10 years ago, when Halo: Reach first released, I remember playing it and enjoying it a lot when I was in my final year of secondary school. It was a game that I couldn’t put down and I rated it as the best in the series at the time. Now, 10 years later, with Reach finally a part of The Master Chief Collection, I decided to jump back in and see if my nostalgic memories still hold up.
After the success of three mainline Halo games with Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 and Halo 3 and the spinoff, Halo 3: ODST, Bungie decided to go back to the beginning of the narrative for what would be their final instalment, Halo: Reach. I remember when Halo: Reach was announced, and I remember feeling hyped up about it. Throughout the Halo games released prior to Halo: Reach, we had heard about the planet Reach several times during gameplay and in game cutscenes. Prior to the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, the novel Halo: The Fall of Reach was released which expanded upon the backstory and lore of the Halo universe and Reach as a planet. Due to this, I was instantly excited because Reach felt like a planet that was hugely important in the Halo universe and we would finally get to play a part in that story.
To recap the plot, you play as Noble Six, an elite Spartan assigned to Noble Team. Throughout the twelve levels, Noble Team is tasked with defending Reach from the invasion of the Covenant and stopping the inevitable fall of the planet. The plot is very straight forward in comparison to the Halo games that came before. This is a point of criticism for some; however, I feel that even though the plot may be simple, it is the undertones, themes and atmosphere of the game that elevate the experience for me.
Being a prequel that tells the story of an unstoppable alien threat, Bungie really hammers home the feeling of impending doom through various uses of the musical score, dramatic shots in cutscenes and more subtly in particular gameplay features. A lot of the musical score used in the game has a sombre and gloomy feel that I feel really reinforces this. Contrastingly, Bungie also reinforces this by using no music or dialogue at all in a lot of cases. For instance, in the Winter Contingency mission at the very beginning of the game, Noble Team is sent to investigate a disturbance at a communications relay. One of the shots during the cutscene for the mission shows a huge backdrop of grey, overcast mountainous regions. Knowing in the back of my mind what is to come, this felt unsettling. Furthermore, another feature that I had forgotten about which I feel adds to the themes of the game is the squad function. I remember playing Reach for the first time and thinking that the ability to recruit marines into your personal squad was a bit pointless because you know that they are vastly underpowered compared to you and the enemies you will be in conflict with. However, playing Reach again, I felt differently. I felt that this further reinforced the feeling of loss and human casualties because you can physically see on your HUD when they are recruited and it highlights in red when they die (and they will die, in my experience on the Heroic difficulty anyway).
I mentioned earlier that Reach felt like a planet that was hugely important to the series because of all the previous references. This is further reinforced in the game itself. Before playing the game, I was aware that Reach was the ‘home’ to the Spartans, the UNSCs (United Nations Space Command) genetically enhanced super soldiers, including the Halo series’ primary protagonist, The Master Chief. The first cutscene in the game literally tells you this when Colonel Holland states during your mission briefing “Reach is too damn important”. This emphasis on Reach’s importance continues throughout the entirety of the game. For instance, later in the game after Jorge sacrifices himself in vain to prevent the Covenant attack, Jun is looking out at the war-torn planet high up in the ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) HQ when he states, “look at this place. Used to be the crown jewel… Not anymore.” I personally love the fact that we are constantly reminded of this because I feel like I am playing a huge part in this essential chapter of the overall Halo story.
I touched upon three different characters in my previous point. I know that the characters in Halo: Reach have received mixed opinions from fans and critics alike, with a lot of the criticism being that there isn’t a lot of depth to them as well as minimal character development. In terms of the character development, there isn’t a lot but there doesn’t need to be in this particular story for me. The characters are our way of connecting with the setting more personally and to add stakes to the plot. With regards to their not being much depth, I disagree. The game doesn’t give us long exposition heavy cutscenes about each of their backstories and how they got to where they are now because that would take us away from the urgency of the situation that we as Noble Team are facing. It does, however, sprinkle little nods and hints at each of the characters’ personalities and past so we have just as much as we need to identify with them.
First up, we have Noble One (Carter). Carter is the leader of the team, he is the no nonsense, by the book leader of the team. His personality is shown through his character design and armour, like all of Noble Team. He has a couple scars and almost jarhead-like haircut. Carter breaks from the traditional trend of the almost Captain America stereotype however because he is willing to go against his superiors and their orders for the greater good when he agrees to go ahead with Kat’s unsanctioned plan at the beginning of the level Long Night of Solace. Carter’s death, like the majority of Noble Team, is mirroring to their characters’ personalities. In Carter’s case, he sacrifices himself by crashing the Pelican ship he is piloting into an enemy Scarab so that we as the player can continue with the mission, like a captain going down with the ship.
Next up, we have Noble Two (Kat). Kat is the intelligence specialist and Carter’s second in command. Kat has facial scars and a bionic arm. A fondness is alluded to between Kat and Carter throughout the game which helps give a family dynamic to Noble Team and further humanises them. Being the intelligence specialist, Kat is ironically killed by a single shot through the head.
We then have Noble Three (Jun). Jun is more of the silent, but literally deadly sniper of the team. Often reserved and quiet, Jun mostly provides backup from afar, whether that is supporting in the Falcon in Winter Contingency or sniping along with you in Nightfall. Jun is shown to have a tattoo of a hand grasping arrows, referencing stone age archers, further establishing his character as a lethal member of Noble Team that strikes from afar. His armour is also appropriately sniper like, further solidifying to us that he is a seasoned vet, from the netting around his neck to the extra sniper bullets on his arm. Jun is the only member of the team to survive the fall of Reach due to being far away from the main battle escorting Dr Halsey to safety.
The fourth member of Noble Team, Noble Four (Emile), is a bold and mysterious Spartan. We never see his face, but he is often seen sharpening his knife and serves as comic relief, making witty comments. Being a blade enthusiast, Emile has carved a skull onto his visor of his helmet and poignantly is killed after being stabbed in the back by an Energy Sword wielding Covenant Elite.
Noble Five (Jorge) is the heavy weapons specialist in the team, his armour is hulking in design and he almost always is seen carrying a massive chain gun. He is the only Spartan II, a previous generation Spartan, on the team and due to this there is a closeness that is hinted at between him and Dr Halsey. This closeness is almost akin to a mother and son relationship. Jorge has a special attachment to Reach, more so than the rest of the team and is conveniently the only member of the team to die off planet. Jorge has a caring and friendly personality which inspires hope in the team and us as a player, which is why after Jorge has died, the game takes a more hopeless change in tone because now Reach’s metaphorical shield has fallen.
Lastly, we have the player character, Noble Six. Not much can be said about Noble Six because he, or she, is intentionally vague. Noble Six is the newest member to the team, an outcast and jack of all trades so that there can be as many varieties in the gameplay for the player as possible. Noble Six is almost an outcast which is fitting because Noble Six dies alone trying to fight off as many enemies as possible in the appropriately named final mission, Lone Wolf.
Halo: Reach has a small number of side characters including, Dr Catherine Halsey, the team’s AI, Aunty Dot and Colonel Holland. These three characters range in importance in the story, Holland pretty much serves as exposition which to me is fine because he serves his purpose. Aunty Dot also serves as exposition but also provides analysis on the different scenarios, adding to the urgency and stakes of the game. Halsey plays a more important role despite not being in much of the game. She comes across a secretive, spook like character who has an intimidating presence, yet she seems highly respected.
Moving on to the gameplay and the new additions to the gameplay with Halo: Reach. Each level in Halo reach is unique and different. Winter Contingency is more of an open exploration level, like the level ‘Halo’ in the original game. It starts off slow while you get your bearings, after a couple of instances of combat, you then can use a vehicle to make your way around the map, tackling the next objectives in whatever order you choose. There is also the level like Nightfall, a stealthier approach where you start off with a sniper rifle and lots of ammo, urging you to pick enemies off from a distance. New Alexandria has you piloting a Falcon for most of the level engaging in combat from the air. Not to mention Long Night of Solace, where you get to pilot a ship and battle in space for the first time in a Halo game, although basic, it feels epic even to this day. The feel of gameplay is also excellent in Halo: Reach, the weapons all pack a punch, and all have uses, advantages and disadvantages to make them balanced. The new addition to the games at the time was armour abilities which make the action more intense and each armour ability can be used to good effect in several different situations. Overall, it feels like Halo at its best and I love it.
Now, with me playing Halo: Reach again in 2020, ten years after the original release, there is now the added benefit of the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The parallels between the two for me are evident in numerous instances. Halo: Reach was Rogue One before Rogue One and I am a huge fan of Rogue One and Star Wars as a whole. Take for instance, the fact that the enemies far outnumber our protagonists all the characters die heroically fighting against this vastly superior enemy, with the exception of Jun. Cortana serves as the Death Star plans in Halo: Reach and it is immensely important that towards the ending of the game that we get her to Captain Keyes so he can get her off world. Speaking of Keyes, he serves as the Captain Antilles/Princess Leia of this story, the bridge between the prequel and the original game. Not to mention that the Pillar of Autumn just about escapes at the end of the game and we see if flying towards the Halo ring from the original game, paralleling the Tantive IV from A New Hope flying towards Tatooine. It is simply brilliant, as George Lucas would say… “It’s like poetry… it rhymes”. It just brings the Halo games full circle, or full Halo (see what I did there? I need to get out more, I know) in beautiful fashion.
I would like to say well done for making it this far, I could honestly talk about and write about the Halo franchise all day as anyone who knows me knows. I feel like there is still so much more I could cover in this that I’ve not, like the online multiplayer, or the fantastic customisation but it would be just too long, maybe I could do a part two one day, who knows. Overall, I love Halo: Reach and would recommend it to anyone who loves games and sci-fi fantasy stories and with Halo: Reach being a prequel it is a good place to jump in and experience the Halo games for the first time ever. To put it simply, Halo: Reach is a masterpiece to me and the perfect swan song for developer Bungie.