People often talk about the grass in Halo: Combat Evolved, but I spent a lot of my time gazing at the skies, wondering what narratives were being played out on the canvas of space beyond my own personal war with the Covenant, as ships sparkled and popped like fireworks. At the time, most shooters had me staring down corridors and showing off their all-new lighting, particle and rendering effects: The videogame equivalent of jazz hands. But Halo had me looking at all that glorious, enigmatic, empty space.
The wonder of discovery and an awe-inspiring sense of scale. Those were the two initial – and lasting – takeaways from my love affair with Combat Evolved. As I fired up my Xbox, the rain-soaked cardboard box abandoned following a mad-dash out of Liverpool city centre following its midnight launch, I gripped that matte black hotplate of a controller and saw the next generation unfold. The crumpled copy of Edge’s “FXXK” issue in the corner had brought me to this point, and as I took my first steps on Halo, surging beacons in the distance and alien ecology surrounding me, I very nearly uttered the uncensored version of that cover line.
Combat Evolved’s chronological successors would never strike the same thunderous chords with me again, accomplished and thrilling as the later games often were. They couldn’t, they were bound by the narrative drive of Master Chief and the UNSC’s ongoing battle for survival in the face of extinction. But there was a wonderful clause to the way that Bungie had began its opus in medias res: it meant we hadn’t seen the true start of it all.
For me Reach is the only game since Combat Evolved that manages to recreate that game’s sense of discovery and scale. During my first playthrough I had my then-flatmate alongside me and, tellingly, not always with a controller in his hand: Reach is a game you can spectate on and still enjoy, still savour and marvel at.
For a start, it has the most beautiful lights in the sky this side of Combat Evolved. And not only that, it sends you flying into them to act out those distant space dogfights you’d only glimpsed from the ground in prior games. There are many narrative and stylistic ellipses in Reach that tie it back to the series’ debut title, but for me the ability to get up there, to finally be swimming through those skies, is the most meaningful gesture.
There’s much more besides flying through the air that makes Reach a classic, of course: crucial additions and alterations to the core Halo formula. When Combat Evolved arrived it felt like a veritable best-of compilation of the FPS genre. The best singleplayer AI and balancing since Half-Life, the best split-screen multiplayer modes and map layouts since Goldeneye, and the same is true of Reach albeit for the ten years since. There’s the perks, ranking, jet-packs, customisations, a toolkit for user-generated maps and modes that makes everyone an architect in an instant… The list goes on and on, like the far reaches of space.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I haven’t played a Halo since Reach. When I knew it was Bungie’s last, I knew it would be mine too, at least for a while. And how poignant that Bungie’s big parting shot in the game is also mine, ours. That last big, world-changing shot fired in the campaign, sent screaming from an MAC cannon, is one initiated by us, the players; the community that Bungie values so highly and that helped turn it into one of the world’s most revered studios.
I still spend a lot of time gazing at the skies in Halo: Reach, wondering what narratives are being played out on the canvas of space beyond my own personal war with the Covenant, captivated by sombre, soothing skies while other shooters are obsessed with smacking me about the face with more effects, more features, more weapons, more… everything.
Bungie’s Destiny isn’t far off, of course, and in it likely lies my next chance to be truly awed by the subtle stories of a skybox. Until then, I’ll just keep looking up.