Friday, 24 September 2010

That Reach thing


My relationship with the Halo franchise has been as erratic as the fanboy ravings that accompany each review of every instalment in the series. Raising myself on first-person shooters on the PC and never touching one of those dirty consoles until the 360, I found the first Halo (ported to the PC by Gearbox) a strange and empty experience.


Skipping Halo 2 due to an international love affair (I'm not sure which was more anti-climatic) my next experience with the franchise came after giving into all the hype surrounding Halo 3. Thanks to a mixture of curiosity and peer pressure I caved in to see if I could understand what made so many people crazy about the Master Chief and all that jazz. Just as in the first game I enjoyed parts of the gameplay -- the well-documented open combat environments and variety of Grunt-killin' situations -- but ultimately the whole experience lacked anything approaching the meaningful tone the god-awful live-action trailers tried to convey.


The premise of Halo 3: ODST felt pretty cool and doing something different with the narrative - breaking up the missions and having a central lonely hub-world - gave me hope that this might be the Halo game to inject some meaning into its characters; if not its story. The problem this time came from the gameplay and I quickly found every combat situation dull or remarkably similar to the previous games. The story was pretty weak and the characters -- despite being voiced by some pretty sexy actors -- were flat and unconvincing.


Nothing about those three games gave me any sense of meaning, of characters that I should give a crap about or a story that was anything more than a mongrel of Norse mythology, Greek classical history and Larry Niven's Ringworld.



Then something happened to change all that - I read one of the fucking books. The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland was written in 7 weeks and published before the first Halo game was released for the original Xbox. As science-fiction literature goes it’s a barely passable read but as a videogame tie-in -- as backstory to a franchise that was planned to expand as much as possible -- it changed everything.


Master Chief wasn't just some vacuous, American smart-ass super-soldier that the games portray him as -- he was a person with a history worth knowing -- someone whose childhood was awkward and tough but who eventually worked through pain and challenge to become humanity's last hope against a demonic foe. The war against the Covenant wasn't just some generic space-opera but a conflict that felt rooted in the desperate battles of ancient mythology and legend.


The book gave me what the games never did -- a firm base to experience what little story they were willing to tell. Even if they did it badly (which they did in my opinion) I could now at least go back and try to understand what the hell was going on in the games or make sense of the religious overtones layered over the Covenant hierarchy. Because of this I hoped, expected even, that Halo Reach would be Bungie's crowning moment. They would finally use the solid foundation that the book laid down to tell a meaningful story or create characters that I would want to know more about.


It didn't quite turn out that way.



Halo Reach represents Bungie's most polished work in terms of shooting Grunt fools in the face and taking yourself online to be crushed by a mouthy 12 year-old. When it comes to basic story, narrative and characters however, it treads the same path as before.


You’re never given a firm understanding of what’s going on and while I love the minimalist storytelling that Half-Life uses, Halo never builds enough into its world to support such a narrative venture.


What they got right this time was the main character. Noble Six is the faceless cipher that you customise and make your own. It makes this Halo game feel much more personal than before as Master Chief always felt like non-ironic cliché and The Rookie from ODST too bland to register.


The simple feature of being able to alter your armour makes this character feel... inhabitable. It was a chance, I thought, to finally experience a Halo story from a connectible perspective without crass or awkward writing getting in the way.


But Reach's attempt at capturing the same desperate feeling of a disaster film just doesn't work properly. Aside from the initial recon of the first mission the game pushes you to and from scenarios without any indication of what's happening outside of your combat area. Considering the entire planet is being kicked in the crotch there's nowhere near enough peril being conveyed -- only Exodus tries to shove the casualty rate up into the thousands and it stands as one of the few moments that could conceivably elicit an emotional response.


The other moments should have come with the death of your squad-mates. It's an inevitable part of the story that almost everyone on the planet dies and building the tension towards each sacrifice could've given Reach the kind of nervous energy Mass Effect 2 worked so well with during its final push.



Whereas Bioware gave you hours with each character that would accompany you into the dragon's mouth, Reach only has minutes and as such has to work harder in order to build those characters up to be likable. In order to do this it seemed like Reach fell back to portraying stereotypes that felt cut out of any stupid action game/film and even though some of their deaths feel meaningful (namely George, Kat and in the post-credits), the impact of them is nothing compared to losing Tali or Garrus to the Collectors.


If I hadn't read the book I wouldn't feel quite so aggrieved. Halo Reach is good entertainment from a pure gaming standpoint. Everything about playing it feels great and the formula -- on its last repeat before it wears the needle down to the arm -- still has the ability to give you a rush unlike many other shooters. Yet the book gave me the idea that this Halo nonsense could be a little more than that. The touchstones of ancient history and the ingrained sci-fi that all of us have in our DNA give Halo a blueprint, an opportunity, to create something special. It shows that the formula I came to enjoy so much by understanding more about the back-story won’t, or can't, mature enough beyond shooting aliens in the head.


Halo Reach continues that erratic relationship I have with the series and even though I'm still having fun with the daily challenges and the masochism of Legendary difficulty, it still fills me with regret. Regret that Bungie seemed unwilling to dive headfirst into storytelling that could be more than 'heavy-armoured dude kill alien. Insert zinger here. Repeat.' Regret that I read that damn book and got into all the pseudo-religious nonsense that the Covenant has got going on. And regret that I just can't enjoy a game without thinking about it in a meaningful way.


I mean seriously... What the hell is wrong with me?


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