I can’t help but love Halo. It’s one of the few things that lodged firmly enough in my teenage heart to build itself a permanent nest there, and it still comes and goes freely, even though the iron gate of age has barred so much else from getting in. Ever since 2001, when I saved to buy an OG Xbox purely for the sake of playing Combat Evolved, I’ve gotten needlessly excited about playing each new release on launch day. I was also the guy Nate wrote this article about.
Over the last eighteen years, we’ve slugged through pretty much every new release in the series together, and they’ve burned a string of happy little plasma scars on my brain, each one a memorial anchor for a whole period of my life. A decision to join the army in my early twenties saw me playing Halo 3 in drafty barracks in Wales, about to be sent to Afghanistan. Despite feeling incredibly removed from normal life, just a few bars of the theme, or the familiar clatter of the battle rifle, would instantly transport me back to a sort of home.
When Halo: Reach came out in 2010, I’d left the military, but I still lived in a war zone most of the time – in those days, working as a video journalist. Suffice to say, circumstances were grim enough that I missed a launch-day playthrough for the first time. So, when Reach finally came out this week on PC, there was a sense of unfinished business to it. With no split-screen mode, Nate couldn’t join me for our usual co-op run. So I treated him to about five hundred overnight WhatsApp messages instead, narrating my progress through the game, and my dawning – perhaps biased – realisation that it’s the best of the lot. Waking up, and perhaps desperate for a way to give me an outlet beyond his inbox, he asked me to write this piece. As such, here’s five reasons why Halo: Reach is the best of all the Halos.
1. It’s Halo, but on PC again!
For the first time since Halo 2 Vista in 2007, Halo is finally back on PC! Of course, this means lots of little improvements – you now have the ability to adjust field of view, for example, which is well worth doing if you like to look at the pretty guns. And you can play on enhanced settings with mouse and keyboard. I must admit to gravitating back to a controller, though – it just felt right for Halo, and I was still able to hold my own in multiplayer.
But it’s not just the game that’s back – it’s the players. And there’s loads of them. While the initial peak of 160,000-odd simultaneous players probably won’t be sustained, there’s still going to be a lot of people to play PC Halo with for a good long while. Many of those people will be PC-only gamers, potentially coming to the series for the first time in ages. But others will be familiar faces, drawn back after the slow exodus that depleted the Master Chief Collection playerbase on Xbox. And some of them will be from way back. At 7pm on launch night, a dear friend from the good old days of relentless Blood Gulch LAN parties texted me out of the blue – “Downloading Reach! When are you online?!” Seven years of cordially drifting apart under the encumbrance of adulthood melted away in a heartbeat. We’ve had several fights already.
I do miss the spectacle of a physical launch, though. Or do I? My brother and I walked five miles to a shopping centre for the 6am launch of Halo 2, only to find our the outlet closed. We loitered on our own until 9am, before meekly walking in and doing all we could to look like casual passers-by, despite the fact the staff had seen us hanging around outside the window for hours. Yeah, actually, physical launches were rubbish.
Anyway. Reach is merely the opening shot of a barrage: we have the first four Halos, (and ODST I suppose, bless it) dropping in 2020, with Halo Infinite lurking at the end of the year like a space gorilla with a gravity hammer. But honestly, by launching Reach first, it’s like they’ve served dessert at the start of the meal.
2. It’s Halo… without a Halo
It’s hard to keep a good story running, and Halo is just one of many series looking a wee bit weary in 2019. There are only so many superweapons, alien rings, and big green men in thick ol’ plot armour you can take before you disengage. Don’t get me wrong, I love Big John Halo as much as the next unggoy, but let’s be honest – it’s nice to have a break from him and his colossal exploits. Huge, universe-scale threats can get pretty tiresome after all (Halo 5, I’m looking at you, mate), so the smaller scale of Reach – which still involves a massive alien armada glassing a whole planet, mind, because this is a Halo game – is a genuine relief.
And much like Rogue One, that other recent attempt to squeeze more juice from a franchise by telling a new story that ends right on the opening scene of the original, it’s refreshingly sombre in tone. The game’s tagline, “From the beginning, you know the end”, says it all. The opening cutscene dwells on a Spartan helmet lying in the dust, with a hole burnt clean through the visor. The clip cuts, and you see the same helmet – shiny and pristine – in the hands of a new Spartan. Yep: that’s your helmet, and it’s still going to end up with that hole in it. This ain’t just a prequel – it’s a bleaquel.
There’s some other welcome absences, too. There’s no Cortana shouting increasingly erratic things at you, no Flood exploding at your feet and catapulting your corpse into the ceiling, and none of Halo 4 and 5’s Promethean enemies. Their garish orange weaponry, and irritating robot dogs, shall not be missed by me. No, Reach is just a good old slog against the Covenant who – as any Halo player will tell you – are the real standout villains of the franchise. Seeing them wreak havoc on the civilians of Reach is enough to motivate any player to bring the hurt, without a single mysterious superweapon in sight.
3. It’s still got all the best bits from the series
Very few babies, it turns out, have been thrown out with all this bathwater. Reach still does everything you expect a Halo game to do. There are epic set piece battles, varied levels, and surprisingly tight moments of sci-fi worldbuilding. There are all your favourite weapons (and a few more), buttery smooth controls, and frantic-but-not-infuriating multiplayer. But to be honest, I only really want to talk about forklift trucks.
One of the biggest attractions of the Halo franchise to me are the little touches that help make its world feel so homely. So many modern shooters (admittedly much prettier ones than nine year-old Reach) are like theme park rides – scripted and optimised to High Charity and back – with very little nuance or engagement for players that like to try and do things differently. I love that Halo games will scatter vehicles around, but then not care what you do with them. “Meh,” they seem to say, “use them or don’t. In fact, feel free to break our level design by using them for way longer than intended – it’s all good, fam.”
Reach goes hard on this philosophy from the opening level, with the inclusion of FORKLIFT TRUCKS. There’s no real point to them! They just exist, and you can drive them! Bungie could have easily locked them off from player usage, but they didn’t. Want to board one and charge down the Covenant forces like some sort of geriatric King Theoden, gently issuing forth from the gates of Helm’s Deep? Sure you can, just don’t expect to live long! I tried to flatten plenty of grunts with a forklift truck on legendary difficulty, and only succeeded in nudging them about a meter before they boiled me in plasma. They are vehicles for fools. But the fact I’m allowed to potter around in them if I want to, rather than being forced to ride a whizz-bang rollercoaster, gives me an absurd amount of joy.
There are other little touches, too. Being able to toggle Night Vision on and off whenever I please is wonderful. 2019’s Modern Warfare does not do this, and nor did Halo 5 (which had a sort of… auto torch?). Just like the freedom to drive pathetic utility vehicles, I want to be able to mess about with my Spartan suit, dammit! Reach lets me, and it genuinely helps immerse me in my role as a beefed up fight lord.
4. There are space ostriches
I suppose if you don’t care about ostriches, you can skip it and head to point five. But then, what sort of monster doesn’t care about ostriches?
The Halo series has always boasted some pretty cool flora, but not much fauna. Many of the levels over the years haven’t had even a tenth as much natural life as one might expect to find in alien jungles and plains. I understand why Bungie took this approach, as it’s not exactly a series about birdwatching, but I was well happy to see some space ostriches capering around the opening level of Reach.
They were big and clueless, and I immediately fell in love with them. Checkpoints and goals forgotten, I made it my mission to keep them alive. They didn’t ask for this Covenant invasion of their planet, did they?
It took a while to find my rhythm as a Bird Protector, but soon I had eased into the old Halo gunplay, and was motoring along on legendary difficulty without so much as a drop of ostrich blood spilt on Reach’s fair soil. But then I saw it: the bravest space ostrich I’d ever laid eyes on, standing resolutely in the crossfire of a particularly vicious exchange between Covenant forces, some UNSC Marines, and my fellow Noble team Spartans. I named him Errol.
I was aghast. Errol should have been fleeing in terror! But with green plasma bolts whistling past his head, he just stood there, bellowing at all aggressors, but refusing to move a muscle. His mates had run off, too. Errol was alone, and I knew I had to do something. I carefully chose my shots. All the Marines died because I took so long to whittle down the Covenant soldiers threatening Errol. In previous years, such a loss of human life would have been enough to restart the checkpoint – I always wanted to keep those wonderfully inept Marines alive. But not this time: the mission was a man and the man was an ostrich.
One by one the grunts fell, but I was running out of ammo. One particularly challenging Elite kept ducking behind a rock. He was shooting very close to Errol, and I knew that time was running short for my feathered friend. Recklessly, I decided to stick the elite with a plasma grenade. I’d always fancied myself as something of a Halo Tom Brady – the Lord Quarterback of Plasma Grenades – and I was confident I could loop the grenade over Errol and land it on the Elite’s head.
As the grenade left my hand, I knew I had made an awful mistake. My throwing skills were… rusty. I wish I could say it was the vicious torrent of plasma fire which caused me to duck behind a rock then, but truly, it was the shame of seeing my pr0 thr0w gracefully arc toward Errol’s neck. There was an incandescent blue flash and a bang. All fell silent. The Elite had somehow ended up in the blast. Blue text appeared on my screen, cementing my mistake forever with the words ‘Checkpoint… done’. I have since replayed the level, but the ostriches always just leg it. None of them stay and get shouty. None of them are Errol.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
5. The epilogue is the best ending to any game ever
Spoilers from now until the end of the article, I’m afraid. I can think of plenty more explosive endings than that of Reach. The sweeping orchestral theme of the original Halo, as you drive your warthog out of the exploding
Death St spaceship, is hard to beat. But Reach’s finale is haunting. Alone, stranded, and surrounded, you only have one objective: survive. And this turns out to be the one thing, out of all the myriad tasks encountered across all the Halo games, that you simply cannot do.
Wave upon wave of merciless foes hunt you. You fight hard, but it’s not enough. Your helmet begins to crack. You can almost feel the weariness of your Spartan as they struggle for breath – shooting, punching, doing anything to stay alive. And then it happens. The helmet comes off, and death comes soon after. You did well, but in the end, it was not enough. It could never have been enough. It’s a type of heroism that’s all too real in the world around. In all walks of life, there are people suffering, doing all they can to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and refusing to quit however grim things get. It’s a heroism that’s very rarely represented in games, however, where the expectation is always that the player deserves to win.
I’ve thought of Reach’s ending a lot over the last nine years, far more than that of any other game I’ve ever played. I’ve often asked myself what I would have done in that situation – would I have kept going until I couldn’t any more? Or would I have curled up in a ball and prayed for it all to be over quickly? It’s a thought that’s come in handy more than once, given what’s happened in the years since.
At the heart of it, this is why Halo: Reach is so special to me. Yes, playing with friends has created some extraordinary memories, and I really, really love the ostriches. But while PC games are perfectly able to provoke thought and ask difficult questions (just look at every other article on the site), the very last place you expect it to happen is in a blockbuster sci-fi shooter, about a cool guy killing aliens.