Halo reaches the beginning of the end.
Set just before the start of Halo CE, the planet Reach is one of the last remaining Human strongholds during the Human-Covenant war. There, Spartan team ‘Noble’ begrudgingly welcomes a new member, Six. Sent to investigate a comms relay that’s gone offline, Noble discovers the Covenant are on Reach and about to launch a massive attack. Against overwhelming odds, Noble team tries to prevent Reach becoming Humanity’s last stand.
Six the Spartan is basically Master Chief without a Cortana sidekick. And the rest of Noble team are straight out of the “Aliens is great” playbook. The gruff commander, the no-nonsense female, the wiseacre, the muscle-bound heavy weapons dude, and the one with the skull painted on his helmet which he never removes to make clear he’s Badass…
The early levels follow Halo’s tried and tested and tired routine of follow a pathway to the Covenant, clear them out then defend it from waves, repeat. But even though the first few hours are repetitive, you start to realise we’re not winning this, that each battle is making the situation worse as the scale of the invasion is revealed. Six picked the wrong day to join Noble.
With the Elites taking centre stage again, doing that annoying side-stepping you-can’t-hit-me move, the battlefield is a dangerous place to be, and they’re aptly backed up by Brutes doing their battering-ram runs and Grunts are actually a problem too, appearing in huge numbers that swarm. Its exhilarating and unforgiving, and even in the cut-scenes the pressure never lets up as things get worse, amping you up for the next round of against-the-odds missions.
It’s so brutal I must have died in Reach more than all the previous games combined. Yet at one point, Six hits the ground having fallen from space, and just dusts themselves off. How come I keep dying then?! And how come no matter what they get blasted out of, fall on to or land in during a cut-scene, there’s always a weapon nearby but when I run out of ammo, there’s nothing?! Six can also plug in a single armour upgrade at a time - speed, jetpack, hologram, camo etc. - a frontline soldier facing overwhelming odds and they couldn’t stretch to more than one USB socket?
It’s so intense you barely get chance to realise this might be the best-looking Halo yet, beautifully designed and laid out. It’s a linear push but there’s routes and options that allow you to play to the weapons you’ve scavenged, and the Covenant use all the space to attack, circle and push you back. And the sound design is amazing. It’s a cacophony of explosions, gunfire, yelling and grunting, and the weapons – which always seemed a bit pew-pew in previous Halo entries, rip and roar and shake as you fire. They really went all out to make this as much like a war movie as possible.
It’s so far removed from the mild Halo CE. If anything, it’s closer to Call of Duty’s Modern era; we’re constantly scrambling through hot zones by the skin of our helmets while the increasingly desperate situation is explained via graphics and voice-overs as we’re deployed and redeployed to wherever there’s fighting. And there’s lots of fighting. Even in space.
While we’ve piloted tanks, hovercraft, Warthogs and quadbikes, this time we go to space. Conveniently, Six is a pilot, so leads a squadron during an epic space battle to scuttle a Covenant cruiser. It’s great blasting around taking out Covenant ships, doing strafing runs on the Cruiser before landing on it to plant a bomb. It does feel a little odd after all the close-quarter guns and guts stuff we’ve been doing, but it’s so much fun.
It just keeps getting better – well, better for us, not for Noble. As the Covenant step up the invasion, it’s clear Reach is lost and an evac is ordered, which causes us to switch from killers to protectors as we help NPCs escape, pilot a VTOL to do rooftop recues and support missions. Once everyone's evacuated and we can take a breath, we’re sent on a suicide mission. Of course.
By now, thanks to some choice characterisation, brutal losses and the impending sense of doom, I’m totally invested in Reach and so angry at the Covenant, turning into some suicidal maniac rushing Elites to melee them. Dodge This. Noble has long-since given up on winning, or even surviving, and the last few levels are dedicated to a death run through enemy lines to get a certain AI to the last human battleship on Reach, the Pillar of Autumn…
This is the best Halo of them all – great characters, desperate plot, a bleak, no-win scenario, solid fights, and thrilling, how-did-I-survive-that levels. I preferred ODST for the smaller, personal experience, but this became so epic and moving. If I’d played this first, I might have gone into Halo CE with a more aggressive attitude. Get a little payback for Noble.
It’s not all perfect though. The radio voices sound like people reading lines not transmitting from a foxhole, and more than once I had to reach a button to stop/turn on/explode something and as soon as I did, someone would yell “location secure” even though there’d be a horde of Brutes knocking about and everyone would go into passive mode – once I couldn’t work out why a mission hadn’t ended, and eventually spotted a load of Covenant just chilling round the corner – somehow they’d not seen the battle and hadn’t activated.
It’s not like Halo CE needed a backstory or a prequel. Reach is clearly just a way to keep the franchise going, but Bungie have gone all out on this, knowing the fans wanted to see the fall of Reach. It puts me in mind of Star Wars Rogue One, although it leans into Empire Strikes Back as well – they even have a level where we protect an evacuation and someone yells “the first transport is away!” to cheers.
There’s also a poignancy to Halo Reach; this was franchise creator Bungie’s last game, and it feels like they went all-out bringing their involvement with the series full circle. It’s like a best-of, a swansong played with nothing to lose, just like Noble team. It’s so good I barely missed Cortana. Never thought being on the losing side could be this good.