We take a spoiler-riddled look back at Bungie's Halo swansong.
Halo: Reach is almost a decade old. We stumbled upon that fact when making our deliberations for Game of the Decade, and knowing that ten years had passed since we queued up at midnight for our limited edition Xbox 360 console made us feel just a little bit older, however, we were also delighted to be able to include the sci-fi shooter in our top list (where it ends up you'll have to wait and see) and so that sobering moment evened out in the end.
We're going to revisit the game more critically in due course, with The Master Chief Collection (which also includes Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach) landing on PC on December 3, but before that happens we wanted to reminisce about something that has absolutely no place being in the review of any game, regardless of how old it is: the ending.
Reach was a landmark entry in the series in more ways than one. For starters, and most obviously, it was Bungie's last Xbox-exclusive game and its final Halo too, as the studio would go on to sign a deal with Activision and spend the next ten years pumping out Destiny instead. It was also - and a lot of people will disagree with this - the best game in the series, in our opinion, because it found the sweet spot between replayable campaign and firefight missions, and stellar online multiplayer.
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It was also a significant game for Bungie, in the sense that you can clearly see the evolution of the studio's distinctive blend of PvP and PvE; the emphasis on replayable sandbox combat that would go on to define Destiny at its most fundamental level. More than any other game in the series up to that point, Reach wanted you to come back and have another go. It wanted you to do better. We duly obliged.
We replayed plenty of Halo 3 with skulls on, modifying the experience in a multitude of ways, but the ranking system in Reach drove repeat plays and high score chasing, and the unlock system made us work tirelessly to complete armour sets and equip new helmets. This proto-Destiny had the best of both worlds; a moreish gameplay loop and some of the richest lore in all of gaming. It was an unbeatable combination.
It helped that the campaign was of the highest quality, with a grittier, more atmospheric narrative that saw Bungie exploring darker themes. Noble Team, a squad of hard-as-nails Spartans caught in the midst of the invasion of Reach, would fight valiantly against the overwhelming power of the Covenant. To that end, there are some truly memorable moments awaiting those who engage with the story, with bold characters, varied missions, and grandstand set-pieces the kind of which Bungie had been delivering steadily since the first game in the series. However, most memorable of all was the ending - a few minutes of gameplay that have stayed with us for the best part of a decade.
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It goes without saying that if you've got this far and you've not played the game before, you should absolutely stop reading because we're about to spoil it hard.
Reach is a prequel to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, and it fits just as snugly into the over-arching narrative as Rogue One did in A New Hope, with a fleeting glimpse of Master Chief just before he gets reunited with Cortana and they visit the very first Halo ring. With an apocalypse unfolding all around, Noble Team becomes embroiled in the key events surrounding the Covenant invasion of Reach, fighting grunts, elites, and brutes to the death in a heroic battle to the end.
Master Chief might be the ultimate soldier, but Noble Team had a few of their own tricks, and the addition of the jetpack is the perfect example of Bungie flexing its muscles and exploring different ways of traversing the Halo universe. Bungie also revisited the weapons of Halo, rebalancing everything and making some old favourites relevant once again. This added mobility and overhauled arsenal were felt most keenly during the game's multiplayer, one of the standout aspects of the game.
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But we're not here to talk about the exquisite multiplayer, we're here to reminisce about the fall of Reach. With the Chief and Cortana safely aboard the Pillar of Autumn and on their way to fulfiling their own entwined destiny, it was left for Noble-6, the last of his squad, to fight off the Covenant long enough for his allies to escape. Just like everyone else who saw the credits roll, we did our duty and fought off the enemy until Keyes, John 117, and Cortana escaped. And for a second, that seemed like it would be enough.
Then came Bungie's Last Stand, the post-credits conclusion to Halo: Reach. Whereafter the Pillar of Autumn had escaped, Noble-6 stands and takes in the skyline as it burns in Covenant flame. It's a truly epic moment - the feeling of pride, having done what we set out to do, mixed with the ever-growing knot that was forming in our gut. Then, however, it was time for our own last stand, and an endless stream of plasma swords hunted us down until we were well and truly extinguished, a battered helmet left as testament to our sacrifice.
But that wasn't quite the end and in the dying embers of Bungie's last hurrah, off in the distance, we spied hope; new colonists returning years after the war, after the events that we're still playing through to this day. And so hope returned to Reach, just like we will when the remastered version of the game hits PC and Xbox One on December 3.