Born On Whatever Day UNSC was Founded
Long awaited, Reach is the fourth installment in the Halo franchise following the story of Master Chief. At the close of Halo 3 our favorite Spartan was stricken with a severe spinal injury. Reach continues mere weeks later with Master Chief waking up aboard a VA hospital ship. The opening sequence explains that the spinal damage is irreversible and Master Chief will never be able to walk again, let alone fight. A bold new direction, to be sure.
The hospital sequence acts as a tutorial for the new mechanics. At first you are bed ridden and can only interact with items close enough to reach from your reclined position. There is a fair bit of puzzle solving, involving the use of nearby paraphernalia to extend your sphere of influence on the world. You might need to hold a water bottle so you can reach far enough to turn on the radio, for example.
The game also features an incredibly full featured dialog system. Progressing through each stage requires in depth conversations with nurses, doctors, other patients, a UNSC psychiatrist, etc. Eventually your recovery progresses to the point that you are given a wheelchair and released. UNSC arranges for you to receive disability commensurate with your service record and you are provided lodgings in a kind of half-way house for injured Spartans.
The rest of the game is really about coming to terms with this new phase in Master Chief’s life. You are placed at odds with a world not built for wheelchairs or prepared to cope with all the wounded soldiers. While the gameplay focuses on the mundane struggles of shopping or going to the bank, it is also intercut with flashbacks to Master Chief’s first mission, juxtaposing his struggle to assert himself as a soldier with his current struggle to adjust to life as a paraplegic veteran.
Strangely, those sequences of epic warfare are completely non-interactive. Bungie seems intent on reinforcing this feeling that the past is set and there’s no going back to what Master Chief once was and he can never become whole again until he can let go of those memories and embrace the present.
On the multiplayer front, Bungie has provided two very different, highly innovative modes. Competitive multiplayer features a Murderball-style futuristic version of Rugby for paraplegics. There are eight different fields with slight variations on size and arrangement and the game plays something like a very intimate, full contact capture the flag.
There is also full campaign co-op where you play along side another wounded Spartan and together conspire to solve environmental puzzles. Tasks include things like lifting a nurse’s skirt on the sly, reaching a box of cereal on top of the fridge or trying to catch a squirrel that snuck in to the house.
The graphics are what you expect, a colorful refinement of what you’ve seen in ODST and Halo 3. The music is again wonderful, poignant and masterfully rendered. The controls are tight, but take a little getting used to. It’s absolutely polished, just like you expect from Bungie.
I found the game striking, but am a bit concerned as to how the average Halo fans will react. Halo: Reach in many ways cribs from the indie/arty scene of PC games in the way it crafts a gut-wrenching emotional experience. Whether that will resonate with the mainstream as much as it did with me, I can’t say.