Halo: Reach doesn’t hide its intentions. The first shot- a broken SPARTAN helmet- foreshadows a bleak ending.
Halo initially seems an odd choice for a melancholy game. It’s the quintessential fratboy franchise, a series that prides itself on its multiplayer and reliant on a standard-issue “super-soldier saves humanity” storyline. Its central protagonist rarely speaks, its marines are gung-ho types cracking wise in the midst of combat, while the alien antagonists are often comedic both in appearance and attitudes.
Halo and Halo 2 certainly had their tragic moments, given life by the sometimes elegiac soundtrack created by the very talented Martin O’Donnel. Thanks in part to O’Donnel, war-weariness emerged as a major theme during Halo 3‘s bittersweet conclusion, strengthened in Halo: ODST by its lonely portrayal of a battlefield’s aftermath. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that in Reach, it’s inescapable.
Halo: Reach takes place during the early days of the franchise’s Human-Covenant conflict, before the Master Chief became the de facto champion of humanity and before the discovery of the eponymous Halo complexes. It tells the story of Noble Team, a six-man squad of elite SPARTAN super-soldiers stationed on the prosperous human colony of Reach.
Anyone who’s followed the series lore knows that Reach is doomed from the onset, and that’s what makes its campaign interesting. Unlike most conventional games, particularly shooters, Reach is a story of defeat. The SPARTANS and some plucky rebels turned conscripts discover an enemy advance; the next day the human counter-offensive is shattered with contemptuous ease. Troops struggle to hold their ground in tiny pockets strewn across towering skyscrapers while the Covenant bombardment methodically burns the city to ashes. Individual heroism, while stirring, does not turn the tide against an endless onslaught of technologically superior, intelligent opponents.
Reach‘s goal seems to be to make gamers take the Covenant war seriously. There’s no Flood equivalent or new enemy in the third act because the Covenant are more than monstrous enough. The game doesn’t shy from showing atrocities like murdered civilians or transports evacuating the wounded and defenseless being burned from the sky. Both Noble Team and their UNSC allies replace banter with matter-of-fact combat reports. The art style is breathtakingly beautiful, but somber. Even the high-pitched comedic chatter between the hapless Grunts is gone, since at this point the humans couldn’t translate their speech.
Some of the best war movies — as opposed to action movies against a wartime backdrop – present the struggle as an almost elemental catastrophe. Like an earthquake or a plague, the war engulfs the common soldier as events spiral out of their control, placing them at the mercy of external forces. They may never encounter the masterminds that set events in motion as if their soldiers were chess pawns.
Appropriately, Halo: Reach takes these rules to heart. The Covenant are much more threatening than other entries in the series: burly, almost bestial alien creatures clad in brooding shades of gleaming metal. Their speech is an incomprehensible babble, and they never negotiate, retreat, or attempt to communicate. No distinct Covenant characters play a role in the story; common soldiers are just as dangerous as enemy commanders. Making the Covenant a mace of implacable, incomprehensible Others reinforces the game’s sense of inevitability and places more emphasis on Noble Team’s reaction to the war on their world.
And Noble Team is subjected to the vagaries of wartime chaos in a way Master Chief never was. Though prestigious, they take orders rather than giving them, and have an air of mortality that their more famous comrade never really exhibited. As the campaign goes on, members suffer wounds and are picked off in increasingly tragic and random ways. Like their UNSC Marine allies, they’re ultimately mobbed to death by lesser warriors, and though they usually find ways to take quite a bit of Covenant along for the ride, the enemy can more than afford the losses.
Reach‘s gameplay cleverly reinforces the game’s sense of gradual attrition. Though the player gains access to several powerful armor-based utilities like sprinting or jet packs, the Covenant boast fierce soldiers armed with powerful weapons that (in a nice change for the Halo series) often rival or surpass the human analogs. Enemy varieties are distinct, but they cooperate well together and have more than enough firepower to ruin your day. The notorious Elites are particularly brutal as enemy field commanders, with weapons and armor equal or superior to any SPARTAN on the team and excellent tactical awareness.
Reach‘s embrace of melancholia seems part of a greater movement among video games for poignancy. Maybe developers have become confident enough in the legitimacy of their storytelling that they feel they can risk the player’s dissatisfaction at an ending where the hero doesn’t necessarily ride off into the sunset with their loved ones in tow. (That’s not to say a story has to be a downer to be emotionally satisfying or critically adventurous, but it does imply a certain devotion to the story itself.)
And it is to Reach‘s credit that the experience of the campaign itself never feels futile or pointless, even through its tragic last stand. Naming the protagonist squad Noble Team is a none-too-subtle description of their portrayal – doomed, but admirable in their defiance.