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What’s the Story?

Before the events of Halo 1, the planet Reach was attacked and destroyed by the Covenant. This is the story of a group of Spartan soldiers who try to defend the planet and all die failing to do so.

 

What’s the Problem?

The Plot

is nothing. This is a game where they decided to come up with fun scenarios to play and then made a vague effort to tie them together with a storyline. The story does not drive the action at all. It feels like something that’s been put there to get you from A to B. Consequently, you don’t care about it.

Which is a problem, if they want me to care about the people in the squad and care when they die. Which apparently they do, because they keep playing heroic music when they cark it.

You can hear the music right now, can't you?

 

We’re All Individuals!

By about Halo 3, Bungie had decided (for reasons unknown) that fighting in groups was better than fighting alone, so you usually had the Arbiter and a group of marines following you around and killing all the enemies for you. This time they’ve put a whole squad of invincible allies to fight alongside you. Which makes you – the kickarse armour-suited warrior – just one of many. It sort of kills the feeling that you are the only thing stopping the Covenant from destroying the world because there’s another five guys just as good at killing everything as you (who just happen to be immortal, since they’re needed for cutscenes later in the game).

So heroic, they can't die unless the story requires them to.

 

Sketched Characters

As with ODST, there is a squad with the usual contingent: the sniper, the heavy-hitter, the psychopath, the heroic leader, the woman, you. As with ODST, they aren’t ever developed beyond tokenism. The heroic leader looks like he’s the star quarterback; the heavy weapons guy secretly has a heart of gold; the psychopath likes sharpening a knife (seriously, that’s all I can remember of him. He has a knife. He sharpens it at one stage. That’s it).

Holy shit, Wilson from Castaway grew a torso and joined the army!

Which wouldn’t be such a problem, except that the game is all about them fighting a battle we all know they lose. They die off, one by one, so for that to have any sort of impact we need to care about them. And we don’t, because they’re not individuals, they’re cliches.

 

The Woman, Kat

Everyone on the team dies (maybe one survives; I forget. He goes off in a jet and you don’t see him again), but the way the woman dies makes no sense. See, each Spartan has a shield on their armour. They can’t die from a headshot until that shield is depleted, and the only exception to this rule is a human sniper rifle (which can kill in a single headshot).

Kat dies in a cutscene from a single headshot.

Which means, logically, that she is killed by a human, not a Covenant. That is, someone on her side, not an enemy, killed her. Friendly fire. Some stupid marine off-camera shot a super-soldier square through the noggin.

Except that doesn’t make sense, because the noise made as the shot happens is of the alien carbine. Not even a sniper rifle.

So, what, you were in the middle of a warzone and decided to turn your shields off, Kat? Serves you right, then. That's some pretty shitty soldiering.

 

Common Mistake

This is a common problem in video games: they establish a weapon, a character, or an ability (in this case, the soldiers’ shield) in-game, but completely ignore it in the cutscene. They kill off characters using methods that wouldn’t kill them in-game. Frequently characters (usually the playable one) who can take a dozen bullets in the face during play without harm but will be injured by a single shot to the leg in a cutscene.

That’s not a story problem, exactly, but it’s a problem with reality. Their world isn’t consistent and it tears you out of the moment. It feels like two stories – one you play (game) and one you watch (cutscenes). When you spend so long in a game learning what each weapon does (so you know what to use) and what your character can survive, it ruins that immersion when the game makers cheat by ignoring the very rules they spent so long establishing. That’s basically Deus Ex Machina – ignoring or changing the rules for the sake of the story (or for the sake of convenience).

 

Silent Protagonist

makes a comeback. You speak a couple of times, but it’s obviously as little as possible. At least in this game you can customise the armour so that the soldier in the cutscenes is in your armour. That’s a nice touch, designed to make you feel like you are actually in the game.

Me, but in a box.

But since he has an all-American accent, he’s not me.

I don’t expect them to do dialogue for every possible accent. Even if they did, I doubt the Australian accent would be anything like mine. That’s not the solution. The solution, I would have thought, would be to give Noble Six a personality and have us care about him as a person or have him utterly silent.

 

Language

In Halo 1, you could understand Grunts (they spoke English) but all the others – most noticeably the Elites – spoke in gibberish. In Halo 2 onward, you could understand all the aliens except the Jackals. In Reach, they make everyone – even the Grunts – speak in alienspeak. They did this, apparently, to make the aliens more alien again, and feel more dangerous.

"Could we make the scarier through art or animation?" "Nah, just take their voices away."

However, part of the fun of Halo – rather than, say, Call of Duty – is that the aliens are fun. The Grunts get scared, say dumb things, and run away when their leader is killed. When they speak alien, they just make dumb noises and run off. It’s not as much fun as hearing them squeak “Leader dead! Run away! Run away!”

And there’s that feel in other areas, as well: like they wanted this to be more of a real-war game than a fun game. They tried to take everything more seriously, but it doesn’t feel dark and real and dangerous; it just feels less fun to me.

 

Timeline

The game feels like it takes place over the course of a day or two (as every previous Halo game has): find that the Covenant are on Reach, contact HQ, giant fleets arrive, some battles, everyone dies, end of game. If you look at the timestamps, though, you see that the game takes place over the span of about a month. That sense of time isn’t conveyed in any way during the game.

I feel like, if they had a month, there would have been bigger battles. Like, that the humans might have arrived with some reinforcements and had epic confrontations with the Covenant. Every battle in this game feels like a pre-battle skirmish. Like your six-man team is sneaking around rather than getting into the thick of the fight. But if you have a team of armoured supersoldiers, why are they the ones sneaking around?

 

Tie-In

They try to tie Reach to Halo 1, but only in the last level. The 9 or so levels before that have nothing to do with it. It feels like a last-minute addition or a wink-and-nod to the fans who would understand the tie-in, but it doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the story. It’s indulgent, adding Cortana and Keyes right at the end, without explaining exactly what was going on. They hint that the events of Reach were informing the start of Halo 1 without giving us any details that make a difference.

It’s unnecessary, it tells us nothing, and it isn’t what this game is about. The game is about an unwinnable battle; don’t bring our attention to the protagonist of a different story. It’s distracting from your story.

Also, he seems to have been possessed by something.

 

What’s the Solution?

Give us a smaller set of characters we actually get to know and care about so that when they die we feel their loss. Rather than having a squad of six who are usually subdivided into squads of two or three with the other squad members off somewhere else (which means we don’t feel like the squad is getting smaller because there are only ever a couple with us. Also we don’t care when they do die because you didn’t have time to make them more than chariactures). Instead, imagine playing in a squad of four that, over the course of the game, becomes just you alone.

Either have some sort of story that gives important information about the Halo universe and Halo 1 or don’t include it at all. Decide what is important in your game and go for it full-on; not this half-hearted attempt at being both a new-and-independent story and a tie-in.

Bring back the silly Grunts. They’re about half of what made your games fun.

Have consistent rules between your in-game weapons, etc, and what happens in cutscenes. Otherwise you jerk the player out of the moment right when you most want them to be in the moment and sympathetic.

Either of the following:

Your squad is the one guarding the Forerunner facility (thus giving us more information about it and making this game vital to the continuing Halo storyline)

OR

Your squad is vital in the war effort (thus giving us that big-war feel they seemed to want, though this comes at the cost of any real narrative).

 

Worth playing?

Meh.

The gunplay is slightly improved over the last games, but not enough to really warrant buying it for that. And as I say, playing the campaign for its story is a moot point because the story was created after the missions were designed. It’s a tool to get you from the ice-level to the underground-level.

They clearly put more effort into the multiplayer than the campaign. That said, they wasted a serious opportunity there as well, because 95% of multiplayer games give you no choice of starting weapon. The system is there for it – each time you die, you can choose a new set of weapons and equipment – but the weapons are always the assault rifle and pistol. Why? There’s twenty-odd weapons in the game. Why not give the option of alien weapons? Why confine everyone to the same two guns? Why did you bother making all these other weapons if you won’t let anyone play with them?

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