wHY i love… spartan sadness
Halo Reach’s quietly downbeat campaign is a tear-inducing treat, and still the series’ best entry
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.