able to manoeuvre through the perspective of five or six characters and develop them. The characterisation was told through the music and the atmosphere for the Rookie, we heard what he felt which allowed the player to project themselves into him by drawing on our emotions as we played through the game. The rest was done well with the squad banter, at times being a bit cringe-worthy, but development was still there and it showed a lot about the characters we were on this journey with. Seeing things from THEIR perspective for half the game was a major way of establishing them each and ultimately made me care about them.
So why didn’t they do this in Reach? Why weren’t Six and Kat friends? They were both from Beta Company from the Spartan-III project, they were both pulled out of Operation: TORPEDO… Why wasn’t there any meaningful interaction between these two characters who would have grown up together? How about some flashback scenes to the training of the Spartan-IIIs? Well, the issue here is that the Spartan-IIIs have absolutely nothing to do with the planet Reach. This was the planet of the Spartan-IIs, and the only one of them on your team (and, indeed, the only one who appears in the game) ends up getting killed off half way through the game before the actual battle begins.
It’s a disappointing waste of potential and provides me a nice bridge here to talk about how I’d have done things differently.
I’d have completely scrapped Noble Team and shown the history of Reach from the perspective of the Spartan-IIs of Red and Blue Team, switching between their various perspectives like you do in ODST. You could be play Fred for one mission where he goes down to Reach in the modified Pelican with the majority of the Spartan-IIs and freefall down to the planet, then have to regroup with the scattered Spartans like what happens in the novel. Then, for another mission, switch to John’s point of view as he, Linda and James infiltrate the Circumference to destroy the NAV data that could lead the Covenant to Earth. The game could end like it did in the book, the hair-raising line from Kelly who says “that’s it, we’ve lost. Reach is going to fall”. Then we’d end the game with John, Linda and Johnson dashing to get to the Pelican to reach the Pillar of Autumn and making the emergency slipspace jump to Installation 04.
This would also open up the opportunity for us to play as the Spartan-IIs at different points in their lives, going on missions against Insurrectionists with gameplay handicaps such as a lack of shields. Fighting human enemies would have been an interesting break away from just fighting the same Covenant ones for the whole game, it’d be a whole new dynamic to the combat in the series and provide a much darker tone as the Spartan-IIs fight the enemy that they were made to fight rather than just the Covenant. Speaking of having a much darker tone, throughout the game there could’ve been Terminals or flashbacks that showed the brutal training of the Spartan-IIs – the six year old children getting kidnapped by ONI and being replaced by flash clones who died due to neurological complications, Mendez and the Drill Instructors beating the dissenting children with stun batons and so on. There was so much potential for the game to do something different and fill in the gaps of the narrative that Bungie’s previous titles (albeit ODST) didn’t talk about.
But that’s not what we got, and I personally feel that the story of the game Bungie delivered as their “swan song” to the Halo series was as barren and dessicated as the corpse of the planet that the Covenant left behind.