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Retrospective Review: 'Halo Reach' in 2019 - The End of an Era

Analytical, because It's interesting. Interesting, because it's analytical.

Overview: Staging Departures

After cementing themselves into a console generation that took the world by storm, one that generated a rise in popularity for first person shooters. Bungie’s Halo became one of the most easily recognisable gaming products of all time, one that became Microsoft’s flagship amongst the gaming community.

After the completion of Halo 3, Bungie made a deal with Microsoft. The deal was that upon the completion of two more games set in the Halo universe, and the full ownership of the rights were handed over, Bungie could leave the conglomerate. Microsoft was already capitalizing on the franchise’s success by implementing it into other mediums. We were met with a rather small expansion of the products that they hoped to be incorporated into a mass multimedia franchise. One that would rival the big names, such as Star Wars.

The now defunct Ensemble Studios, whom were given the licence, went on to make Halo Wars, a real time strategy game. In addition, Bungie smartly ticked off one of their requirements with a spin off game. Halo 3 ODST, which was a standalone first-person shooter, reused the assets from Halo 3. Both of these games where released in 2009.

Yet all of this was to stoke the fire, to keep the eager fans anticipated for what was to be Bungie’s last game in their smash hit franchise. One that had been around for nearly a decade. With competition amongst publishers becoming the powerhouse it is today, Microsoft had a lot riding on this game. A sequel that would become the prequel to where it all began, a full circle to wrap the bow neatly. Only now in retrospect, one question remains… was it all necessary?

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Gameplay: Have I Done This Before...?

The game, in short, added features to serviceable, customizable, and cooperative gameplay modes that were centered to the multiplayer. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the campaign. To refrain myself becoming long winded, Reach’s campaign isn’t bad, in fact it is pretty good. However, the amount of innovation into the multiplayer is not felt here in the campaign. This is excused because of the prequel status it upholds. However, the barrel of ideas is running empty and the game cannot hide this fact.

As before, you will be situated in enclosed skirmishes with The Covenant, whom are easily the best parts of the game. This time around, there is no secondary antagonists such as The Flood, putting all the attention on the religious fanatics and their purple décor. This means that the culmination of all of the species from the previous games come together. There is a real sense of a full-scale invasion and it works well with the narrative’s strengths.

The Covenant evoke a sense of unstoppable dread. With the return of the Elites, firefights have weight to them as they resemble and function as your equal on the battlefield. Whilst there is no significant improvement to the tactics or AI, some minor additions have been made. Armour abilities service as a one time use before recharging, they don’t really add anything new, unless they are mandatory for traversal. They either break up the gunplay or prolong it, neither is welcome when considering that, fundamentally, Halo is about aggressive tactical gunplay.

Medpacks make a return and whilst they do advise caution seeing as you now have two health bars, they are scattered around like sweet wrappers; this can devoid tension. Such as with certain equipment in all of the Halo games, the level design is inconsistent in understanding where to stress tension, especially when a ‘get out of jail card’ AKA a rocket launcher or three med packs is given to you before a skirmish. Not only this, but there are multiple wave-based objectives throughout the campaign. These moments are where the gameplay halts and it’s because they severely limit you into bunkering down in a position and defending it. Whilst this isn’t exactly new to Halo, it's way more distracting here primarily because it takes you away from the super solider fantasy. These objectives only prolong the campaign, a campaign that has a very distinct feeling of "been there done that."

The campaign is admittingly fun, but as I’ve said before, most missions and objectives are very serviceable. If the intention is to reiterate what has come before as an acknowledgement to previous Halo games, then it does a good job. However, the mission structures play out the same way, just in a different order. The stand out missions being Long Night of Solace & New Alexandria, primarily because they break up the gameplay. Long Night, although on rails, gives perspective and scale, whereas New Alexandria adds variety in verticality.

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Context: Always With the Prequels

Whilst Bungie would go onto develop loot shooters, the beginnings of a more customizable presentation to the gameplay can be seen here, primarily with the player inhabiting the blank slate known as Noble Six, whom is fully customizable and adds a more personalized feel to the Spartan. As Noble Six, you and Noble team are tasked immediately with stopping/preventing the Covenant forces from invading Reach. Events that you know are predetermined as they continue onward to set up the Halo trilogy.

The narrative of Reach is, to be put plainly, serviceable. It's adequate at what it does in depicting the fall of Reach. It raises the stakes and provides enough distinction as to the motives of the characters, if a little or largely contrived at certain points. Unfortunately, Reach’s biggest mistake is that in being a prequels. The characters you interact with, mainly Noble Team, function as exposition and command authority in their actions. There is little to no time to get invested with any of them and they all lack any real succinct character.

The narrative takes you on an up scaling quest as you fight larger threats with shorter life expectancies as each member perishes in the fray. It’s evident that the focus is more on Reach itself rather than the people who inhabit it. The lack of any clear antagonist works in tandem with the threat being The Covenant as a whole. However, there is an odd sense of detachment to the whole thing, as if you don’t really have a say in what happens, your just along for the ride. Only at the end when you're left alone to fight against the onslaught of Covenant do you really feel over matched. All of this culminates in the last two levels which sets up the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved.

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Conclusion: The End of an Era

Reach, to me, was not a culmination of strengths and assets that had been simmering since the beginning. Whilst still highly enjoyable, it doesn't offer anything new. The community tools are better than they had been, but as the send off, Reach is decent in its design but lacks any ideas that make it stand out. It's a good game, but it's clear to me that Bungie are ready to move on. Whilst I did enjoy the campaign, it certainly wasn't for the narrative.The effort is here, but the law of diminishing returns effects everything. Whilst serviceable to Microsoft, Bungie should be proud of what they have done, as the legacy would be continued, indefinitely.

© 2019 Tom Oliver Hargreaves