wHY i love… spar­tan sad­ness

Halo Reach’s qui­etly down­beat cam­paign is a tear-in­duc­ing treat, and still the se­ries’ best en­try

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Dave Meik­le­ham

Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft / De­vel­oper Bungie / for­mat Xbox 360 / re­lease date Septem­ber 2010

Mi­crosoft’s mega­ton shooter has long suf­fered from a tonal im­bal­ance. Just look back to all those live-ac­tion ads pro­duced for the se­ries be­tween 2007 and 2010. With one ex­cep­tion, none of them ac­cu­rately por­trayed the tone of the games they were sell­ing.

Halo 3’ s ‘old man mu­seum’ teaser and the ‘dio­rama’ ad­vert were su­perbly pro­duced, but both were much too maudlin. Af­ter all, Mas­ter Chief’s tril­ogy-cap­per was as goofy as it was grave. Thank­fully, that same iden­tity cri­sis doesn’t ex­ist in Halo: Reach.

Bungie’s som­bre say­onara to the fran­chise that made the Seat­tle stu­dio fa­mous is an al­to­gether more down­beat af­fair than Chief’s campy ad­ven­tures. Sure, the 2010 pre­quel to

Com­bat Evolved still has you stick­ing Grunts with plasma grenades, and those Covenant lack­ies are still ev­ery inch com­i­cal, hair­less Ewok wannabes. Cru­cially, though, the yarn Bungie spins is a re­fresh­ingly sad (mostly sen­ti­ment-free) full stop to its time with the Halo uni­verse.

Re­mem­ber that ‘one ex­cep­tion’ I men­tioned when ram­bling about live­ac­tion Halo shorts? That’d be Reach’s ‘De­liver Hope’ trailer. The vid is both a bril­liant self-con­tained mini movie that still makes me pine for a de­cent Halo film, and it’s a per­fect primer for the game it’s ped­dling. Un­like Halo 3 and its tonally mis­aligned promo ma­te­rial, De­liver Hope feels like the per­fect com­pan­ion to a game that cap­tures the sac­ri­fice and hu­man cost of war far more ef­fec­tively than John 117’s tril­ogy.

Set be­fore the events of Com­bat Evolved, Reach takes place on the tit­u­lar planet that acts as the UNSC’s main mil­i­tary base. With nary a sign of Chief or a cer­tain AI side­kick in sight, this pre­quel is forced to rely on No­ble Team: a unit of Spar­tans which plays a vi­tal role in unit­ing John and Cor­tana at the be­gin­ning of Halo. While none of Carter, Kat, Jorge, Emile, Jun or the player-con­trolled No­ble Six is par­tic­u­larly charis­matic viewed in iso­la­tion, it’s the brief, of­ten bru­tal way the cam­paign dis­poses with each Spar­tan that has stayed with me through­out the last seven years.

Aside from the moun­tain-sized Jorge, who is af­forded an en­nobling, grand end, the rest of his chums are elim­i­nated with little fan­fare. Carter bites the bul­let off­screen, high­tail­ing it from Covenant forces in a ship to dis­tract the zealots on the ground, while Emile is shanked by a cou­ple of Elites in light­ing-quick fash­ion. It’s only Kat – and later No­ble Six dur­ing a mem­o­rable epi­logue that tasks you with a sole ob­jec­tive of ‘sur­vive’ – where the game stops to dwell on death. And even in these in­stances, the Spar­tan’s sac­ri­fices feel unglam­orous and un­just.

Kat’s all, folks!

Reach’s most shock­ing mo­ment comes dur­ing the clos­ing cutscene of the New Alexan­dria chap­ter. Af­ter the unit bick­ers over whether the war for the planet has been lost, it’s at­tacked by a Covenant ship, forc­ing the team to flee. It’s dur­ing this un­heroic scram­ble for cover that Kat is cut down; her body slump­ing to a crum­pled heap in an in­stant as a hid­den marks­man snipes her. The sub­se­quent mis­sion-cap­ping shot art­fully shows the sil­hou­ette of her corpse be­ing cra­dled in Carter’s arms, the city burn­ing in the back­ground. Yet the ac­tual death it­self is bru­tally brief; an uned­i­fy­ing and point­less end that sends the Spar­tan out with a pur­pose­ful whim­per.

While it’d be a stretch to say Reach tells a great tale – its story beats are mostly for­get­table – these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mo­ments of loss el­e­vate the game. It helps that Reach re­mains by far the best sin­gle-player Halo. Its lev­els feel var­ied and su­perbly paced. You’re never stuck do­ing one ac­tiv­ity for too long, and be­fore bore­dom can ever set in, Bungie in­tro­duces deft jet­pack sec­tions, or a sur­pris­ingly well-han­dled space fighter set­piece. Seven years on, it’s still worth re­vis­it­ing.

Mourn­ful but rarely maudlin, som­bre with­out be­ing sen­ti­men­tal, Halo: Reach’s de­pic­tion of war feels frag­ile and point­less. Even by 2018’s stan­dards, Reach re­mains as one of Xbox’s most sadly sat­is­fy­ing shoot­ers.

“It’s the brief, of­ten bru­tal way the cam­paign dis­poses with each Spar­tan that has stayed with me”

right Halo: Reach is a game of few words, but it still has the power to of­fer up dis­qui­et­ing mo­ments through its im­agery.

above The game’s last level es­sen­tially acts as a sui­cide mis­sion, though the fi­nale ul­ti­mately feels rea­son­ably hope­ful.

be­low Be­fore Kat bites it dur­ing the Fall of Reach, she’s seen los­ing her arm dur­ing the Bat­tle of Fu­mi­role in the De­liver Hope trailer.

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