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Posted on Sep 17th 2010 at 03:16:00 AM by (slackur)
Posted under Halo Reach, Halo, narrative, story

I just finished up the Halo: Reach campaign for the first time.

If ODST's narrative theme was co-operative survival (further punctuated by the addition of the Firefight mode) then Reach attempts, and largely succeeds, to embody foreboding loss.  Even the extensive marketing blurbs "Before the beginning, you know the end," and "Remember Reach" try to pull at the heartstrings of players who have invested nearly a decade into the franchise.  We know with a Star Wars Episode III certainty that all but a sliver of hope is lost, and the big campaign hook is to see and play out those final hours.

So it came as quite the surprise to me, a person who normally appreciates this type of theme and approach, that Reach is my least favorite Halo narrative.  I'm writing this coming fresh off completing the campaign on Heroic with two friends, and this blog is based off my thoughts directly afterward.

Sporting vivid earth tones after three majorly purple hued games, the graphics and texture work are greatly improved.  The enemy intelligence is remarkably challenging.  Martin O'Donnell's masterful score once again captures the appropriate mix of energy, awe, and somber emotion.  The weapon, grenade, and melee balance make the combat feel pitch perfect (always debatable, but it felt right to me.)  The multiplayer alone sells the game, and Reach is by far the most extensive offering in this department. 

Yet as much as I enjoy large-scale Halo LAN parties, and absolutely fell in love with the Firefight mode, at heart I'm a fan of the series because I very much got into the Halo universe itself.  I love a good sci-fi yarn, and while the fiction of Halo doesn't offer anything new (indeed, much of it easily comes across as generic space marine warfare) the passion behind the product shines through.  There is a great amount of affection given to the universe of Halo, brought to light through comics, novels, short movies, pretty much any available media.  Even non canon comedy spin-offs such as Red vs. Blue and Odd One Out (from the Halo Legends compilation)  help weave a multi-part construct that is distinctly Halo.  The series has long outgrown video games and become a cultural staple, defended by some as ardently as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, even if it is not quite as ubiquitous. 

I don't try to justify the faults in the game or explain away the flaws.  I've just found myself enjoying each game in the series, and feel more invested with every game, book, comic, or radio controlled Warthog.

I've come to realize that a big part of my enjoyment is from the retelling of the classic superhero mythology.  In the original trilogy, Master Chief spent long stretches of the game time 'lone gunning' it.  Marines were dropped off or assisted in larger skirmishes or assaults, giving the game an appropriate feel of being part of a larger army, but just as often it came down to you and MC, with the sweet whisperings of lady Cortana in your helmet.  You were the last hope, and the fate of not just humanity but all life in the galaxy repeatedly depended on your success.  Whether or not Halo is our generation's Star Wars, Master Chief is certainly our Superman: a being created beyond Earth, invincible yet mortal, alien yet human, selfless yet fallible, intelligent yet gullible.  It is by design that our beloved Spartan 117 has a voice, and a smooth, certain, calming one.  Halo games buck the FPS trend of the silent protagonist because we don't want to just be Master Chief, we want to believe in Master Chief. 

Microsoft's marketing wisely noted this:

Now it doesn't really matter if you don't buy into all that and just play countless hours of multiplayer, because Halo's success has moved beyond campaign stories, online deathmatches, and even gaming itself.  There is so much franchise material developed that it is now entirely possible to be an extensive Halo fan and never pick up a 360 controller.  Between books, comics, movies, and toys, one can know the entire universe fiction and never touch an Xbox 360.

That being said, the first three Halo games wrapped the narrative around Master Chief and Cortana (and to a lesser extent, the Arbiter), and it was their story.  The universe is strong enough to survive in their shadow to some extent; despite the 'expansion pack' debacle coloring ODST, the side story it told helped humanize the universe's events in the wake of the larger-than-life heroes.  The effect was less jarring than it might otherwise have been because even though the game told the player that we were no longer Superman, the game played out largely the same as if you were; hiding behind cover healed 'stamina' instead of shields, and perhaps the enemies looked a little taller, but often the effect came across as playing a different Master Chief in a sort of detective film noir side mission.  The separate levels of the other ODSTs mapped out a sort of playable short story compilation that helped give the game its own identity, one that the game's silent 'Rookie' protagonist couldn't project.  Personally I felt it worked, if only because it was still Halo even if it sometimes seemed just a little derivative, and because your character still felt powerful enough to continue selling a bit of the Superman saving the world feel.

In Reach, there is another level of separation: the protagonist is a Spartan III, which should ideally bridge the gap between what should have been a tough but outmatched marine and technology-enabled super warrior.  For those less familiar with the fiction (mainly told in the novel "Ghosts of Onyx") Spartan IIIs represent a more quickly produced, cheaper, more expendable variant of the Spartan program through the use of less intensive modification methods.  Not as superhuman as Spartan IIs, the third generation nonetheless represent the pinnacle of military technology.  Yet in Reach, the player feels even more vulnerable than in ODST.  On the Heroic setting (developer Bungie's recommended default) only one or two hits from many weapons will drop a player, or at the very least all of their shields.  While the technology for Spartan IIIs are supposed to favor less armor and more stealth, the effect is that the player feels less like a Superman and more like an expendable soldier on the front line.  This is perhaps consistent with the story fiction, but it had an interesting effect on me personally:

Often I didn't feel as though I was playing a Halo game, but something more akin to Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.  Almost the entire game takes place on the planet of Reach, a brown, grey, and earthen landscape spotted by brown, grey, and earthen industrialized complexes.  It lends a more relate-able gravitas to a series known for its purple and pink colors and bizarre geographical architecture, and helps sell the idea of a more human note of urgency and despair. 

It also at times takes the game only a few shades away from the feel of a generic war game.  With more focus on the fate of humanity and less on the awe, the mystery, the alien connection to the conflict, ironically I felt less drawn into the plight of Noble Six and any emotion I was supposed to feel for them.  This was most noticeable in an oddly backwards realization about my favorite cinematic in the game.  Without giving away too much of a spoiler, at one moment a character is running with your squad, a shot rings out, and the character's head snaps back, dead in an instant from a random sniper shot fired from a random enemy from a random location.  There is no long dialogue, no epic speech, no cries out to an ultimate nemesis.  Just the true, indiscriminate nature of war.  I appreciated the bluntness, as realism used properly helps the investment in the narrative.

The problem is that the moment made me realize, until then, I hadn't really cared that much.  I hadn't felt the grand, epic stage on the canvas of the Halo story.  It was another war game.  Fun combat, great action, well made, just very little investment.  For most games that's not a big problem, but for a game designed around playing out a big piece of the Halo fiction?  That didn't seem right.

The story does pick up at about the halfway mark, eventually ties into the original trilogy, and ends as it should.  But the sudden death of that character signaled that I had played for several hours and I hadn't really invested anything, something that had never happened to me in a Halo game before.  Normally the story, such as it is, catches my attention enough that even beyond the fun of playing, I want to see the adventure out.  I want to get caught up in the atmosphere and let it become my impetus to 'finish the fight.'  And by taking away my Superman status and letting me play as another cog in the war machine- albeit a shiny, tougher than normal cog- I felt more like fodder than savior.  And at least for me, that reduced the grandstanding nature of the story into what the series' critics always claim Halo really is; an unoriginal space marine simulator.

But then, that's the nature of a franchise.  Much ink real and digital has been spilled discussing the nature of sequels.  Once a media product is given an addition to its series, inevitably they will all be compared and contrasted ad infinitum.  No series will make everyone happy every time, and every change will have fans and critics.  I'm thrilled that Reach's campaign is being so well received, even if I still prefer the story in Halo 3, ODST, or even Halo Wars. 

Am I being way too hypersensitive?  Well, despite my negative tone, I did have a really fun time with the game so far.  The campaign was by no means bad; just about every review I've read claims it to be the best Halo has to offer.  And to be fair, Bungie made clear that they are moving on from Master Chief and, one last time, exploring other corners of the vast place they created.  Reach is consistent with what it sells itself as and makes no excuses by pretending to be something it isn't.  (Proven in part by the smart and limited use of vehicle and space segments that, in less talented hands, could have overtaken the gameplay instead of complementing it.)  I was just surprised that, despite having fun, I didn't personally delve into this darker corner at the edge of the Halo Universe as deep as expected.  It's still a great video game, and for that, fun is more than enough.

Now, about the rehab I'll need to be pulled away from the new Firefight...Smiley


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You know, this might be an irony, but I have almost the exact OPPOSITE feeling towards the games, but for the same reasons. I hated Master Chief. Master Chief felt like an utterly boring character to me who was as two dimensional as the TV screen he was displayed on. I didn't find him having any depth or backstory or personality, or really anything. Yea, I know he's since been developed as a character, but when I played the games that portrayed him I found him as having less character than even Gordan Freeman.You mention the superman effect of Master Chief and that honestly is what kills the character for me. He has no dramatic tension. We all know Master Chief is gonna live and kick everyone's ass and right all the wrong in history. The opposite is true for Reach. The characters in Reach (I haven't beaten it yet, but I've sunk some time into it) feel thought out. Even characters I didn't particularly like, such as Jung, possess enough character for me to like their inclusion in the game. I also think that this isn't JUST Noble Six's story. This is Noble Team's story. You're experiencing the plights of the entire team, although from the limited viewpoint of Noble 6, and as such Noble 6's lack of personality is forgiveable in my opinion.

Even when it comes to the "Believe" ad, which as been mentioned on the forums is one of my favorite ads of all time, it seems like we it for the exact opposite reasons. I think the ad would have been made better if it lacked Master Chief. Seeing the courage, bravery, defeat, dispare, victory, etc of every soldier as a moment captured in time is what makes the ad for me. Master Chief being who he is, defeats that.

I suppose it's just a difference of opinion, but I'm actually very much enjoying the narrative of Reach.
There's one thing you stated that I've been feeling since playing through the campaign on Legendary (Solo):

It feels like I'm playing a Call of Duty game.

The Legendary (Solo) experience is exactly akin to playing through Call of Duty on Veteran. It's been irking me ever since I've started it and I'm barely enjoying it. I like challenges, but when I get killed by a charged plasma pistol shot more often than not...
@Wolfman Walt:  I love that the Halo universe is big enough that we can enjoy it for opposite reasons. Smiley  For me, much like Superman was meant to embody the strength, decency, and good will of humanity, Master Chief represents the inspiration, perseverance, and willpower when mankind is facing extinction.  In the fiction, when the Spartan IIs are made public, they become a powerful PR tool to drum up morale for the UNSC.  When Master Chief shows up around marines in the games, they stare in awe before claiming that now everything will be OK: their willpower is solidified, and they charge into battle with a newfound hope and zeal.  In my interpretation of the Believe ad you see the mix of emotions across every soldier, and in the centerpiece as Master Chief is captured, he lifts his head, grenade in hand, ready to keep going, to keep giving humanity hope.  It bolsters, not replaces, the work of all those soldiers before and after.

I certainly agree that Reach is about Noble Team; the inclusion of the entire squad in all the art up to and including the statue with the Legendary edition emphasize such. 

Glad you're enjoying Reach!

@Shadow Kisuragi: Yeah, its not like previous Legendary challenges, where memorizing snipers' positions was half the battle (Yo Joe!) and the other half was intelligent weapon choice and a little strategy.  Now the slightest amount of concentrated firepower, or one or two charged plasma hits, and its back to checkpoint.  It all gives me the near random cheap feeling I got in the Call of Duties, and it makes me wonder a little if one big developer with a hit game was starting to cheat off of another big developer's homework...:/
I love the new Firefight matchmaking service.  I'll be hooked on that for years to come.

I did something new for a Halo game this time.  My first playthrough was on  legendary.  Usually I start heroic a couple times, then tackle legendary with a buddy.  I like how they scaled the difficulty up for co-op, but it is still way easier than playing alone.

The story is on par with the rest of the series, in my opinion... and if you see the legendary ending, you'll never play the original Halo the same way again.  It is my understanding that there is a great naval battle going on in space during the first half of the game that isn't eve known about on the surface, and thanks to MC it allows enough time for Noble team to hit their goal during the second half.

I'm getting overwhelmed though.  This adds one more Halo game to my repertoire.  I usually play through all of them about once a year, and I still want to take on the mythic challenge in Halo 3.  I'll be torn in the future when Bungie's next big game comes out and will probably be competing with Microsoft's idea of the next Halo game.

Halo 2 had the evil snipers delivering their purple hate beams every time you popped your head out from behind the rock.  Thankfully the snipers are programmed to "forget" about you in Halo 3, making the Legendary difficulty actually playable.
I agree that there was a lack of investment and emotional attachment (which is absolutely excepted from a Halo game).  However, Bungie did an awesome job of creating the feeling of absolute desperation and loss.  For me, Reach had the best story of all the Halo games.
I can safety say that Halo is one of my most favorite game series, despite the fact that I've not played past the second one.  Sure, the Flood crap made me want to stop playing, but the overall package (story, combat, set pieces) more than made up for it.  While I would be seriously violating my 2-5 year rule if I played it, your article along with all the juicy stuff I've heard on podcasts has made me want to play it.
Halo has a story? Hm, never would known that if you didn't tell me. I thought it was all about getting wasted and spewing racist crap on XBL.
@Tondog: no no,you're thinking of Call of Duty. Smiley
@slackur: No, that was Halo 2. Halo 3, everyone pretended to be MLG and pay for people to boost their accounts. In Halo: Reach, everyone pretends to be elite by boosting their credits in Gruntpocalypse.

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