Why Reach fell, in more ways than one.
Those of you reading this who know me and my opinions on Halo are – by now – aware of the fact that Halo: Reach is one of my least favorite Halo games. I dislike quite a bit about the game, ranging from gameplay to levelcraft to music, but my biggest issue with Reach is the way it annoyingly goes against literally everything that lore prior to it’s release established in the universe, while also taking the formula for what makes a war story good and watering down it’s effectiveness in the process.
I want to make something clear, here – I actually really like the concept of Reach’s narrative; the idea of an emotionally weighted, dark sacrifice story is something we don’t often see in science fiction – in fact, when I try to think of another example of one, the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is all that comes to mind. My issue with Reach’s plot and narrative as a whole has everything to do with execution. In this post, I am going to hopefully give you a good look into my perception of the game, my issues with it, and how I would have written the game and/or what changes I would make.
First, though, I’ll make a list of everything in this game from a writing standpoint that bothers me, and then I’ll go through each, explaining why I feel the choices Bungie made were wrong.
Some of this may seem like nitpicking, but as a sci-fi fan, I hate it when one form of lore conflicts with another, especially when (in my opinion) what got labeled as canon by Bungie prior to 343’s retconning was much less quality than the original story of The Fall of Reach.
Without further ado, here’s my list of everything I disliked about Halo: Reach…
- Completely ignores The Fall of Reach
- The plot logically makes no sense in regards to what we know of the universe; in other words, “lore-breaking”
- Noble, while having basic personalities, lack meaningful character
- The Pillar of Autumn’s location
First up: the complete discarding of The Fall of Reach.
Bungie’s version of events in Halo: Reach completely disregard the entirety of Nylund’s novel, and I believe that this was a poor decision due to the excellent way Nylund portrayed the invasion. In many ways, I think Nylund captured the feel of grit and sacrifice in The Fall of Reach better then Bungie captured in their game interpretation of the event. The specifics of why this decision was a bad one are related to the later aspects of my argument, but in general, my reasoning stems from my opinion that The Fall of Reach tells a much more logical and in-depth version of the invasion, while also hitting home the theme of war that Halo: Reach was aiming for as well. (For example, the dark theme introduced when UNSC retrofit-and-repair stations full of hundreds of men and women positioned themselves between Covenant plasma fire and Reach’s Orbital MAC Defense Platforms, sacrificing themselves in order to allow the guns to survive) In fact, I think what Bungie should have done is merge their plot into Nylund’s and expand the entire event in the universe as a whole.
Moving on to my next problem; how illogical this game is.
Reach is said to be (in the canon) the UNSC’s capital stronghold and most productive military development system in the Inner Colonies. This place is where the Spartan-II’s trained and trained and trained and trained to blur the line between man and legend; this is where the legendary, iconic MJOLNIR armor system was designed; this is where ONI and the UNSC discovered two whole Forerunner sites, a huge discovery at the time. This was, without a doubt, an important place.
Yet, you wouldn’t be able to tell it, looking at the meager defenses that Reach actually had in the game. Based on the visual representation of the planet, all Reach had was Anchor 9 and a small handful of Paris-class Heavy Frigates. No cruisers, no Super MACs.
Then we come to the fact that the planet also apparently lacks any form of detection equipment or scanning. In-game, the Covenant initiate the invasion with SDV-class Heavy Corvettes. These ships were somehow able to avoid detection completely (they aren’t stealth vessels) and even drop Covenant Spire cloaking and shielding towers so that the gargantuan Long Night of Solace in orbit could teleport troops to the surface. And the worst part of it is, this class of corvette is unshielded. Hell, the Covenant was able to invade half the damn planet thanks to the fact that the entirety of the UNSC perimeter watch was…sleeping? On coffee break? Come ON, Bungie…not even mentioning the fact that the UNSC ground force was apparently so non-existent that the small amount of forces deployed from the corvettes and the first wave of Spire troops was enough to strongly weaken the planet’s (already meager) defenses before even needing fire support from their CSO-class Supercarrier sitting up in orbit.
So, you may be wondering, how could this (and the UNSC counter-attack) be edited to remain faithful and close to the more logical and realistic depiction of Reach by Nylund, while also having the invasion begin this way?
The Long Night of Solace and a small fleet of corvettes, cruisers and blockade runners arrive at the Reach system. The cruisers distract and assault the planet’s Orbital Defense Guns and small home fleet while the blockade runners and corvettes take advantage of this and fly down to the planet’s surface, dropping the Covenant Spires to allow the supercarrier to covertly begin to transfer troops down to the surface and launch an offensive against the ODP Generators. (This is when Red Team would deploy to defend them, and when John, Linda and James would head to the Circumference to ensure it’s NAV data was wiped.) From here the story would play out very similar to the way it did in-game: the UNSC counter-attacks, destroying the Spire, and the supercarrier goes back into orbit and away from the battle, it’s cover blown. The UNSC devises a plan to disable, board, and take over a corvette and use it as a vessel for their Slipspace bomb: Operation: UPPER CUT. As the ODPs and home fleet finish off the remaining cruisers and corvettes of the battlegroup, the UNSC knocks the shields out on a corvette and Jorge, Six, and other pilots in their newly-acquired Sabres fly with a frigate and together, they jam the ship’s communications and damage the engines, crippling the corvette’s ability to easily escape. They then land on top of the ship, infiltrate it, kill the bridge and hangar crew, and set the bomb on a timer in one of the empty hangars. The plan is that first, they will send a distress signal to the supercarrier from the corvette’s bridge, tricking it into thinking the corvette is asking for help and approving a course for the ship to link with them for repairs. Jorge and Six then will blow the hallways leading to the doors to the bomb site with explosives after setting the bomb timer, preventing the Covenant from getting to the bomb and disabling it, and then they will depart from the ship in their Sabres as the corvette, with all power diverted to forward engines (due to the damage they took) and it’s course set on the Long Night of Solace, would ram into the supercarrier and the bomb would explode. However, Jorge would discover that the timer malfunctioned, and that someone would have to explode the bomb manually. Additionally, the rest of the Covenant crew cut them off from their Sabres. Left with no other alternative, Jorge blows the explosives, trapping himself and Six in the hangar and keeping the Covenant out. Then, he does exactly what he did in the game.
“Reach…has been good to me. Time to return the favor.”
“Don’t deny me this.”
He picks Six up with one arm, holding him in the air, and carries him over to the hangar’s edge.
“Tell them to make it count.”
And as Jorge throws you out you watch helplessly, falling through space, as the corvette flies directly towards the supercarrier…and Jorge detonates the bomb. The entire midsection of the supercarrier instantly vaporizes, completely destroying the ship. And at the same time, you see dozens of UNSC ships coming out of Slipspace – your reinforcements. For a few joyous seconds, the battle of Reach seems won; and then, it happens. The entire Covenant fleet begins to pour out of their own Slipspace fields, painting the blackness of space with eerie purple. At this moment, the horror and helplessness sets in, and as you watch the reinforced UNSC fleet take up positions in front of the Orbital MACs as the gargantuan Covenant fleet launches their first salvo of death and destruction, you realize that the sacrifice of Jorge will only be the beginning of this nightmare.
This is a perfect example of how Bungie could have stayed with the logical and realistic way the UNSC defended Reach in the novel, while also adding a fresh twist with the new characters. The arc with Master Chief and the UNSC Circumference, as well as Red Team and the ODP Generators, could begin taking place as the blockade runners and carriers deploy troops to the surface. Done this way, Halo: Reach and The Fall of Reach could have coexisted perfectly with only minor retconning necessary for the entire first half of the game. The levels could play out just like they did in the original game; the difference is the better and more logical way the invasion itself began. In fact, plot-wise, the rest of Reach is fine; it was the first act (introduction to the Covenant and recon ops) and second act (UNSC counter-response) that were bad. The only thing I would criticize plot-wise from this point forward is the use of the Pillar of Autumn. But we’ll get to that at the end – Now, I want to discuss the characters in Noble Team.
Now, let me just start off this section of the article by saying that Bungie did a good job writing in basic personality for Noble Team. By listening to all of their dialogue, you could guess what each Spartan was like, and how they were all different. But the issue I have with Noble – a HUGE issue, to me – is that they lacked a strong character identity, with the exception of Jorge. Sure, they each had a few lines that separated them, but ultimately the amount of character or emotion that came out of them felt very little across the game. They never were expanded on past their basic personality. A dark, gritty war story like this NEEDS strong characters in it, with emotion, depth and a clear motivation. In other words, a clear reason why they fight. Why they make the sacrifices they do. In-game, the only Noble that dies who displays this level of depth is Jorge, in my opinion. Without further reading into the expanded lore of Noble Team, you can’t discern these things from the rest of Noble. But an equally large issue here is that, as Spartan-IIIs, there isn’t a single reason why these Spartans shouldn’t have strong emotional depth. For those of you who will say, “But they’re Spartans, and Spartans don’t show their emotions,” here’s my counter-argument.
I won’t spend much time talking about Ghosts of Onyx, as the details are ultimately not important here. But I would like to bring up the point that the Spartan-III program was very focused on the Spartan-IIIs’ burning hatred of the Covenant Empire. Candidates for the program were all children who had experienced monumental loss thanks to the alien invaders, ranging from loss of a family member to loss of a home world. But one thing identical about every single S-III was that they loathed the Covenant. And their training only encouraged this. The program implemented an even tougher regiment than the S-IIs went through, honing their combat skills to a razor’s edge all the while promising that they would get to use them to slaughter the Covenant at every opportunity. In addition to this, a strong sense of team cohesion and friendship among them was encouraged; basically, the “band of brothers” trope. Aside from the select Spartans pulled out of the Alpha and Beta companies of S-IIIs (which, by the way, is where most of Noble Team comes from) both groups were sent on suicidal missions in order to accomplish what no other UNSC Spec-Ops forces could. The 300 Spartans deployed in each company fought the Covenant with a ferocity the likes of which were never seen. Even despite facing unfathomable odds, the S-IIIs cut swaths through Covenant numbers, killing thousands of Covenant soldiers (as well as 7 entire Covenant battlecruisers, in Beta Company’s case, due to their successful overloading of a refinery on their operation) as they roared battle cries in unison before all being wiped out, with the only two survivors out of all 600 Spartan-IIIs being Tom-B292 and Lucy-B091.
So, with this information, you would expect the members of Noble Team to be angry. And when the Covenant arrived, you would expect them to fight them as hard as they could, with visible ferocity and loathing. And when members of Noble died, their family, you would also expect that to anger them even more. But it never ends up doing so, and we never see this amazing opportunity fleshed out and expanded on, save for Emile’s final moments.
Now, I’m not saying all of them should have been in constant rage mode. That would take away from the weight of their anger. What I do think Bungie should have done is create a gradual build-up. At the invasion’s beginning, have them be calmer. But as time goes on, as the invasion situation gets worse and more of Noble falls, have the survivors become more and more angry in-game. I’ll give an example of how you could do a voice line in three different “stages” for Emile:
Killing an Elite (Beginning of game): “Squid-head: terminated.”
Killing an Elite (Following Jorge and Kat’s death): “That was for Jorge and Kat, you alien bastards!”
Killing an Elite (Following the death of Carter and during the rapidly deteriorating situation): “DIE, you split-jawed FUCKS! BURN IN HELL!”
Imagine him saying that last line as he’s rushing towards Elites, shotgun blazing. (Bungie should have used that M rating to it’s fullest extent!) You would be able to feel his anger, and in turn it would probably piss you off too, wouldn’t it?
Fuck these alien cunts, killing my teammates and burning my world. Why can’t they just fuck off?
It would add so much to the immersion aspect of it. But what bothers me is that none of them ever seem to get angry about anything, despite the fact that’s the most likely thing they WOULD do based on their upbringing in the S-III program. And obviously not every member of the team would be the same level of angry. Each one has a personality that would handle anger in a different way. It would be weird for Carter to deliver that line, but why not have him say something along the lines of, “I can’t wait to kill more of these bastards.” Let him be human. Carter may be the voice of reason in Noble, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a stoic face all the time. Carter is still a human like everyone else on the team, and realistically you’d be mad about the events of the game if you were any of Noble’s members. Again, the level of seeing red would vary among the team, but I think if this use of emotion was implemented into the characters, it would do several very good things:
- Make Noble’s reactions to events feel more natural
- Make the cast of varying personas come together and share this anger, making them feel like a true team
- Add more emotional weight to the conflict, making the feeling of helplessness (losing no matter what you do) stronger
- Makes Noble Team more in-line with the S-IIIs
- Adds an overall darker theme, which is perfect for a war story
Now that I’ve gone over something that would have benefited all of them, let’s go over my opinion of each character and what I would do to change them.
Carter’s role in Noble was to be the voice of reason and it’s leader. Often throughout the game Carter makes decisions that lead to the team’s actions in the next level. While he served the role well enough, I felt that his emotional side wasn’t touched on at all. If they would have given him some more dialogue, lines where he says things like, “Keep it together, Noble. We need to stay focused. Save the anger for the Covenant.” in response to the addition of anger to the game I referred to earlier. This would solidify him as a leader that knows how to keep his team focused and tightly-knit. Another thing I would change about Carter is to have him start saying additional comments asking members of the team to be careful as more and more of Noble dies. He wouldn’t say it at the start of the game, but as Jorge and Kat die, have him show signs of worry about the safety of his squad. That’s a natural thing any good leader would do, and I think if the game showed us more instances where Carter’s focused-commanding-officer shell cracked, just a little bit, and showed us how much he cared about his squad, his role as a leader would have felt much more natural and real. He doesn’t need a big change; just these little moments of emotion shining through would go a really long way to improving his character, in my eyes. It would also give us an indication of what he fights for: his squad. It would make his sacrificial moment even more epic.
Kat, Noble’s tech and strategic expert, was one of Noble’s better members, I think. She has a sarcastic personality to her that is often seen by her use of it in game, whether in positive or negative ways, which I feel meshes well with her intelligence. But one dynamic that Kat has from her past that I wished got touched on – the death of Six’s predecessor, Thom. From reading into the expanded lore about Kat, we know that she often feels like Thom’s death was her fault. This trailer for the game shows the event of Thom’s death. Carter also strongly suggests to Six that he’s “filling the shoes the rest of the squad would rather leave empty”. Therefore, I really wish that they would have seized the opportunity to make Kat initially resentful of Six being on the team, but over time, as he proved himself, she would warm up to him being in the group. This would have been a very positive addition to the team aspect; you would initially feel like you didn’t belong, but over time as she warmed up to you you would feel like you fit with the team great. The way that quote from Carter is never fleshed out in this way by Kat honestly is just so disappointing. It’s wasted potential. More dialogue from her questioning you being on the team, a scene where she addresses Carter about Six in an “are you sure about him?” tone, followed by dialogue of her apologizing for how she treated Six later in the game and even explaining the reasoning behind it later on in the game, would have worked wonders. And it would have made her death heart-wrenchingly painful. The Noble member who you just saw at their rawest and most emotional goes out in a sudden, abrupt way like that? That there was nothing you could do to save her? Would have been a serious tear-jerker.
Speaking of wasted potential…we have Jun. A character that hints at having arguably the most interesting character trait…and it never gets explored.
Whenever the character stands idle next to him in-game, Jun says a line that blows my mind.
“I kill the enemy. But I do not hate them.”
Well, Jun, you’re in the minority, my friend. All evidence in Halo’s lore suggests that the Spartan-IIIs hate the Covenant more than I hate when people ruin lesbians by adding dicks to them.
Is this a bad thing? (Jun’s quote, I mean)
NO! It makes Jun an interesting and unique exception to the rule that I would LOVE to have heard more about. Why couldn’t Bungie have had him flesh that out? Explain why he doesn’t hate the Covenant? And instead of making it an idle line, make it a thing he is scripted to talk about. Between the times where you’re sniping Covenant in Nightfall, have him bring this topic up with you.
Here’s a scenario:
“You know, Six, you will find that I’m different then the rest of the team. I don’t hate the Covenant like they do, or like the rest of humanity does. They may be our enemies, and they may be killing us in the billions, but if us and the Covenant traded places on the tech scale, would we be any different? Would we be able to stop ourselves from fighting them if we felt that they threatened OUR beliefs?”
“Just something to think about, Six.”
This is a PERFECT way this aspect of Jun would be explored. And in fact, I think it would be an awesome foil to the rest of the way the game “wants” you to hate the Covenant. After this quote, he would go back to being his usual serious self with the witty comment here or there, but this question he poses to you would sit in your mind and fester as the invasion went on. As the Covenant slowly kill everyone and everything you connect with in the game, you would ask yourself, “Would we be any different in their position?”
Emile is a interesting case. like typical “edgy” (not a bad thing by any means) characters, he hides his true feelings behind walls of one-liner humor and an unapproachable attitude. However, with characters like this, that armor of emotional steel needs to be melted down over the course of the narrative. Personally, I feel that the game failed to do so. A big way that Bungie could have made Emile an amazing character is by using his dark past to their advantage while writing him, as well as incorporation that anger I was referring to earlier – it suits him more than any other character in Noble (although it suits every character other than Jun, to a degree).
Emile’s past regarding the Covenant was as dark as you can get. Following the death of his parents to Insurrectionists, Emile’s older brother took care of him in the city of Luxor. When the city fell to the Covenant, his brother sacrificed himself so that Emile could escape. This is when Emile’s personality took a twist; prior to this, he was the typical “punk” – rebellious and exuberant. But following this, Emile became a secluded and self-contained person, hiding raw emotions of pain and despair inside him. Emile arguably hates the Covenant more than any other Spartan, III or otherwise, that we know exists.
Now, imagine how this theme in Reach could have been explored. Jorge sacrifices himself to destroy the Long Night of Solace so that Noble could continue fighting the Covenant. Its at THIS point that Emile’s raw hatred of the Covenant should have started to show in his voice and dialogue. And then Kat goes next, further frustrating him, seeing yet another person he cares about dying to something he can’t control. But Carter’s sacrifice to allow him and Six to get to the shipyard? That’s when I wanted Emile to get pissed the fuck off.
Screaming “Fuck you, you heartless monsters! I hope you BURN IN HELL!” as he fires his shotgun wildly at any Covenant he sees as you race to the shipyard on your Mongoose. Unleashing hellacious battle cries as his AI becomes aggressive and he charges head-on into full groups of Covenant, blasting off the face of any alien who dares stand in his way. I wanted Bungie to use Carter’s death as a device to peel away Emile’s final piece of armor around his heart, leaving us to wonder why the loss of the squadmates visibly effects him so much more then the others. And then, as Emile’s infamous death sequence occurs, and he takes an Energy Sword through the abdomen, Six rushes up to the mass driver to see what has happened to him. Except this time, he’s not dead – yet, anyway. As Six come close to where he’s slumped, a cutscene begins. He reaches out for your hand, and you take it. He weakly pulls Six closer to him, visor to visor and he says, with all the strength he can muster:
“Heh…this is just like my brother went, you know. He sacrificed himself so I could escape the Covenant on Luxor. Kinda like I’m doing for you now. Or at least, was…”
“I’m sorry, Six. I didn’t have your back like I should have. Now you’re stuck here on this Covenant-infested hellhole because of it.”
Six locks hands in an embrace of friendship with Emile, looks into his visor, and says, in a moment where both usually silent, secluded Spartans speak to each other from the heart:
“It’s not your fault. Couldn’t have asked for a better teammate.”
Emile deactivates his helmet’s polarization, and see see Emile’s face for the first time through the Skirmisher carving and transparent visor. A single tear rolls down his cheek. He looks Six directly in the visor with two pain-ridden, bloodshot eyes and says, in his final words:
“That…that means a lot…”
The life slowly leaves his face, and Emile finally succumbs to his wounds. Noble Six stands up, and begins slowly walking away. He turns and looks at Emile one last time, before mounting the mass driver, knowing that now his own time has come.
“I’M READY? HOW ‘BOUT YOU?”
Honestly, Jorge to me is perfect. I don’t have much to say. He’s the one character outside of Noble Six I think Bungie nailed perfectly. Jorge’s motivations are clear – he wants to give back to Reach and it’s people after everything that they gave to him over the years – a home, the Spartan program, and a life of opportunity to do good in the universe. I think one change I would make is to maybe have him say some dialogue regarding his past history with the planet to solidify his motivations for fighting, but other then that, he’s perfect.
The Lone Wolf
Noble Six’s character (or rather, lack thereof) fits perfectly with the themes Halo: Reach tried to convey. Essentially, you were him. You see the characters of Noble, the fall of Reach, and the sacrifices of the UNSC all through his eyes. The interesting thing about Six is that in my version of Reach I’ve been building up in this article, I wouldn’t change a single thing about him at all – he fits perfectly into my changes to the rest of Noble due to the fact he ends up being supported by my version’s emotions and feelings of the rest of the team – in particular, Kat and Emile. However, I felt this design didn’t work well in the original Halo: Reach. When Noble lacks depth (which they overall did, in my eyes) Noble Six’s “The player and Six are one and the same” personality type doesn’t exactly work, because many things about the game are tied to the team aspect of Halo: Reach. In other words, the “Lone Wolf to Team Player” conversion that Six goes through doesn’t work if the team he’s playing for feels very empty and one-dimensional.
Now, onto the final part of this article. The Pillar of Autumn.
The ending of the game bothers me for one reason: to coexist with the book, which I BADLY want it too, then the Pillar of Autumn needs to be in orbit, fending off Covenant while John returns from his operation regarding the UNSC Circumference. Yet, in the game, it’s in the shipyard, waiting for the Cortana fragment. So…how could they fix this?
Well, here is how I would, heavily inspired by my friend HaruspexOfHell’s retcon of Reach.
Instead of Captain Keyes and the Autumn, we deliver Cortana to an officer of a UNSC frigate. The dialogue between Noble Six and the officer is identical to what is said with Keyes in the original. (This works because none of Keyes’ dialogue in the game was specifically related to him at all; replacing him with a standard UNSC officer works fine.)
Six has the tear-jerking moment with Emile, gets in the mass driver, and you begin blasting Phantoms out of the sky, eventually preventing the Covenant cruiser from shooting down the frigate by shooting it’s glassing beam. And then the ship is off.
We see a cutscene of the frigate linking up with several other UNSC ships, forming a skeletal convoy around the frigate as it speeds at breakneck pace towards the Autumn, which is just now receiving John and Linda’s body, back from the Circumference. Several ships get taken out, but the frigate gets near it’s destination. A single Longsword fighter pilot, with the Cortana fragment in tow, launches out of the frigate’s fighter bay and flies at top speed towards the hangar of the Autumn as squads of fellow Longswords, entire frigates and other vessels get blown out of the sky running escort like Vader slaughtering the rebels in Rogue One.
We then transfer over to a small gameplay segment – we take control of the Longsword with Cortana, tasked with one thing only:
Objective: Reach the Pillar of Autumn.
We’re flying at blinding velocity now as we desperately have to fly through a Covenant battlegroup that’s trading fire with the ever-durable Autumn. Our escort ships focus their point defense guns on any Seraphs or Banshee interceptors that turn our way as we fly between Covenant vessels, rolling sporadically to avoid getting obliterated by point defense lasers…and then we finally get there. We make it to the Autumn.
The pilot half-crash, half-lands the Longsword into the Autumn’s fighter bay, and immediately we cut to a scene of Keyes at the bridge giving the frantic order to jump to Slipspace. As several Covenant ships line up glassing beams on the Autumn and begin powering up, the Autumn manages to open a portal and escape just in time. The camera then slowly pans to show the last of our brave escort ships and fighters being completely destroyed.
We then return to Noble Six’s perspective. As Spirits, Phantoms and Banshees are heard and seen flying nearby, Six clenches his fist and prepares to do the only thing he can.
Take as many of the bastards as he can with him. Make them pay for what they’ve done to our comrades.
And then, after we do what we must, we know that the legend of what happened here will last forever.
How I’ve Re-imagined The Fall
That concludes my analysis of Halo: Reach’s writing and how I would have improved it. What do YOU think? I would love to see how you feel. I understand there are a lot of people who enjoy the way the game leaves details about the characters to your imagination, and I can definitely understand why people would enjoy that type of narrative, but I hope that this article has at the very least given you a clear and reasonable idea of Halo: Reach is like from my point of view, how I would fix it’s lore issues, and how I would change the character writing.
Thank you so much for reading. And remember…