I’ve just fought my way through the last of Reach, and… Yeah, it’s Halo. At this point I suspect you either own Reach or never will but for whatever it’s worth here’s what I thought.
Every now and then you hear people debating whether or not video games are art. Some people adamantly say no, others insist yes; I doubt I’ll be tipping my hand much by saying I have long asserted that nobody whose soul is properly wired to their eyes and thumbs could play through Myst, Ico or Shadow Of The Colossus without admitting that whatever it is about art that speaks to us can be found there. But it’s equally true that video games are a new thing. You can cultivate a full and rewarding appreciation of the Mona Lisa, King Lear or the Moonlight Sonata without ever once having to press X to not die, for example. There’s an inclusiveness to video games that forces the audience to shape the experience in a way that other media just doesn’t – you’re not often called up from the audience to shank a Capulet yourself – and that’s not something that’s on the typical art-appreciation curriculum.
The other side of that is, of course, that there are some terrible video games in the world, but that’s equally true of everything else ever labelled art. But video games are a confluence of so many fields of artistic endeavor – narrative, performance, graphic design, gameplay and music, among others – that there are a shocking number of axes on which a video game can fail. So I’m increasingly of the opinion that video games are art, but that many and maybe most of them are in some respect bad art.
And usually the part that tips everything over is the narrative, so… yeah, what was I talking about? Halo, I think?
There were a number of odd quirks in the gameplay that irritated me throughout, mostly having to do with choices I thought I’d be able to make but couldn’t. I’m a member of an Elite Group of Space Marines, but I don’t get to pick my tools? That’s disappointing, but OK, I guess. All this extra armor I can buy doesn’t actually do anything, really? I wouldn’t have thought that Elite Space Marines were all about cosmetic upgrades, but OK, sure, whatever. And then I climb into a helicopter with a carefully-selected DMR and my beloved SRS 99, and when I get out, for no reason at all I’m carrying a slingshot and a bag of jujubes. Thanks guys, thanks a bunch.
Worse, sometimes when you’ve wandered a bit afield a countdown timer appears on the screen saying “Return to the battlefield”, and if you don’t go back to the designated in-play area in ten seconds you just die for no reason. Shit, guys, you want to respect the continuity just a teensy bit?
But that wasn’t the worst of it – the worst part was the story.
Now, Halo is Halo, and Halo: Reach is definitely more Halo than Halo. It’s got the alien spaceship level, it’s got the waves-of-bad-guys level, it’s got the city level, it’s got the military-base level, and you’re Noble Team member #6, grinding your way through all the above with the same old guns you know and love. It seems kind of puerile to deride a game that says Halo right there on the box for not being different enough from Halo, doesn’t it? But that’s pretty much where this is going; there’s a lot of places where the gameplay changes just enough for you to think it could grow up to be fascinating, and then that gets taken away and we’re back to what might as well be Halo 1 HD. In a lot of ways, oddly enough, Reach reminded me of Douglas Adams’ “Mostly Harmless”. Clearly in the same vein as its predecessors, clearly the best technical work of the series and just as clearly secretly and quietly hated by its creator. It’s beautiful, a lot more challenging and has a lot more variety to it, but it never really has the courage to draw that novelty out to anything close to it’s potential, and despite all that it’s still difficult to get through. Halo has always been about a largely mute, almost entirely solitary soldier butchering his way through questionably-armed alien opponents, and for the most part that’s about what you expect from even the best plot-on-rails shooter. But there’s a lot of little details in Reach that make it pretty disturbing if you’re paying attention.
As per usual in Halos you need to suspend a distressing amount of disbelief, particularly if you know the first thing about military logistics and tactics. And I’m not talking about an “able to manage the logistics of a carrier battle group deployment” sort of understanding, either. I’m talking at the “If we run out of bullets, we should have a way to get more bullets” level. Because in Reach, as in every single other Halo, nobody has thought that far ahead. And that’s fairly low on the list of things that could, to put it mildly, use a little clarification. The worst example might be the point where you shake off a fall that started in geosynchronous orbit, but there’s a bunch of these jarring little moments scattered through the game, forcibly reminding you over and over that that’s all it is.
Worse, it’s made very clear that both sides of this war are really, really dumb, bad at war in every respect except manufacturing firearms and then leaving them lying around. That was true in the original and increasingly-poorly-named “Combat Evolved” (Tactics? Logistics? Covering fire, air support? Fuck all that, charge!) and you spend about as much time as Halo-usual picking up guns you find lying around. But in Reach a typical deployment scenario for your space marine of 2550 is to be dropped in the field with a popgun and a q-tip and hope to stumble across whatever fell out of the pockets of the last ten or fifteen sorties that got sent out before you did.
And find them you do; you don’t just run into stashes of stuff anymore, you find piles of dead marines or locals, lit with nearly-spent rescue flares, and you pretty much need to shake out their pockets for enough ammunition and first aid to get through a level. In retrospect the only thing that’s kept the Covenant from a sweeping, lopsided victory in this series is forgetting to pickup after themselves. If they just sent out a few dozen of those idiotic grunts of theirs out to clean up all the weaponry that the humans left lying around, you’d never make it more than halfway through the first level. Nevertheless, scrounging from the bodies of people who have covered all this ground before seems obviously symbolic and, wow, pretty harsh.
The other thing that’s different about Reach is that you spend a lot of time in this game watching civilians get killed.
You can’t yell at them, tell them to get out of the way or hang back, anything, because you’re some sort of mute, but that wouldn’t matter anyway, because they’re dumber than the scenery. But at one point you’re ordered to stand your ground and defend your position, and even if you manage to keep a dozen of them from getting killed the very next thing you do is jump into an elevator and abandon them to their fates. You’re occasionally given similarly incompetent, unusable soldier NPCs to assist, who are just as mute and just as dumb. You get a little roster of them, where they each flash red and then disappear as they get killed. There’s no reward for saving, or even way to save, any of them.
In hindsight I should add that it was a more than a little irksome that everyone on your team is accorded a noble, self-sacrificing death with the exception of the team’s only woman, who gets shot in the back of the head in mid-sentence while questioning her orders. That was particularly classy, and I wonder who she actually represented.
But it’s the final chapter of the game that really drives it home; you’re dropped, with no transition and no explanation, into ruined shell of a military base under a burning sky. There’s nowhere to go, you don’t know how you got there or why, and you can’t do anything but fight endless waves of aliens until you run out of ammo, at which point you are summarily slaughtered.
Did I mention some harsh symbolism earlier? Anyhow, you can run off the edge of that map too, because we can’t pass up this one last opportunity to curb-stomp your suspension of disbelief again.
So is it art? It’s Halo, and maybe even a little bit more than Halo. It’s awfully pretty, and fun. But as much as it is, it’s not everything it could have been, and seems to hate itself in a lot of ways that surprised me. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that at the very end you’re actually playing through the eyes of a developer, and not our hero Noble 6. It’s hard not to like Reach. The multiplayer is good, often silly fun, the graphics are beautiful, and what it does well it does very well. Every now and then it even rewards some patient, cautious sneaking around in the attic, where I’d find somebody has graciously left a fully-loaded sniper rifle in the rafters for somebody just like me. But I’m pretty happy there won’t be another one, and despite the series’ loose ends I strongly suspect the people at Bungie are too.