Thoughts: Halo Reach

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This is not the first time I’ve played Halo: Reach. The first time I played it was back in 2013 during my misguided attempt to catch up on the Halo series post-Halo 3, when I played through ODST, Reach and Halo 4 in quick succession. I didn’t like ODST much, though I will admit it is infinitely better than the staggeringly awful Halo 41. I did quite like Reach, however; it wasn’t up to the standards of the original Halo trilogy, but it at least didn’t go out of its way to break the fiction-gameplay relationship like ODST did, and it didn’t replace the Covenant with an incredibly uninspired race of Generic FPS Baddies called Prometheans like Halo 4 did. Instead it focused solely on what the series has done best: punchy FPS combat against waves of well-designed enemies whose AI meant that you had to get somewhat tactical in order to survive. Reach at least qualified as an actual Halo game in my eyes even if there were other things missing that meant I’d put it at the bottom of the pile, and in theory it’s not a bad game to kick off the series’ long-overdue return to the PC platform.

The recent release of Reach on PC is, of course, is the reason I’m writing this review now2. Back in 2015 current Halo custodians 343 Industries decided to rerelease the bulk of the Halo series onto the Xbox One as part of a package called the Master Chief Collection. I own an Xbox One, and I own the MCC, and it’s a decent collection; I’m nowhere near sold on the graphical updates that were included for Halo and Halo 2, but you can play with the original visuals if you want so it’s not so much of a problem. Initially the MCC contained Halos 1 through 4, with ODST being added later, but Reach was conspicuous by its absence. (I am going to take a wild guess and say that this is because it was a particularly tricky game to port to modern console architecture, for reasons that will become clear later in this review.) This is why everyone was so excited for Reach: up until last Tuesday the Xbox One version of the MCC didn’t have it either, and the only way to play Reach prior to that was on an original 360 that hadn’t red-ringed itself into oblivion. PC players were particularly excited, however, because the MCC coming to Steam and Microsoft Game Pass marks the first time you’ll have been able to play Halo on a PC since the baffling Vista-only port of Halo 2 back in 20073. Sure, you can only play Reach right now, but the intention is to release the rest of the games in the MCC onto PC over the coming months, and hopefully by this time next year you’ll be able to play all of the actually good Halo games on Steam.

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Halo: Reach itself functions as a prequel to the main Halo trilogy. The human forces of the UNSC have been locked in a war with the vastly superior alien Covenant for several years by this point, and they are losing badly. The original Halo kicks off with the Master Chief’s ship fleeing from a massive Covenant attack that destroyed the UNSC military headquarters on Reach, and so Halo: Reach is a ground-level portrayal of that assault on Reach as the Covenant funnel more and more forces to the planet and eventually turn it into a smoking cinder. This is a slightly more interesting premise than your typical first-person shooter, simply because you know the conclusion if you’ve played any of the other Halo games: you lose the battle, and Reach gets blown up. It’s even more interesting because you’re not playing the Master Chief in this game either; instead you’re playing a generic Spartan super-soldier called Noble Six who is part of a small squad of Spartans attempting to hold back the invasion. Since the OG Spartans are kind of a big deal in the Halo fiction, and since Noble Team isn’t mentioned at all in any of the following Halo games, it doesn’t take a particularly active imagination to guess what happens to them by the end of Reach.

This makes Reach a much bleaker game than the rest of the series. It is not particularly good at communicating this bleakness — certainly it doesn’t tell you any of the stuff I just did in the previous paragraph, and very much relies on your having played Halo in order to make much sense of what’s going on. This is a continuing failing of the series and something that drove me absolutely mad in Halo 4 and 5, which not only expected you to have played the previous games but also to have read all of the shitty tie-in novels in order to make any sense of the plot, but in Reach I think it’s just the right side of acceptable and the problems are more to do with hamhanded story pacing and some extremely abrupt cutscenes that do nothing to adequately portray the scope of the Covenant threat and the overall hopelessness of your fight. For example, at one point a character sacrifices themselves to blow up a Covenant super-battleship, complete with heroic soliloquy and swelling, emotional musical cues — but the capabilities of the Covenant super-battleship are never shown and the super-battleship itself has about seven seconds of screen time, so it’s not obvious why destroying it was so important or why this character needed to kill themselves doing it.

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Most of Reach’s story beats fall flat in a similar manner, undone by storytelling that’s far more interested in having the Noble Team leader have a lengthy conversation with a static .jpg of his commanding officer than it is actually communicating the stakes and the cost of this Covenant invasion. Your Spartan teammates gradually die off one at a time, but for at least half of them their deaths have zero buildup and seem to come about simply because they turn to the next page of the script and discover that they’re due to expire during the current cutscene. None of it has any impact — at least, not until the very end of the game when Noble Six decides that they have to be the one to fire the big gun at the Covenant instead of one of the many highly expendable marines in the general vicinity, and so ends up in an unwinnable fight against impossible odds where they’re just trying to kill as many Covenant as they can before they get dragged down through sheer weight of numbers. Unusually for Reach you actually get to play this sequence instead of watching it or hearing about it over the radio, and it’s one of the few moments where Reach’s gameplay experience matches the bleakness of its premise.

Structurally Reach is a bit of an odd beast. As a series Halo became famous for its impossible alien megastructures containing large open spaces that you traversed via vehicles to fight interesting Covenant enemies in a series of unscripted battles. Since Reach is set on a regular human planet there’s no Halos or Arks to catch the eye and provide a cool backdrop for your shootouts, and the levels are much more conventional FPS fare: almost entirely linear, and with most of the significant vehicle use quarantined off into dedicated vehicle levels in much the same way Call Of Duty would do it. Reach does still retain those unscripted set-piece battles, though, where the game delivers waves of Covenant baddies to your location via dropship and then leaves their AI to create interesting, emergent gunfights that never play out the same way twice — and they’re probably the best in the series to date. This is largely thanks to two things: one is that the previous four games in the series gradually added new enemy types to the Covenant ranks and Reach is playing with the full set, giving the combat the widest tactical breadth it’s ever had. The other is that Reach is one of only two Halo games that doesn’t get distracted with Flood, or Prometheans, or other types of gleep-glop that aren’t anywhere near as fun to fight as the Covenant are. This ensures Reach feels a bit more like a precursor to Doom 2016 than it does a Call Of Duty game set in space, in that it’s a series of combat arenas where your movement and actions are driven by the enemy behaviour rather than by any scripted objective. It does just this one thing well, but it does it very well.

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So Halo: Reach is probably the least quintessentially Halo of the first five Bungie-developed games in the series, but ironically this has given it a level of focus in combat design that the other games lack. Every fight in Reach is fun. There’s very few moments of outright frustration. Just like the enemy variety, the weapons are as good as they have ever been in a Halo game, with the rocket launcher especially retaining its trademark chunkiness and sense of explosive impact. The grenade button continues to be one of the best additions anyone has ever made to the FPS genre. And despite my criticism of how Reach makes use of its premise, there are a couple of levels that do manage to be more than linear romps through generic military installations; the one where you’re helping evacuate a city under assault by the Covenant is the sole moment outside of the epilogue where the reality of the Covenant invasion is made clear, and the level based around using a Hornet to visit a series of mile-high skyscrapers is interesting in concept if not in execution. There is good stuff in here, if you’re prepared to put up with the two-dimensional writing and unusually drab environments for a Halo game.

As a game Reach mostly holds up, then; I wasn’t blown away by it at any point during my replay but then I didn’t think it was particularly great the first time around either. It misuses its premise but is otherwise solid and dependable and scratches a very specific Halo itch, without really standing out in any notable way. Normally I would say the PC release is just about worth the £7 it’ll set you back on Steam, and if you have friends who also own the game it’s actually great value for money because the entire campaign is playable via online co-op4 and there’s also a fun little horde mode included. However, this is where we come back to that little thing I mentioned earlier in the review: I suspect there’s a very good reason it’s taken 343 this long to add Reach to the Master Chief Collection at all, let alone release it on PC, because there are some very serious things wrong with the port. For PC users specifically it feels like the kind of port we’d have gotten a decade ago when PC ports were little more than an afterthought, with next to no graphics or audio customisation options and a control system that’s still 100% designed for console. Movement feels a bit slow. Aiming feels a bit floaty. It feels like my mouse movement is acting as a poor substitute for a controller analogue stick instead of something natural and precise, and while I did find myself getting better at it the more I played the game it takes some getting used to; there’s definitely more than the usual amount of awkward flailing whenever I venture into a multiplayer game, both from me and from other players.

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These PC-specific issues are comparatively minor compared to the real problem with Halo: Reach, however, and it’s a problem that affects both the Xbox One and PC versions of the game: the audio is a fucking disaster. It’s the worst audio I’ve ever heard in an FPS, and would have totally ruined the experience for me if I hadn’t been playing the campaign in co-op and was concentrating more on ripping the piss out of the game on Discord than I was listening to the in-game sound effects. I know 343 were aware of the audio problems prior to release, because they mentioned them in a development blogpost. Here’s how they described it:

To update Halo: Reach for Xbox One and PC required entirely changing the encoding for the game’s audio which has resulted in it sounding different from the original release.

This is technically correct. I could hear my gunshots in the original release of Reach. Explosions didn’t sound like a mouse farting inside of a tin can in the original release of Reach. The original release of Reach could play more than two sounds at once and didn’t completely cut out the sound of combat whenever the music had to be one of them. Even in a perfectly controlled environment, with absolutely nothing else going on, the sound effects are flat and indistinct compared to the original release of Reach, with no sense of heft or weight to any of your weapons. The moment you add in more than one person firing a gun it becomes exponentially more so; I was driving one of my co-op buddies around in a Warthog and I couldn’t hear him firing the extremely large chaingun just behind my head in the back of the truck. By contrast, this Reach port thinks it’s very, very important that you be able to hear the panting and wheezing sounds both you and other people make whenever you’re using the Sprint ability (I had no idea the Spartans were so out of shape), even if they happen to be standing fifty metres away at the time. Reach already has a big problem with its cutscenes not making a huge amount of sense, and it turns out this is something that’s greatly exacerbated when you can only hear one word out of every three thanks to the port’s bizarre sound mixing.

(And to add insult to injury the subtitles are broken, so I guess Reach’s plot will forever remain a mystery to anyone who hasn’t already played it.)

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These audio issues are so bad that the otherwise-solid Reach campaign is reduced to being borderline unplayable unless you happen to be using your phone speaker as your PC’s sound system, in which case you probably won’t notice the difference because that’s what it sounds like anyway. I’d love to try and fix it via the in-game audio options, but unfortunately they don’t exist. Reach should not have been released with the audio in this state, but I imagine there was some arm-twisting happening to get the game out of the door before Christmas — that or 343 figured that most people would be playing the multiplayer, where it’s a little less noticeable thanks to the lack of music and radio chatter. Whatever the reason, though, it means that what should have been a triumphant return to the PC platform for Halo has ended up leaving a very sour taste in my mouth, and given 343’s track record here (the original Xbox release of the Master Chief Collection was notoriously broken) I’m not exactly filled with confidence that the rest of the series will be any different once it finally arrives on PC. My expectations weren’t high; all Halo: Reach really had to do was be the same game I played on my 360 six years ago, but it couldn’t even manage that. It’s a real disappointment.

  1. Which itself is somehow better than Halo 5, whose singleplayer campaign tunnels all the way through the depths of “staggeringly awful” and plummets straight into the hellfires of “indescribably bad”.
  2. Well, one of them. The other is that I was planning to review Phoenix Point this week but the Game Pass release got delayed, and so I need something to fill the slot.
  3. The original Xbox release of Halo 2 was September 2004, so the PC port was not only for an operating system nobody liked, but it was also three years late.
  4. All of the MCC games are. It’s the one unambiguously great improvement 343 made to Halos 1 and 2, which previously had local-only co-op.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Halo Reach

  1. innokenti says:

    Did have a fun time though. Despite all the moaning. While e.g. Destiny 2 on the PC feels very nice as a shooter, the composition of enemies (and tools at your disposal) in Reach is infinitely superior and ultimately makes the thing more fun.

  2. Mitch says:

    Man, I played this for years and years after it came out, and when I say “this” I mean “this one specific level called Beachhead in the co-op mode where you just fight off waves of enemies.” Me and my best friend eventually started just calling the game “Beachhead.” Unlike other endless wave modes it’s not actually endless, and you can succeed – but the level design of Beachhead, compared to the other maps, made it very hard to do so. It took ages of becoming a well-oiled co-operative machine for us to deal with all the stuff they throw at you (particularly great is when a drop-pod of four lightning-fast, heavily-armed Elites suddenly arrives at your doorstep) and it took us ages to finally succeed. We’d still fire it up as recently as a few years ago when I’d go visit him out in the country. Ah, memories…

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