Halo: Reach Campaign Preview
It seems that most of the conversations I've heard throughout the industry in regards to Halo: Reach essentially boils down to a single phrase: "It's a Halo game."
If we're going to focus solely on the controls and the universe the game takes place in then I suppose "It's a Halo game" works as summary of what Reach is. But, it seems, the phrase only exists in place of actually saying, "It's the same thing as always and hordes of people will probably buy it."
We've heard a lot of that in the past describing experiences Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, the final game in the series from developer Bungie, has been labeled the same way.
But, isn't the idea that Bungie is trying to do something other than a "typical" Halo game? At least, isn't that the promise? After having a slice of the first level in Halo: Reach demoed to me at Microsoft's X10 event in Toronto, the only thing I could think of was, "This looks like the Halo game Bungie always wanted to make."
Halo: Reach is, for good reason, a much darker game than we've seen from the franchise in the past. The entire event of Reach, as spoiled in the novel The Fall of Reach, is to tell the story of the destruction of a planet (guess what it's called) and the death of the Spartan soldiers -- save for one.
Long before a title card appears during the game's start, we catch a glimpse of the planet destroyed. This is a vision of what is to come. Cutting closer from the orbital view toward the planet we can see the land swollen and smoldering from intense battle. The game concludes this harrowing reveal with another: The crushed helmet of a super-powered Spartan soldier sitting on a deserted battlefield. This is Reach and the helmet is your own.
It's fair to assume that the majority of the people reading this preview are those who are familiar with the back story of Reach. With that in mind, my concern for the Halo: Reach narrative is based on whether I'll care about the characters involved. Why put so much faith or stock in their actions if, in the end, we all know they don't walk away from the end battle?
"For us, we compare it to Titanic [the movie]," Halo: Reach producer Joseph Tung told me during the demo. "Everyone knows the ship sinks but you don't know the story before that."
When the first level begins we see the playable character, Noble Six, en route to his new squad of Spartan soldiers. Having just lost a team member, Noble is expecting you to quickly fill in for their fallen comrade. "I read your file, Lieutenant. Even the parts Oni censored," the Noble Commander tells you as you board a propeller-style Hornet aircraft. "I'm glad to have your skill-set but that lone-wolf stuff stays behind. We work as a team."
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The scene, which is essentially the same as a trailer released early on by Bungie save for a few tweaks to characters and dialog, appears to serve two purposes. The Commander is reminding Noble Six that he has a squad of allies at his side during battle while, at the same time, Bungie is telling players that tactics from previous Spartan-starring affairs just won't cut it this time around.
In the beginning, Noble team is sent to investigate a number of relays that have mysteriously gone offline. Tactical command believe that local insurgents are the culprits and sent Noble to clean up the situation. As the team approaches the city of Viseguard from the air, they spot a distress beacon a few clicks south of its location; however, the area is silent and devoid of life.
Investigation only yields pools of blood and something else. "Could be plasma," Emile, the Spartan with the etched skull on his helmet, barks to the team. You'll soon learn he's right.
As the team continues to sweep the area, a horde of ostrich-like animals emerge and race past the super-powered soldiers. The appearance of wildlife is immediately reminiscent of a feature that was first revealed for the original Halo. In the E3 2000 video of Halo's original vision, there is a moment where soldiers come across a group of strange, stampeding alien wildlife. According to Tung, additions like this were made to make Reach feel like a real, lived in place.
Another addition that pulls this off? Civilians. Kat, the bionic-armed Spartan seen in trailers, spots heat signatures coming from a house outside the city. Approaching it reveals a handful of farmers, one of which claims lost their son to "something" in the fields. It's these additions that were once planned for the original game that gives me the feeling that this really is the game Bungie always wanted to make but timing forced them to leave the ideas behind.
As the team races to the Viseguard relay they spot glimpses of something inhuman crawling around rocks surrounding the city. Approaching the city we catch our first glimpse of the actual threat. It isn't insurgents. It's the Covenant and they've landed on Reach.
Anything else I can describe to you would only serve to spoil the experience. But for those craving a few additional details: In this first section of the level, the team comes face-to-face with a number of enemies ranging from Jackals to Grunts. Thankfully, adding to the more mature tone of the game, they do not squeal like schoolchildren in broken English accents. Later, the team must contend with a handful of silver-armored Elites who cleverly evade the team's attack.
Soon afterward, Noble team liberates a civilian vehicle. The Warthog-shaped ride allows Jorge, a heavily armored Noble team member, to attach his heavy-gun to its roof, using it to mow down adversaries as Noble Six drives. Here, which appears to be a specific nod to the E3 2000 Halo video, the ostrich-like creatures from earlier run alongside your speeding vehicle. Along the way, Covenant drop new foes for your to face-off against from Halo: CE-style alien drop ships.
Halo's campaign has always been the primary draw for me. I grow bored of online multiplayer quite quickly. What I've seen is only a small sliver of a larger experience but that "vertical slice" has shown to be more dark, mature and vastly more detailed than previous games in the series.
My point in the beginning of this article was to outline what I don't want from Halo: Reach. I don't want to put the controller down at the end of the experience (which Tung calls as long, if not longer than Halo 3) and feel like I've wasted my time. Halo 2 did that already.
We already know Halo: Reach controls and feels, thanks to the beta. It's how the story unfolds that interests me at the moment. Will it be a love letter from Bungie to the series that helped shape it as a studio and Xbox as a brand or a quickly scrawled "Dear John" before Bungie rushes off to have a love affair with Activision? I can't answer that yet but, from what I've seen, I'm optimistic and excited for the campaign experience of Halo: Reach.
Halo: Reach launches on September 14, exclusively for the Xbox 360.