I realise now that the name “Master Chief Collection” was a poor choice for this compilation, because the two best games out of the five Halo titles that I have now played are ones in which the titular Chef is nowhere in sight.
Halo: Reach is the game they wanted me to play first; a notion which I rejected in favour of playing the games in their original release order (with their original potato graphics where appropriate). While Reach‘s narrative may take place seconds before the original Halo, like all prequels, it wouldn’t make a lick of sense if you were just dropped straight into it. You really do need to have played the others first.
It would also be hella jarring to go from one of the best games in the series right back to its… uhhhh… roots.
That’s not to say that Reach has a great opening either; yet again, it starts super-cold and offers basically no context. No introductory crawl, no mission briefing and little set-up dialogue; just some dramatic panoramic shots of the planet Reach and your not-silent-just-very-quiet super-soldier arriving to join his new squad.
Indeed, I was initially confused about whether Reach was going to be a scenario about first contact with the alien Covenant. It begins by sending your six-member super-soldier team to investigate an attack which they believe was performed by “rebels” but… what rebels? The entire rest of the franchise has never mentioned rebels? Who or what are they rebelling against anyway? Don’t think about it, rebels are never mentioned again. Your squad are quizzical about the state of the attack zone: there’s wrecked stuff but “no explosive residue”, the implication being that plasma weapons (i.e. aliens?) caused it rather than conventional human ordnance.
It’s a setup that would make perfect sense in a universe where humanity had never actually seen plasma weaponry before (maybe a throwaway comment about “that kind of thing hasn’t left the lab yet, has it?”). Except no, when you find some scared colonists hiding from “something”, a short jog along the path and you’re onto the traditional Covie troops and everyone already knows what they are. The shock is that the Covenant are on the planet Reach, not that they exist at all, but since I haven’t actually been told why Reach is significant yet or why the Covenant wouldn’t be there…
Which set the whole thing a bit off kilter to me. If I was a first-time player who had no idea who the Covenant were, or how Reach was an important military staging ground for the human defence against them — as the Master Chief Collection wanted to position me — I would have no idea what to think. Am I meant to be shocked by the appearance of the aliens? Who even are they and why are they attacking random farmers?
These are all questions that only have answers in retrospect. It’s a prequel, but it only “works” as the 5th game in the series, because I understand all this context from having played those other games — all this context that the game itself does not give me. I genuinely don’t think I’d have enjoyed playing Reach under those circumstances.
But this is a recurring problem with the whole franchise. As a player I’ve consistently had to work to piece together the plot, and not because it’s particularly deep or complex — more because the games are consistently awful at presenting it. All of them are replete with moments where a couple of extra lines would solve these story problems — and all the games (except ODST) are missing a fucking opening crawl.
Luckily, in a stunning departure from Halo franchise norms, there were at least three new weapons introduced in the first half hour or so, and several more after that.
First, I dived for a dead Jackal’s weapon, thinking it was my previous favourite the Covenant Carbine — but no! I had picked up a Needle Rifle, which has all of the pink crystal style of the Needler except with pinpoint accuracy and none of the inexplicable homing bullshit. I also stumbled on a more powerful version of the Plasma Rifle (the Plasma Repeater), and I always enjoyed getting a shot with the delightfully high-explosive Concussion Rifle. And then I got a shot with an aerial bombardment target painter…
That’s not even everything! After so many games of the exact same not-very-extensive weapon set, it was frankly shocking to see so many fresh faces dropped with such wild abandon, so quickly. Especially ones that finally felt really nice to use! I think Halo: Reach might actually be a good shooter.
It’s not just the weapon roster that had a long-overdue tune-up, either. Amongst the staple vehicles there are a few new additions, including cute civilian flatbeds and even a forklift to go alongside the new Covenant half-tank, the Revenant. Hell, there are big ostritch-like critters and a couple of random wild animal aliens that crop up to fight, so the expansion really is all-encompassing.
Though it still hasn’t really gone far enough. Like Halo 3: ODST, the open outdoor levels include many extra buildings to explore, but there’s still not a lot to find in them beyond the odd discarded weapon, health pack or simply a nice overlook for sniping with that delicious Needle Rifle.
Once again, I am left pining for Halo to be an RPG — I want to find side quests, items, computers with logins and passwords and lore (actually there do seem to be very rare datapads, the two of which I found were full of prophetic pseudo-nonsense that I couldn’t decipher). I can well see why Peter Jackson wanted to make films out of this stuff; it’s good solid space opera in appropriately grand environments but it never quite seems to have the interactivity or depth to fill those spaces. The more linear cinematic format would probably suit this front-loaded bombast which actually has very little substance behind it.
So is it the best Halo? I’m not sure. It’s definitely the best shooter of the series, with its vastly improved selection of… pretty much everything. I haven’t even mentioned the occasional jetpacks, or the whole space dogfighting level! And it is a very pretty game, appropriately colourful or moody as each level requires. Those things that the Halo franchise has always got right at least are still right and good here.
But its narrative stutters in too many places, with many hooks and bits of dialogue not quite hanging together naturally. ODST had a stronger narrative for being very clear-cut and self-contained, while Reach is clearly contorting itself to be the grand setup for the Master Chef’s tentpole games (which is even more laughable now that I know they are Not As Good).
Oh well, two good games out of five ain’t bad. Nah, that’s not fair — the others, as I remarked at the time, are fine. And despite its clunky narrative, Reach is definitely good.
The question now arises, of course, over whether I play Halo 4 — which is included in the Master Chief Collection, but which is the first part of a sequence including Halo 5 and the not-out-yet Halo: Infinite… Both of which I’d have to buy separately, and considering my aging GTX 970 (that will likely never get replaced due to the ongoing graphics card shortage), might not even be able to run. Do I end on a high and call it quits with Reach, or do I open a can of worms I might not be able to stomach? Eep.
Oh well, I’ve still got a load of Season Points to spend while I think it over… whatever they are. Yes, even the compilation meta-software is awful at explaining any of its features. Consistency, consistency, consistency.