The only story in Halo: Reach exists in its cut scenes. This my friends, is a failure. Reach, stripped of those cut-scenes is by and large a fairly pedestrian shooter that offers little new to the table. While the game is certainly attractive there is frequently very little that distracts you from path set before you and level design evinces little to no effort in capture the detail and horror of the events surrounding you. Much of this is par for the course when it comes to the FPS genre and I’ve yet to see a game that really approaches narrative in a unique way. Absent of the advanced technology and flashy bits Halo: Reach, in terms of gameplay, is about as deep as Super Mario Brothers and, in truth, offers fewer variations in how to get from start to finish (I exaggerate slightly, Super Mario Brothers has a warp zone, Reach has no means other than a straight path for completion and there ends said variation). Mario dies, you restart. Noble Six dies, you restart. Rinse and repeat. There isn’t anything new about Reach, at all.
Sure, the game does occasionally shakes things up by offering vehicle based missions. Those instances where you get to fly a Sword space fighter or Pelican Helicopter remain an exciting and welcome change of pace to the running and gunning the dominates the game. Of course linear is still linear however you dress it up. That linearity is reflected in the level design which, more often than not, throws you head first into the face of the enemy. My favorite example of this, late in the game, was being told to “lay low” by my commanding officer. A command that apparently required I dash like a madman through enemy troops, waving hello as I sprinted by. There is a definitely a problem when I’m complaining about a lack of stealth. For all its linearity that mad sprint was still somewhat invigorating though its necessity only became apparent (or assumed) after around 5 or 6 prolonged firefights resulted in no progress and quick painful death. Of course it’s the same sort of invigoration I get when I blast through stage 1-1 or 1-2 in SMB.
Halo: Reach should have been an epic war story, full of the last stand heroics of 300 and the emotional pull of Braveheart. But the game felt absent of these things. The game lacks impact that any “last stand” story should have. I was particularly struck by this during a point in the game where you find yourself alone in the empty shell of a city the only initial company the dead. Dead that offer no blood scattered amongst walls absent of scorch marks. It is curiously antiseptic scene of carnage that offers no means to engage the emotional response of the player. Six (your character) has a job to do, but there is no emotional impetus to do that job and there is little if anything to tie you to the either the environment or the individuals surrounding you. Compare this to something like Dead Space (a game I’ve yet to finish, but really want to) where the environment has a menace and character all its own, you struggle to explore the next corridor because you don’t really want to know what it holds. Of course Dead Space is an MA game while Reach is Teen, but I still found myself curiously unmoved by the plight of Reach’s citizens. Similarly, as the “new guy” on Noble team I found myself apathetic towards my teammates who I never had a time to get to know or really care about. Even Halo 3 crafted a believable emotional bond between Cortana and Master Chief and Reach’s inability to do so between flesh and blood beings is bizarre.
I made the decision to play Reach on Heroic. This was likely a mistake. It is, according to Bungie, the way the game was meant to be played. Likely this is true for people other than me. I do not have the “1337 5k!11z” and often find myself sidled with inferior weaponry which with the exception of the battle rifle is just about every weapon in the game. Though, it should be said that all weapons are inferior on Heroic. What’s surprising about this game is how little actual fun I had while playing it. Sure it had its moments, but those I most enjoyed were those that played least like a Halo game. The best I can offer is the sense of accomplishment I felt when I did manage to get through a particularly sticky spot, but it’s the same sense of accomplishment I feel when I’ve managed to best myself when running. If I’m being honest the running feels better. Maybe that hollow feeling from Reach speaks more about where I am in terms of gaming than the game itself; your mileage may vary.
In the end Reach is pretty sad for what amount’s to Bungie’s swan song in the Halo universe. They have, by and large, made the same game four times now (I haven’t played ODST, so it could be five) and other than improvements in graphics and an increase in the scale of cinematic moments I see little to differentiate any of these titles. It’s possible that these complaints are valid for the FPS genre as a whole. In general terms you can probably take my overall complaints and substitute any FPS and they’ll probably stick. I have to wonder how or if this genre can take the next step. Hell, I don’t even know what that next step is.