I got the weirdest feeling while playing a finished version of Halo: Reach this week. I felt a little bit of regret. Regret, because I–and probably a lot of gamers–have been taking Bungie’s excellent work on the series for granted. And now that the original Halo designers and the universe they worked on are about to part ways, there’s an undercurrent of sadness as Reach gets ready to lift off the runway.
But I wasn’t too sad, because Bungie’s going out with a bang. I got the chance to play through the first five or six levels of Bungie’s farewell to the Spartans and the Covenant. I can only talk about two of those levels, though, or black vans with Seattle license plates will abduct me to parts unknown.
(More on Techland: Halo: Reach Comes Alive with New “Deliver Hope” Trailer)
Reach feels deep in a way that previous Halo games haven’t. There’s a reason they named this one after a planet. From the very first opening cutscenes, the game resonates with a sense of place that even the levels based on Earth in Halo 3 didn’t have. Reach isn’t overbuilt like other planets we’ve visited in the Halo-verse; it’s got vast expanses of emptiness and a lot of the time playing is spent covering distance and soaking up the vistas that the developers have built. At first, you’re not even sure that Covenant are on Reach and even when you start fighting against them, you have no idea why they’re focusing their attentions on the planet.
The other thing that hits you right away is how much more humanized the Spartans of Noble Team are. As I covered before, players will be controlling Noble Six, a new member of the elite unit. When you meet the other members of Noble Team, you find they all have names and they refer to each other by name, not just callsign. Kat, Emile, Neil Jorge and their leader Carter have their own relationships with each other and you can tell that they’ve all been working with each other a long time. It’s a little odd, then, that they never address your character by name. Granted you’re the new guy on the team, but it still feels weird.
In terms of world-building, Reach pulls back the curtain on the human experience inside the Halo-verse more than any other game in the series. Yes, the architecture of the universe is plenty delineated in the various novels, comics and animation spin-offs but the main experience of Halo is still in the games. There’s been precious little insight about how the politics of space exploration and colonization play out in Halo‘s futuristic vision but Reach offers up some of that. You meet other humans on Reach that represent militia movements and rebels who aren’t necessarily in line the governing authority. It’s not a huge plot point but it’s there and hints that humanity’s not just one monolithic happy family in the future. The idea that there’s a political back drop filled with fractious strata of people in the Halo-verse gives it a texture that the previous games lacked.