Why Halo: Reach was one of the defining shooters of the last few years.
You’re playing a game and you’re a hero. Your character has a host of powers and abilities; at some point you’ll likely lose these for narrative or other purposes but you’ll get them back before the end (only for them to largely rendered useless in any boss fights that might be along the way).
Still, you’re there to save the day and as dire as the circumstances might be, your character typically feels powerful even if they’re not quite in control of the situation.
That’s not the case in Halo: Reach. Sure, you’re a seven-foot tall super soldier but from the very beginning of Bungie‘s last entry in the Halo series, it’s clear the odds are stacked against you. Noble 6 is not the world-saver Master Chief is, this Spartan‘s futile duty is to fend off the Covenant invasion and make the final, ultimate sacrifice.
There aren’t many games that ask this of players and there certainly aren’t many shooters that make the sense of gravitas and hopeless desperation so abundantly clear as Bungie did in Halo: Reach. Even within the Halo franchise, the feeling of humanity’s hopeless struggle against an impeccable alien foe is rarely as apparent.
This sensation is clear from early within the second mission of the game – Winter Contingency (technically, Noble Actual, the game’s opening cinematic, is a mission). Your communications are cut off from UNSC command and immediately there is a sense of isolation. Soon you encounter a farmer who relays the situation – there are Covenant forces on the planet.
“Not here, not Reach,” Jorge whispers.
Humanity’s second home, the headquarters of the UNSC military, is under attack. This is something else, and the sense of desperation is palpable in a way it never is in other games throughout the series – even during the attacks on Earth in Halo 2 and Halo 3.
You fought long and hard and gave Reach your all to achieve this point. Fight on if you must, but understand that you owe Reach nothing. Your efforts will live on in the annals of history, and all of humanity will sing your praises for centuries to come. Be the lone wolf if you desire and fight for all you can, but know that this is not a battle you can win. It is time to say goodbye. – Halo Reach: Legendary Edition Guide.
One by one Noble Six’s team dies and ultimately that Spartan chooses to stay behind knowing full well the futility of doing so. That fateful decision, all so 117 and the Pillar of Autumn can escape Reach.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Finding the Halo ring is not enough, the war drags on. Even in the truce that follows the activation of the Arc, conflict breaks out once again as Master Chief is drawn into the Reclaimer Saga. In that regard, Noble 6’s sacrifice was an action made in vain.
The Spartan’s death ultimately saved the human race from The Flood by allowing the Pillar of Autumn and its cargo to flee the falling planet. Across the scope of the entire Halo series Noble Six’s choice to stay behind – remember, the soldier was never ordered to do so – could be seen as a futile gesture. Yet in the context of Reach itself, it was a necessary step with the fate not only of the UNSC but the entire human race at stake.
There is a degree of hope at the very end as the Pillar of Autumn leaves, avoiding the Covenant fleet and entering slip space, and this is reinforced by Bungie’s fantastic tribute to the series they created following the credits.
And then Noble Six is left alone, the last warrior on a dying world and sooner or later you’re overrun by the hordes of Covenant fanatics.
Halo: Reach is a game with a sense of desperation in which the overriding futility of war is evident in a manner few games ever dare to explore let alone centre on as a core theme and for that Bungie should be commended. Their next project, Destiny, looks to be an entirely different prospect but that’s alright, there’s room for all kinds of games with all kinds of stories.
343 Industries opted for a slightly darker tinge in Halo 4 and despite the game’s conclusion, Master Chief ultimately saved the day once more. Perhaps one day there’ll be another Noble Six but many players will always want to save the day, and that’s fine too.
This article is the second part of the Defining Shooters series, you can read the first, on conflict and Spec Ops: The Line, here.
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