Saturday, November 6, 2010

Remember Halo: Reach

Contrarian Corner is a feature meant to take a critical look at some recently-released games, a place for a more holistic discussion of titles which have been the recipient of either an abundance of single-minded praise, or an undue amount of criticism. Our intent is not to contradict or undercut our own reviews, but rather to expand the spectrum of discussion on some of the most important games of each year. If you're interested in joining that discussion, keep reading.

Make sure to read Erik Brudvig's Halo: Reach review for IGN's official thoughts on the game. And be forewarned -- if you haven't finished the game, massive spoilers will be discussed below.


I didn't play Halo in full until 2006. I'd just come back to Los Angeles after two years in Madagascar. I'd moved into a spare bedroom a friend from college had at his apartment in Hollywood. I'd just quit a job at a small movie company after three days because I realized my boss was full of shit, though well-intentioned shit. I was out of money and totally unsure of what I was supposed to do next. I had slowly depleted my savings with the occasional relief of working as an extra and reading scripts for IFC. I had downloaded the Halo demo on the used iMac I'd bought to send resumes and search for job listings. After playing through the demo three times I finally decided to get a full version to catch up with the game that had so dramatically moved shooters forward.

Halo reminded me of the The Wizard of Oz. I'd shot through the feco-viscera of Quake, DOOM, Hexen, and Heretic in college, but I wasn't expecting to start a first person shooter whose main enemy was a furry midget with a conch on it's head. I thought a musical sequence might be about to come to life the first time I heard one of these grunts put his hands up and wobble away from me screaming, "He's a monster!" It was a lovely compliment to the snortling baritone of the Elites' surprised exclamations, "What, what, whaaaaat?!" With a few coordinated pirouettes the game could just as naturally become The Wiz in Space. The sense of exaggeration extended to the gameplay, requiring a literal hosing of bullets to short an enemy's shield before you could do any bodily damage. Levels were built around arenas in which you'd go from hosing to hosing rather than headshot to headshot.

It's been nine years since Bungie released the first game, and in the interim they've worked on nothing else, refining this absurd world of munchkins, purple armor, and elastic bullet streams. Halo: Reach is the end of all that. The neon theatricality has become a memento mori set against a perpetual sunset lowering itself over hardscrabble mountains. There are still moments of wonder, like the sense of scale in the launch sequence preceding the space combat mission, or the moments of jet pack platforming around the white towers of New Alexandria. But the pleasures are put in the uncomfortably tight spaces between the colony's collapsing architecture. Most of the story missions pivot on a point of failure. The fighting in New Alexandria isn't to turn back the invaders, but stall them long enough to evacuate the innocents. Likewise, the extreme gamble of going into space and docking on a Covenant ship is a strategic hail mary that succeeds but the scale of its success is quickly put into minuscule context when a new armada of Covenant ships subsequently come into orbit.

Reach likewise plays a game of Six Little Spartans with Noble Team, fingering each squad member for death as the story sinks downward. You don't play as Master Chief, but you might as well be. Noble Six isn't quite as dexterous as Johnny Halo, but the differences are marginal. You might be able to absorb one less bullet or not jump quite as high, but you've still basically wearing a super hero armor suit. Six isn't outspoken either, which is a vapid choice for the story being told. Gordon Freeman can get away with not talking because he's surrounded with spastics who react to him in such identifiable ways that you can at least begin to read personality traits into him. When Master Chief played the strong and quiet type it felt like a tactical dodge, not wanting to tempt audience disbelief by giving him the wrong voice.

Reach is specifically focused on squad personality, and appropriately so. Killing off six main characters is an utter waste if there aren't any personality traits through which their losses can be measured. Lose the funny guy and suddenly the group doesn't laugh so much any more. Lose the fearless leader and everyone squabbles about what to do next. The gang in Noble Team isn't as dramatically fanned out as that, they're more variations on the self-assured alpha gunner. And at their center is another mute. In the real world stoicism is a bad sign. Sociability is a sign of self-confidence and recognition of how vital close friendships can be. The quiet ones are, we fear, the sociopaths. The brooding poops who one day snap and go on a stabbing spree when someone says "margarine" one time too many. I suppose it's apt that you play a silent lurker given the volume of killing you'll have to do, but it still feels unnecessarily dull. Bungie had the courage to introduce lustrous purples and greens into the video game color palate, I don't understand why giving a character a powerful voice both in and out of combat remains such a risk.

It's especially conspicuous after ODST so effectively used its colorful characterizations and coupled with subtle links to gameplay. Gone is the labored wheeze that signaled damage in ODST. I'd think a subtle reinforcement of genuine pain running beneath the gunfights would enhance the power of the story and its myriad sacrifices. After a decade working on the same essential game concept, Bungie might have done more to intensify its themes in gameplay, rather than leaving them marooned to the cutscenes and the smoky orange sadness of the skybox.

There are a lot of fantastically dramatic moments in the story. Scenes of someone realizing hope is lost but deciding to stay behind and die so the group can continue a little further occur again and again. The ending scene after the credits is great as far as it goes, the game finally leaves players in an arena they won't be able to get out of. The Pillar of Autumn has Cortana's AI kernel safely cruising towards Halo and Noble Six is now officially expendable. You get control of her for another few minutes as waves of Covenant come for you. There's only enough ammo and health to prolong death, but not prevent it. Before you're completely overrun the game shows your visor cracked permanently, giving you a literally shattered view of the world as you scramble for just another few minutes.

A few missions earlier, one of your squadmates dies in a nearly identical scenario on a covenant ship. Later another character takes a plane on a suicide run into a Scarab to create a small opening. One teammate is sniped just at the moment where everything seemed like it might have been okay. If you're interested in emotional gameplay these scenarios are over-ripe. And in Reach they're all cutscenes. The lone example of theme and feeling trumping competitive interest happens after the end credits have finished. The only way this could have been a bigger cop out is if they'd reserved that five minute section for DLC. If a game is supposed to be about tragedy and loss, it ought to be about that in the moment to moment gameplay. Reach should have been built around 30 seconds of failure and pain instead of 30 seconds of fun. It's still the same 30 seconds of fun but the art team has been given a huskier color palate, which is somehow intended to transform the system into something it's not.

Reach is the most feature-rich and varied Halo game, but it's hard not to wonder if the difference between it and the original is enough to merit a decade of tinkering. There's Forge, Firefight, 4 person co-op, a leveling system that ties to character customization, and a big array of multiplayer maps and options. It makes the small list of bullet points from the first game seem tragically incomplete. Reach is as much a perpetual environment as it is an individual experience. It's not an escapist story, but an escapist world that aims to be habitable in perpetuity. It's a magical fishbowl that's always rearranging itself, rewarding loyal players with a simultaneous sense of familiarity and newness.

I finished Reach in two sittings, led from one compulsive pleasure-puzzle to the next. There were no easy places to step away, each lull put some suggestive variation of shooting just over the next ridge. When I thought about starting the game again the next day, trying a harder difficulty of dipping into one of the other modes I couldn't imagine what else there would be to get from the game. I've circle-straffed, tossed grenades and rushed enemies for a finishing melee attack, hidden nervously behind boxes waiting for my shields to regenerate. Thinking of doing it all again, in a slightly different order, and with slightly different objectives and rewards didn't seem like much of an escape. It was starting to feel constrictive, discovery was becoming repetition. Experimentation with new ideas was instead becoming confirmation that most of the old ideas still work.

More Halo: Reach Opinions

Optimism is at the heart of escapism. All great works of escapism are about self-affirmation, which is central to Halo and the idea of Master Chief. It's a big, gaudy, interactive "Yes we can." This was hypnotic when I was broke, out of work, and had no idea what I would do next in my life. It was an irresistible experience, being cut off on a strange planet, with its indifferent sprawl and inscrutable alien architecture, fighting against enemies who seemed genuinely alive and unpredictable. I knew I'd win in the end, but I didn't know how. So I kept coming back, chipping away at the story, learning a new tactic with each arena and its different arrangement of enemies, weapons, and vehicles.

I often think about what I get in return for my time with video games. I've found the most compulsively playable games are also the ones that leave me feeling the most used and hollow afterward. When I think back on what I did in Reach, it's hard to know why I did any of it. Nothing connects, the patterns that emerge from one arena to the next don't build towards a grand confrontation. Nor do they truthfully connect to an emotional idea other than the laughing gas giggle of winning at something for 30 seconds and then repeating it again in a slightly different context. The alien wonder and elastic heroism of the original have become rote, a formula of Greek symbols without a hypothesis to prove.

I hate playing games with other people. Board games, card games, word games--they all seem like a waste of time, an exploitation of our competitive distractibility. It's built into the names we have for them, they're pastimes categorized by their efficiency in distracting us. When this ethos comes in video game form, built as a persistent playroom that continually refreshes itself, it feels uncomfortably like jumping into oblivion. There's something sinister about Reach and its repetition of the now wheezing theme of heroism and self-sacrifice. It's become an elaborate delusion that makes it possible for an excitable and creative group of millions to yoke themselves into a virtual community for the primary purpose of accelerating the passage of time. It's a neon prison so perfectly constructed its prisoners come to their cells with pleasure and don't need to be locked in. And make no mistake, this prison is getting hungrier. It wants you too. One more round. One more mission. One more imperative to play the hero in a fishbowl, so you won't think about how much oxygen is left in the water. They might change the water and add a castle, but you'll eventually notice you're still swimming in circles.

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