I’ve been meaning to write about Halo: Reach for about two weeks now. At every point, I sit down and resist the urge to talk about the epic nature of the thing. Soonafter, my train of thought derails as I relive vignettes associated with the game – standing in line outside of a Best Buy, listening as one of the too-young linebots complains about all the homework he’ll have to make up and the weed he should have brought; tackling two chapters a day in order to keep from burning out; waiting for a friend of mine to receive his pre-order, which shipped Monday afternoon but arrived Saturday morning; feeling a comforting sense of serenity after failing the last mission. There is a jumble of imagery and feeling that resists every attempt I've thrown at it to come undone.
It's come to make me realize that what I have to say about the game is paltry at best and a complete tedium of repetition at worst. I could quibble on changes to the Halo UI feeling like they were gearing towards a 3D future, pontificate on the use of unlockables and pseudo-microtransactions as yet another layer added to the multiplayer meta-game, bemoan the graphical upgrades that leave the last game in the series out of chronological step with the visual canon of the franchise, celebrate the Tragedia del Macho that being on the losing side of history requires. All this is well worn and, truly, not what I call to mind when thinking about Reach.
As much as I hate to acknowledge it, as much as it pains me to commit to electronic paper, my takeaway from Reach is a sense of epic grandeur. But it’s something that has little to do with anything pressed onto the silicon disc that faithfully sits in my living room: it’s a sense of epic camaraderie.
The first few weeks that I had ownership of my Xbox flew away in a tizzy of game demos. As an early Christmas present goes, it was quite the double-edged sword. I knew the thing hooked into my entertainment center was promising, but I had no way of extracting any tangible, long-lasting fun from it. Had it not been for one gift, I likely would have lost interest in the machine.
On Christmas eve, my coworker presented me with an uncharacteristic act of charity: one freshly used copy of Halo 3, as purchased from the local Blockbuster Video. What followed was a night fueled by turkey leftovers, juice, and Theraflu. Beginning at 9:00 that evening, and lasting well past 6:45 a.m., my friend and I tackled the entirety of the Halo 3 campaign on its hardest difficulty. All in one sitting.
As I think back on it, it wasn’t really the game, or the promise of seeing the close of one of the generation’s most hyped plots, that held my interest. It was really the feeling of friendship – the cursing and strategizing and cooperation – that left me with such a glowing impression. Months later, when I replayed bits of the campaign on my own, there was a nagging sense of plainness stalking the session.
I felt echoes of that as I ran through Reach unaided. Playing with the folks on my friends list, certain GWJers included, lends a vibrancy to the whole thing that is impossible to replicate on my own. There’s no joy to accidentally blowing up a carrier helicopter full of bots. There’s much greater shame (and quiet fun) to doing so with a troop of humans. The puzzled cries following the explosion are especially tantalizing.
There’s certainly a lot to enjoy about Reach, and there’s an equally lengthy discussion to be had about what Bungie’s swan song to the series signifies. But playing through Reach has made me realize that my fundamental view on the Halo Universe is a departure from the experience of a lone superhuman plowing through wave after wave of enemies. For me, the story of Reach is told only through a pack of friends, some mildly insulting (and always comical) headset chatter, and memorable slices of being.