Six and the rest of Noble Team fly towards the silent relay station. In the cinematic dialogue, Carter continues to cement himself as the no-nonsense leader with a sardonic sense of humor. Kat is the communications expert who reports that their line with command is unexpectedly cut. Noble Team is left on its own, a fact that Emile seems to relish–command’s chain on his behavior seems too tight for his liking.
The audio that plays during the cinematic is actually the repurposed music from the VGA trailer–percussive beats and low brass set a serious tone for the mission and much of Reach‘s sonic landscape, although O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori and assistant Stan LePard integrate more classic Halo sounds later on in the game in new combinations.
After the initial cutscene, players are given a short period to choose their look inversion on lower difficulties. In the distance looms the relay–a visible indicator of your ultimate goal and a mechanic used in many Halo missions past (“Sacred Icon/Quarantine Zone”). It will be a bit of a hike to get there, though.
A major improvement of Reach‘s engine over Halo 3‘s is the massive draw distance that is on clear display in the opening shots and throughout the mission–situated right on the edge of sheer cliff faces, you have an unobstructed view of much of the territory. Bungie’s art team put a lot of effort into their skyboxes (though the term ‘skybox’ might be insulting to their work), and every mission without fault gives you an opportunity to enjoy the vista–it makes me wonder if Reach’s cliffside terrain was at least partly influenced by the desire to show how vast the world of Reach looks.
Carter has the pilots drop most of Noble Team on a bluff while Jorge and Jun stay in the skies. For the first time, players put their boots down on the world of Reach.
Bungie developed a few core ecosystems for Reach, and this wild, temperate pioneer landscape is the first one–far different than the more alien worlds Halo players are used to, but also similar in some respects. The spindly, gnarled trees remind me greatly of some of the flora from the Halo installations–familiar, but not quite like Earth. En route to the distress beacon nearby players step down terraced farmland that leads to concrete and metal kivas, round structures with rooms for living and craftmaking.
On Legendary, sharp-eyed players can spot a Spec-Ops Elite running from the scene.
Kill the Elite and he drops the game’s first datapad, part of an alternative narrative that players are free to discover or ignore during the campaign proper. The rest of Noble Team doesn’t comment on the presence of the Elite, which is a shame–it would have been a nice touch for the player’s quick action in taking down the enemy to accelerate the narrative slightly.
Part of Reach‘s approach to storytelling includes “vignettes”–short scripted moments that are dynamically affected by the player. If the player approaches the Trooper beacon, Emile investigates and Noble Team comments on the lack of explosives residue. The team knows something is wrong…
Instead of investigating the beacon, players can push on past the wrecked vehicle and the game will truncate its dialogue. Speedrunning players can skip the chatter, but players who prefer to take a more leisurely pace to the game are rewarded with additional character beats.
After investigating the beacon, Carter orders players to circle around the structure and enter the house. Along this path players encounter the moa, Reach native fauna that take a lot of inspiration from prehistoric Earth namesakes. These ones won’t be eating miniature horses anytime soon, however; a quick Spartan punch is enough to put them down for good.
For all Carter’s talk about keeping a low profile, he doesn’t seem to mind the random animal killings. Sadly, Bungie’s plan to make the creatures rideable for PvP energy sword jousts never materialized in the final game–but the moas remained, unlike the cherished and MIA Blind Wolf of Combat Evolved.
In the courtyard, Noble Team gathers around a building with heat signatures–civilians, making one of only two appearances in the game. If you shoot and kill the civilians while they are being interrogated, it results in your own instant death.
A nice touch is that these civvies don’t speak English–Jorge has to translate their Hungarian for the rest of the team. In a way, it’s a method of reinforcing that Reach is an alien world, as well as providing some hints at the planet’s backstory–these people were the first to settle the planet. It also adds a character moment for Jorge, although curiously he seems to be embellishing the stories; the civilians’ responses are much shorter than Jorge’s translations. The curious yet fearful posture of the families is an unsettling feeling–as players we’re used to being adulated by NPCs.
Jun spots heat signatures in a structure to the East, so the game prods you to sprint with your team towards the structure, replete with a percussive music backing. The lack of early combat in “Winter Contingency” gives players a moment to really enjoy some of the more overlooked aspects of Reach’s engine, including improved collision sounds (running through bushes produces noise, while rain turns to pitter-patter off the metal rooves). The next room buzzes with flies–two of the missing troopers are strung up, and bloodstained footprints litter the floor.
Proceeding through the shed towards the barn, an enemy dot appears on your motion tracker. With a cooperative player, it’s possible to climb unto the roof and see the generator of the motion blip–a tiny Skirmisher that launches itself across the roof and silos. If you look up quickly enough when passing into the courtyard, you can see it dart by.
The phantom blips on the motion trackers reminds me of the Flood tagged as friendlies lurking in the swamps from “343 Guilty Spark”–suggesting movement where the player can’t see much of anything is a good way to ramp up the tension.
As the player enters the next structure and approaches a set of windows (duplicated in the Firefight map “Overlook”), players can look to their left and see the threat–Covenant Grunts and Skirmishers. One Skirmisher on the left stands up and give some sort of call–a quick headshot will silence him.
This is your first real chance to test out the M6G, and in practice it serves as an interesting compromise between the M6D and the infamous magnum from Halo 2–its scope and headshot capability make it lethal in the hand of a steady marksman, but its shallow clip and limited zoom mean it’s better used as a sidearm when other mid to long-range options abound. These include the new Covenant Needle Rifle, which takes the fun of using a Needler and makes it accurate and headshot capable. You can continue picking off enemies from up top, or follow Carter’s direction and head to the stairs, picking up grenades to clear out the basement. It’s interesting that Bungie chose to introduce you to the newest addition to the Covenant first, and the Skirmishers’ first impressions are memorable–they quickly distinguish themselves from Jackals by making great leaps from structure to structure and sprinting across open terrain, making them surprisingly hard to hit and tougher than you expect.
Bungie intended to make Reach’s encounters more open [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aOb6Nn8egA], and this first one is an example–there are multiple paths out of the structure to take on enemies on the slopes down to the river, and you can even skip past many of them by hugging the right and crossing the sluice gate. In fact, most of the combat in this mission can be avoided altogether.
Also present to drop off more Grunts and Skirmishers are the Spirit dropships from Combat Evolved, affectionately known as “tuning forks” for their shape. The sole troop transport seen in the first game, they now fly alongside Phantoms–the only time where the Covenant are seen to use both simultaneously, aside from the Halo Graphic Novel story “Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor”. These Spirits sport a troublesome concussion rifle instead of Combat Evolved‘s relatively wimpy three-shot plasma weapon.
One element players may forget is that there’s also a small aerial skirmish raging–but the Covenant Banshees are no match for the might of the Falcons in the air.
It’s entirely possible to be damaged or even killed by falling shrapnel if you don’t keep one eye to the sky.
Proceeding down the valley to the stream and across the bridge, players can choose to avoid the group of enemies by staying to the extreme left or right, or plow through them. The rocks here, seldom used in Firefight, provide a mini-game of hide-and-seek. The brief pauses also give you time to appreciate the continuing wonders of the game’s environments, particularly the incredible misty waterfalls and streams. Much like the first playable mission in Halo 3, “Sierra 117”, “Winter Contingency” aims to make players stop and consider the beauty of the game world.
Jorge’s exchanges suggest his appreciation for the planet and its occupants–he was hesitant to see plasma damage before because of the dark conclusions he would be forced to draw. Now, however, the threat has become much more real. Emile, for his part, takes it in stride with a little less tact than could be hoped for, while Carter is all business.
The clearing loops around to a small space with a shed where players get their first taste of more substantial enemies–Covenant Elites.
While some enemies, such as the Jackals and Hunters, received light updates, the Covenant Grunts and especially the Elites received a substantial cosmetic change. Rather than pure color denoting rank and toughness, the different classes of Elites have different armor–the traditional color system of Blue-Red-Gold is replaced with multicolored gold and red for Majors, maroon for Zealots, and gold for Generals, while Ultras and Minors remain white and blue. In keeping with Bungie’s intent to make the Covenant more threatening, the Covenant no longer speak in English but rather their own rasping tongues. The Elites have picked up a few new tricks since their sabbatical as enemies in Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST; of particular annoyance is their tendency to kick you for a one-hit-kill melee. At least one of the Elites in this area will be wielding the handheld version of the Concussion Rifle, a new addition to the arsenal that in practice tends to be much more effective against you than against the enemies you might turn it towards. Sneaky players can avoid the entire battle by running along the far side of the fence, hugging the cliff, with nary a scratch.
The next portion of the game is heavily reminiscent of the “Reunion Tour” chapter of “Halo”, as well as the freedom of the beach in “The Silent Cartographer”; the world opens up and you can explore it at will behind the wheel of a civilian truck.
There is plenty of fun to be had in Moa splattering with a side of crushed Skirmisher. Crossing the bridge and investigating a set of structures to the left will net you some light combat and another datapad.
There’s a lot to do just exploring this region; especially on lower difficulty levels, your resistance amounts to a stray Skirmisher here and there, so there aren’t many obstacles. Here the design really excels in making Reach feel lived in; there’s a sense of history in many of the objects, like the blue public works water containers (previously seen on Earth in Halo 3 and ODST), the hay bales, and the scattered and seemingly neglected sheds and structures–some with eroded walls and dirt seeping in through cracks in the ceiling or walls. Players can also spy feeding troughs for livestock and horse-like droppings, indicating either a transplanted species or a domesticated native to Reach’s highlands that is never seen. The atmosphere of neglect hints that the inhabitants of Visegrad have fallen on hard times recently–something made explicit in the “Remember Reach” live-action shorts.
Also worth noting are the posters scattered throughout the territory and several levels. Distinctly similar in style to the works of Lester Beall and other Works Progress Administration posters from 1930s America, Reach’s signage has a distinctly graphic and art deco feel. Most feature no words, and their meanings are sometimes hard to decipher. You can find detailed, high-fidelity copies of many of the signs at Halo.Bungie.Org, courtesy of Stephen Loftus.
Some of the concept work for certain areas of the map are reminiscent of other popular science fiction media, such as the bunk beds in the kivas and their similarity to the beds in the Hatch of the second season of Lost. There’s also some curious pictures on some grain sacks–by my reckoning, it looks a bit like Jason Jones, but the real identity is unknown.
While it’s unclear whether the civilian truck actually handles any differently from a Warthog, it certainly feels different, with its squat body, the flatbed that Jorge uses as a gun platform, and its low horn. Considering the amount of vehicles the player operates during the game, it was nice of the mission designers to break players in on the basics in the first level (earlier than any other Halo game.)
Your route through the territory also changes the mission slightly; depending on whether you go to the left or the right after crossing the river, the distressed troopers you hear on the radio will be either by a cluster of trees by a streambed, or next to a garage by another kiva compound. Driving along the cliffside path you can often find a Gold-colored Ranger Elite–a B.O.B., referencing the human characters in Bungie’s Marathon series. These Elites can spawn from multiple locations on each levels and are hidden throughout the game’s levels.
With the option of choosing which encounter with Covenant dropships you want, I usually prefer defending the troopers by the garage. The Covenant Spirits will hover close to you, allowing grenades to be far more effective, and there is both more cover here and a narrower choke to funnel Covenant into close quarters. You can retreat into the structure to grab health if you need it, but with the presence of Noble Team they will very rarely pursue. In another example of Reach’s vignettes you can avoid getting near the troopers and Cpl. Travis will not give some lines about his situation, but then you would miss Ron Livingston (of Office Space and Band of Brothers fame) in a voice cameo.
Given that this is one of the first larger firefights you encounter in the game, it’s worth noting how your allies work. For the majority of the game you have at least one member of Noble Team fighting beside you, but it’s hard to be impressed with their combat actions. Though their shields will flare, they are indestructible, and will not turn against you if you go on a trooper killing spree. Bungie had a difficult balancing act with Noble Team; if they made your allies powerful, encounters could be too easy; make them weak, and they’ll be ineffectual. Unfortunately they erred on the side of weakness. Because Noble Team rarely have useful weapons, they tend to just pepper units rather than putting any down themselves. They also constantly armor lock and never bother dodging grenades or explosions, detracting from the excitement players may have first had upon discovering they would be fighting alongside other Spartans. In practice, Noble Team feels more impressive in open terrain rather than when forced into a defensive position.
The friendlies you encounter in the game do often feel more engaging, however, due to the improved voice of natural combat dialogue–after a firefight the troops might call out to make sure everyone is alright, and receive an affirmative response from another. If you stick close to Jorge, you might hear him swear at the Covenant that he’s going to kick them off the planet.
After fighting back a few waves of Covenant, your Falcon evac arrives and you take the scenic route to the relay. It’s fun being able to see where you’ve fought through on your way to another zone, and it allows a brief lull before throwing you back into the firefight. There is also an unfortunate bug that can cause your transport to lodge itself against the side of a rocky outcropping, unable to move until you restart from the last checkpoint.
In the courtyard, a few well-thrown grenades as soon as you’re clear of the Falcon can decimate the Jackals and Grunts clustered by the door. A rack of DMRs inside the building vestibule along with the plasma pistols, assault rifles or needlers littering the outside offer several different combat options. You can choose to fight from the doorway, although your shots will be obstructed. Fighting along the top catwalk gives you a good angle to shoot at all the enemies dropped off in Spirits, but leaves you open to cannon and Banshee fire. Hidden in one of the alcoves up here is an Armor Lock ability.
I tend to lurk in the side covered passage, chucking grenades to soften up the foes who drop right next to me and delivering headshots to distracted Jackals. If you have friends playing cooperatively, they can prevent enemies from flanking you from the left and below.
Eventually, Kat manages to open the door and exhorts you to fall back, but even on solo Legendary it’s not too hard to stay where you are and dispatch the remaining enemies. You can even take down the Banshees with concerted DMR fire–curiously, they have no pilots and as such cannot be boarded for a tour of the outside environment. Perhaps playtesters were backtracking to other parts of the level?
Inside, you are thrown into gloom once the door shuts. Luckily Reach comes with a night vision mode and serves as a demonstration that even in the future, there are absolutes: radio quality will be poor, and night vision will be grainy. Passing through the relay you come across a man sprawled across the floor in a pool of blood, triggering a cinematic.
Whereas Emile and Jun appear to have trouble relating to non-Spartans, Carter makes a point of reassuring the troopers they find instead of simply pumping them for information. When Jun suggests that they have more important things to do than tend to stranded soldiers, Carter admonishes him, saying they don’t leave men behind. Kat, meanwhile, is focused on her task of fixing the relay, and grabs a data module from Six dismissively as “not your domain”. The background materials establish that she has issues with concepts of secrecy and the term “classified”.
Jorge, on the other hand, shows himself as a much more easygoing soldier who tries to relate to the people with whom he feels a kinship. He finds a young woman hiding and tries to reassure her, realizing just before it’s too late that she had remained hidden for a good reason.
Three Elites descend with energy swords, including a Field Marshall, who blows through Noble Team towards the exit. The cinematic gives a chance to show the unity of the team; Carter knocks Kat out of the way of a potentially lethal attack while Six lays down sustained fire. Kat returns the favor by assaulting the Zealot attacking Six, and Carter kicks an Assault Rifle to Six once he gets on his feet. Using the injured trooper as a shield, the Elites retreat, and Carter sends Six and Jorge after them. A small detail that escaped my attention until I rewatched the scene is that the trooper grabs unto the door frame before he is wrenched back by an Elite–it’s slightly reminiscent of the opening Raptor attack scene in Jurassic Park as well as moments from Aliens, with the Elite’s elongated fingers wrapping ominously around the man’s head before pulling him away.
The audio is a blend of crunchy guitar reminiscent of Halo 2 (instead of Steve Vai, it’s O’Donnell himself picking the strings) and a crescendoing cacaphony of strings as Jorge closes the door and the cinematic ends.
When players regain control, they’ve been stripped of their previously-held weapons, but luckily plenty of DMR, AR and M6G ammo can be found in the room and subsequent hallways. A Zealot with a concussion rifle makes life difficult on the far end of the room, but rupturing the gas tanks lining the wall will make short work of the Grunts and Jackals standing in your way.
If you don’t kill the Zealot outright, he will retreat down the hall. Fighting through a few more Grunts and Jackals the player finds themselves in a data center not unlike the one found in the ODST level “Data Hive”, with the constantly rising and lowering stacks providing dynamic cover. The moving computers cooled by retracting into vats of liquid is a nice contrast to the rustic aesthetic seen previous in the level, and introduces players to the ONI visual style that they will encounter numerous times in the campaign. Rushing into the data center is not advised, lest you be surprised by an Elite wielding a sword, but a noob combo will put him down quickly.
Alternatively, you can grab a shotgun and health in a pit below Jorge. There is also a Drop Shield armor ability here; it combines the protective shell of the Halo 3 Bubble Shield equipment with a healing effect when inside.
There aren’t that many enemies in this area, especially if you killed the Zealot earlier. The few Grunts are easy to kill as soon as you enter the area, as they trundle out of the corner room one after another. Sadly then you won’t have many opportunities to use the power weapons you’ve obtained; after the enemies are dispatched, Carter tells you to reset a junction, triggering the closing cinematic.
While Kat tries some tech wizardry to patch Carter in with Holland, Jorge tries to console the dead scientist’s daughter, removing his helmet. A signature O’Donnell motif comes in–the piano, often used in a lullaby or love theme–such as the rendition of “Earth City” in the Halo 3 piece “Keep What You Steal”, although I think this track (the last movement of “Winter Contingency” on the Reach OST) borrows more from the pensive rendition of the Halo theme for Combat Evolved (you can still find it on Bungie’s site, or at HBO.) The motif appears frequently throughout this game, typically in instances highlighting human losses.
Jorge succeeds in making some headway with the girl, although Emile is dismissive of his attempts.
Carter breaks the two up, and lets Jorge lead Sara out of the building. It’s interesting to note that Six’s silence isn’t all surprising–he’s a new member of a team that clearly has some differing personalities. The fact that Emile refuses to remove his helmet for any part of the campaign, combined with the fearsome drawing on his helmet and his collection of war trophies, sets him as a consumate soldier who simply refuses to lower any barriers. Whereas Jorge still thinks of himself as a human, Emile has embraced the legendary otherworldliness of the Spartans that makes even their allies wary.
“God in heaven,” Sam whispered.
The Spartan was huge, easily seven feet tall. Encased in pearlescent green battle armor, the man looked like a figure from mythology–otherworldly and terrifying. The mirrored visor on his helmet made him all the more fearsome, a faceless, impassive soldier built for destruction and death.
Sam was glad that he was up here in the observation theater, rather than down on the Cryo Two main floor with the Spartan.
[The Flood, S01C01]
Carter informs Holland of their discovery–the Covenant have arrived on Reach. “May god help us all,” Holland intones. The battle for Reach has begun.