The Problem with Halo Reach

I was down on the Halo Reach campaign playing solo. On a second run through last night in co-op with two friends, I still am.

It took some thinking why it didn’t work as well as it should. To be clear, it’s a fantastic title. Reach is everything we expect a Halo game should be, those large expansive fight with Covenant troops, some vehicular assaults (including a brief run in space), and a dash of humor to keep it colorful.

Why then, is it like Halo? Shouldn’t it be more than that? Shouldn’t this be the coup de grace that has been building in the books, the story arc, and in Halo Wars?

There are issues with scale. A few large ships are taken down, this on both sides of the war. It’s impressive to look at if confined to a cinematic. It seems like the best stuff is always happening in the distance up in the sky, or during non-playable sections. Why can I not ride with the UNSC troops as we move into a head-on encounter with Covenant Banshees and Wraiths? How awesome could it have been to in control, dodging fire until it became overwhelming, even for just a few seconds?

While that’s disappointing, the real crux of the problem seems to be a fear of letting the player lose, more noticeable on the second play through. Remember when gaming was all about loss? If you picked up Missile Command, you were going to die. It was the inevitable, and the same goes for Planet Reach, humanities final hope now drowned in flames.

Now games seem to pander to their audience too much, even in the case where everyone knows what will happen. It’s the equivalent of making a film about the Titanic but letting the boat float until is reaches shore. The sheer amount of close calls in Reach is staggering, but lo and behold, Noble Team always pulls off their task.

In fact, they almost make it seem easy, setting bombs off in space, taking down shielded radar jammers, and passing by Covenant Scarab tanks on a Mongoose as if they were mere insects. Sure, it’s emotional to see any main character die, and it does happen in Reach. Shouldn’t it be more emotional when a ship filled with innocent civilians is wiped out? Why are the Covenant so lackadaisical in their attack methods that they just let escape ships sit on the landing pads? Are they so terrified of the Noble team they figure why bother?

How can the planet die with no sense of loss? How can the player experience the drama of an entire planet being annihilated with just some (admittedly gorgeous) cinematics of ships lying in ruin? When Darth Vader zapped Alderaan in Star Wars it generated more emotion than anything in Halo Reach, because Vader actually had the guts to show the humans they were vulnerable.

Bungie went all out in terms of Reach’s enemy AI and glitzy visuals; that’s all superb. What was missed was a grand opportunity to showcase an aging hardware’s true power, a loaded destruction engine, and the beginning of a trilogy of games that have become icons. It’s a shame Bungie is nothing coming back to realize the potential.