From Visegrad With Love
More so than any other Halo campaign, Reach is a bundle of extremes and contradictions. The scope of Reach’s story is vast, but the battlefields are small. Noble Six’s abilities are scaled down from those of the Master Chief’s, but he is then given vastly superior weapons and equipment. A meticulously balanced weapon sandbox is undercut by a handful of very poor design choices. Reach’s missions are bursting with homages to the first Halo game, while simultaneously including sequences diametrically opposed to its design principles. And while Reach is the most artistically accomplished Halo title to date, many core aspects of the game feature a surprising lack of polish.
It all adds up to a tough package to evaluate. Reviewing a game as complex as Reach in depth, and giving every aspect its due is beyond the scope of this effort. In order to dive deep into some key aspects of the game, we’re going to narrow the focus down to two overarching aspects of Reach’s Campaign: the gameplay design, and the missions in which that gameplay is set. We’ll largely eschew the story — which itself deserves a deeper look — except when the narrative context shapes mission design. We’ll begin with the mix of weapons, enemies, capabilities and vehicles that form the combat sandbox, and then turn to the mission and encounter designs themselves, and see how well the two mesh.
Bungie gradually scaled up the Master Chief’s abilities as the Halo trilogy progressed, to the point where he was leaping into, over and otherwise plowing through Brute packs in the final chapter, single-handedly taking on larger and larger enemy encounters. With ODST and Reach, the characters were brought down to earth, literally. The Spartan IIIs of Noble Team are the lesser of their Spartan II brethren in in Halo canon, which is reflected in Noble Six’s base traits. In Reach, we leap a little lower, walk a little slower and feature shields that recharge more gradually. These base abilities fall about midway between the Chief and the Rookie from ODST.
A deceptively simple key to Halo’s success is the way the games are fun to play before we even do any fighting. Many of the most memorable moments in the series don’t involve any combat at all: leaping and climbing through the expanses of a beautiful, alien environment or drifting about in a Warthog over rolling hills and icy fields. Jumps are joyfully long and floaty. Grenade mechanics are tuned so we can place a satisfying explosion exactly where we want to, while the weapons have heft and impact. Halo has never been a fast game, but Bungie tuned the Chief to be agile, responsive and fun to control.
While much of this feel is retained, there is an unwelcome heaviness to the Spartan IIIs in Reach. The jumps aren’t just lower, they’re less floaty, as gravity pulls us down faster than before. Beyond not being as fun to leap around, it makes us less functional because the environments are more difficult to maneuver through. Strafing reveals significant player inertia, a first in the series, which prevents quick changes in direction. It makes Noble Six feel heftier and more solid than the Chief, but also less agile. Avoiding a plasma grenade is much harder when we can’t change directions quickly or leap as far or as fast, melee combat is clunkier and the lower jump height limits our maneuvering options. The reduced movement speed is not an issue in isolation, but when combined with the inertia and lower jumping abilities, it makes CQC more dangerous. It adds motivation to be more selective in CQC scenarios, generally pushing combat distances out further, because to close ranks is to take greater risk.
Beyond base traits, Reach has added a layer of nuance to many player actions that impact our abilities. While primarily tuned for multiplayer, they do have a marginal impact on Campaign.
Bringing back fall damage and health packs are two examples. Few leaps in the missions cannot be survived by crouching to offset the fall damage, at a cost of a momentary stun, while health packs are frequent enough to warrant only the occasional backtracking to seek one out. The effect of both is a moderation in the pace at which we advance through the levels. The bloom mechanic added to precision weapons was tuned for Multiplayer, to differentiate players who have mastered ideal firing cadences from those who have not. But without other players returning fire, there is both less pressure to fire faster than is ideal and less consequence for doing so. As such, bloom is largely a non-factor in Campaign play.
Among the gameplay updates in Reach, Armor Abilities have the largest impact to the Campaign. While a few of them enable us to tinker around the edges of how encounters play out, such as armor locking to avoid the odd Wraith mortar, most do not facilitate radically different combat tactics compared to equipment in Halo 3. From the outset, they, like reticule bloom, seem to have been designed with changing up Multiplayer in mind. Sprint and jetpack are another story entirely — one we’ll tell shortly in order to put them in a proper context.
Halo’s armory had accumulated as the trilogy progressed, to the point where it was bulging at the seams in Halo 3. There was an elegance to the minimal overlap among weapons in the first Halo title. Each UNSC weapon filled a distinct, instantly recognizable role: the shotgun, the sniper rifle, the machine gun and so on. The few Covenant weapons were all appropriately alien in design and held unique properties, such as the Needler’s graceful pink shards of explosive death. Then Halo 2’s split narrative brought parallel weapon designs, introducing Covenant analogues to UNSC weapons so that the Arbiter could have a similar arsenal as the Master Chief. This led to weapons such as the Carbine and Beam Rifle, overlapping with the Battle Rifle and Sniper Rifle, respectively. Halo 3 continued the weapon accumulation, and the end result was a vast array of guns that had become duplicative, the distinctions between the Spiker, SMG, Assault Rifle and Plasma Rifle matters of nuance.
With Reach, Bungie has taken the opportunity to reset the weapon sandbox. They did this in three ways, all toward the goal of making each weapon fill a more clearly defined role. First, they pared back redundant weapons by removing the SMG, Mauler and the grenades added in Halo 3, among others. New weapons were slotted in, each with distinctive properties, such as the Plasma Launcher. Finally, and most importantly, many weapons have been re-imagined to take on more distinct roles. Because the Covenant need to be able to engage us from the same ranges we engage them, the total elimination of duplication is impossible. Bungie tackled duplication by infusing the Covie-flavored UNSC equivalents with unique properties. This led to the Carbine gaining the Needler’ supercombine effect, and the Beam Rifle blending with the Sentinel Beam’s steadily damaging beam to become the Focus Rifle.
This last change also had the effect of making Covenant snipers fairer to the player by preventing instant-kill headshots from out of nowhere, a problem that plagued Halo 2 and to a lesser degree Halo 3. A key tenant of Halo campaign design has been to provide Covenant weapons with a travel time, which allows us to dodge incoming fire. The Beam Rifle violated that, and while the Focus Rifle has an instant travel time, the extended kill time compensates.
Weapons that didn’t morph into new ones were refined to become more useful. Of note, the Plasma Pistol, Spiker, Assault Rifle, Magnum and Plasma Rifle all got significant overhauls, making each more capable as standalone weapons than past outings. The Plasma Pistol now packs a punch it hasn’t had since the first Halo, and it’s useful for more than simply stripping Elite’s shields and overcharging vehicles. The net effect is to make more weapons viable in more situations.
One weapon that doesn’t quite fit in is the Magnum. Designed as an alternate starting weapon and close-range counter to the DMR in Multiplayer, its lesser range, capacity and accuracy mean it struggles to find a role once a rifle is introduced to a Campaign mission. The Magnum is only deployed in a handful of mission starts when the designers want to limit our engagement range (or as a side arm to compliment the Sniper Rifle in Nightfall), but in most cases a DMR is deployed shortly thereafter anyways, rendering it redundant. And even if we wanted to stick with it, spare ammo is not provided once the DMR or Needle Rifle is introduced.
Despite the Magnum’s redundancy, Reach features an array of weapons almost as large as Halo 3’s, with each tool nearly as distinct as the sparse Halo: CE set. It is the most diverse and useful weapon sandbox in the series, which is a formidable accomplishment.
Just as importantly, the weapons are not just useful but also fun to use. Halo 1’s Assault Rifle was enjoyable to use even in battles where it was wildly inappropriate, thanks to the powerful feedback it provided. That deep throated rumble, the flaring muzzle and the sheer volume of bullets spat made it a satisfying and visceral weapon to use. With Reach, nearly all of the weapons feel as good. The sound design is harder edged and has more impact than before, and each weapon has unique audio signatures. The crack of the DMR is powerful; the whizzing needles of the Needle Rifle instantly recognizable. Weapon animations are detailed and diverse, with alternate priming and reloading sequences to add visual variety. It’s important to stress how good the gunplay is and how much enjoyment is found within it, because when good gunplay is transported into poor or repetitive mission designs, the missions can still be fun by virtue of the core game mechanics (see: The Library). When the combat is fun, we can focus on the moment-to-moment gameplay, which trumps all else.
However, not all is perfect in the weapon arsenal.
The new go-to weapon, the Designated Marksman Rifle, is distinguished from the Battle Rifle it replaces by its increased effective range and precision. While satisfying to use, it ultimately has a highly detrimental impact on the quality of the Campaign, pushing out encounter distances to the point where much of the rest of the sandbox becomes excluded. The impact is significant enough that we’ll revisit it in detail when we turn to looking at the designs of the missions.
The “golden tripod” of Halo’s combat mechanics are well-established — guns, grenades, melee — but there is an additional principle underlying it all: clarity. Every weapon effect and UI element has been crafted to make the action easy to see and understand. Overwhelming our senses for the sake of creating a stylistic effect has never been a part of Halo. Directional damage indicators point us to where enemy fire is coming from, while keeping the screen clear, not obliterating it in raspberry jam. When a weapon is scoped, the screen is not filled with the ghastly, vision-occluding iron sights. Quite the opposite: The screen is simplified to show a clean view of the battlefield. Even the foliage height and density is tuned to make sure we can always find dropped weapons and grenades.
Some weapon effects in Reach are so amped up, they violate the principle of combat clarity. Grenades, which now blow out the game audio when they explode near us, take away a critical aspect of our senses. The effect adds to the chaos at great expense, as incoming grenades and fire go undetected for a few, often costly, moments. It’s an entirely unwelcome addition to Halo.
While most weapons in Reach received a welcome boost in their visual and audio effects, two have been juiced up to the point where they make it hard to tell what’s happening when they enter the fray. The Fuel Rod Gun lets off a world-ending cacophony of chaos when fired anywhere near the player, with screen-consuming lighting, sound dampening explosions, thick smoke and a screen-shaking effect. It gets to the point where an FRG round impact signals that someone, somewhere, has an FRG, and we’re probably going to die soon because we can’t tell where the heck the fire is coming from. Even when using the FRG, the explosions are so large and dense it’s hard to tell whether they were on target; it’s not uncommon to fire off a volley only to find a plasma grenade attached to our face when the smoke clears. The Concussion Rifle’s effects are similarly over the top, but the damage is oddly inconsistent; it’s a devastating weapon when used by the Covenant, with a stun effect that often prevents us from avoiding follow-up rounds, leading to cheap deaths. But using it against the Covenant just sort of knocks them around a bit.
These weapons are missteps, but they don’t offset the newly revamped weapon arsenal, which is as diverse and high-impact as any in the series. Overall, Reach’s gunplay is superb, which is a good thing because there are a lot of problems it needs to — and largely does — compensate for.