2020: Year of Halo – Part 1: A Bit of a Reach

Late in 2019 Microsoft did something rather devious – After a considerable period of drawn-out hype, the storied partnership between 343 Industries, Splash Damage and Ruffian Games bore its first meaningful piece of fruit for PC gamers; Halo: The Master Chief Collection took its first steps onto the wild plains of the personal computer. This was devious, of course, because it came roughly a year before the purported due date of the next Xbox console, and Microsoft has made a real point of saying that Halo Infinite will launch on the same day. What’s more, while only Halo: Reach is out on PC now, the remaining four-and-a-half Halo games are slated for staggered release over the course of 2020. Rarely has a pre-release run of hype dominoes been so tantalisingly lined up.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a year of Halo.

Now I have only finished one Halo campaign in my life – ODST – and only because it was a mostly irrelevant sub-story. I’ve been playing Halo games for a long time, but the lore and plot hasn’t ever really had a chance to grab me. One of the reasons I was so readily able to rank Halo 5 so high in 2015, after all, was my complete disinterest in its campaign. To me, Halo has always been about the presentation and the multiplayer.

But with such a ready-made setup, I will likely never have a better chance to get into the main story of gaming’s most famous contribution to the sci-fi canon. The motivation just wouldn’t be there otherwise. So, Halo: Reach, here we go; it’s time at last for me to finish your campaign.

First things first: It’s clear to see why you’d lead off your PC Halo extravaganza with a game like Reach. Beyond the neat devotion to chronological order, this game offers one of the most striking colour palettes in the series. Because it takes place on the planet with the title’s name – an environment that’s Earth-like in all but the weird sky – there’s a sense of familiarity mixed with a hefty dose of fantastical creative license tying in nicely with the themes of the story. Especially with the fresh coat of (ultrawide-supporting) graphical paint offered by the PC version, the dread bleeds through the monitor as the spectrum gradually turns up the heat. Dante Alighieri would be proud. Or horrified.

Indeed Reach is a story about a set of catastrophic failures; after all, it tells the tale of a planet’s utter downfall at the hands of a known enemy with unknown strength. I’d be curious to see the reaction from someone coming into the series completely fresh with this PC run – they might think the spirit of the Halo series to be far more depressing than it actually is. Marty O’Donnell’s famous Gregorian chant-esque title theme takes on a less ambiguously haunting tone when jumping in and out of this campaign – It’s just straight-up forlorn. The in-game score is even more emotionally sapping.

Fans of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will likely notice a decent helping of tonal familiarity, since this too is a prequel story about spaceships and fancy pew-pew weapons that dives into interesting lore previously summed up with only a couple of lines. It introduces characters that hadn’t yet been glimpsed in the main story, follows them as they go deep into a dangerous location to retrieve something crucial to a war effort, and by the end of the tale they’ve all made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of the saga can happen. Of course Reach pre-dates Rogue One, but the similarities are uncanny.

Ultimately Reach is just a spectacularly dramatic opening act that takes on a new context in the ’20s: introducing the imposing coalition of alien races known as the Covenant to a new batch of players. It does a fine job of doing that; from my limited exposure to single-player Halo, this is the scariest the Covenant ever appear. Lacking the goofy English taunts from other games, these creatures hiss in tongues as they hit the squad of six superhuman Spartans known only as Noble Team with huge numbers and crashing waves of green and blue energy weapons.

In my opinion Halo’s strength has always been scale, and the openness of the campaign’s levels allows the player to feel the full force of the apocalyptic planetary threat the Covenant brings – whether or not the sky is on fire with alien weaponry. This is perhaps never so apparent as during a late sprint down a lengthy cliffside road towards a crucial objective – the clouds heave, the music swells and your mongoose ATV seems to strain against its limits. The cutscenes still bring the biggest “Oh shit” moments, but that’s mostly because of how powerful you feel while playing as the enigmatic sixth member of the superhuman Noble Team.

Before 5 this was arguably the most mechanically advanced game in the series; having rolled up to the table packing a wide selection of available weapons both human and alien and a sense of momentum confident enough to experiment with things like interchangeable armour abilities – including one of the most generous jetpacks in gaming – Reach is a joy to play. Apparently the mouse and keyboard controls feel great, though my elite controller and I wouldn’t know. I’ll probably go more into Halo’s unique gunplay loop when I play the next game, but suffice to say dispatching foes with a battle rifle or shotgun has rarely felt this good.

My extensive time playing Reach multiplayer back in the day made me ready for such a triumphant balance, but i was not ready for the plentiful white-knuckle vehicular sections strewn throughout the campaign. These arrive mostly once the stealthy first half of the plot is over and it’s all rapid-fire damage control en route to the bittersweet finale. There’s a stretch that moves you from an honest-to-goodness space dogfight (how did I miss this back in the day?) to landing on a Covenant cruiser to falling from said cruiser to Reach’s surface, where you fight alongside a small defense force up a tower, then fly a futuristic pelican helicopter between metropolitan skyscrapers as the skyline burns. You fight alongside a soldier voiced by Aisha Tyler (!!!), then fly with ODST captain Buck (more on him in later games) as you attempt to protect his evacuation transport. It’s breathless and gripping; I honestly did not think the level designers at Bungie had this in them.

Halo: Reach‘s excellent campaign sets a high bar for 2020’s plentiful Halo revisitations on PC (and the Xbox family, of course). From the ominously uncertain opening, to the shocking discovery of a grossly overpowering enemy force, to the many colourful battles and small victories throughout, all the way to the emotional gut punch of Noble 6’s defiant final stand against endless enemy spawns at the end, the scene is set for one of gaming’s most famous characters to take centre stage in the near future – and it is set with the help of wonderfully clean presentation atop tremendously effective drama.

Now please, Phil Spencer, don’t announce any major delays to make me look like a fool. Let’s have a nice smooth year of fun Halo campaigns.

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