I lost my weekend at Halo: Reach .
I did not intend that. Yes, I love Reach but I did not want to travel back in time. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Death Stranding are among the new sharpness I have barely touched. Included in the game pass. Ready to play. At some point I gave way. I'll just play the first mission, I told myself, for the sake of nostalgia. It's old. It's probably not as good as I remember.
I was wrong. Instead of taking a casual trip back in time, I dove deep into one of the best first person shooter campaigns ever made. It reminded me how much Bungie bowed down his design know-how in its heyday and how the developer has since pushed aside the pursuit of fun in favor of an infinite evolution.
On a Mission
Destiny's the first year was haunted by a single phrase. "This sorcerer came from the moon." Peter Dinklage's famous, flat voice (which was later replaced) emptied a revelation that was meant to fascinate you, and drew you into the bizarrely layered tradition of fate (1
The wizard mission, with the official title The Dark Within, roughly follows a Halo perfected Formula Bungie. After battling enemies over the magnificently rendered Cosmodrone, you are directed into intense, dark, cramped corners. The danger is approaching. The battles are more intense. At some point, you face the wizard, a mini-boss who can fly, has shields, and beats you with violent bursts of energy.
At some point you fight the wizard. But it's all wrong.
The same contrast between open spaces and narrow corridors was used again and again in Halo to control the intensity – and danger – of his missions. Open areas are spacious, fast and epic. Narrow corridors are intense, claustrophobic, deadly.
Except … Destiny botched the formula.
The Cosmodrone looks stunning, but feels drab. Enemies are too ineffective, too sparse, too far away. Vehicles? The only vehicle you can access is the Sparrow (even if it is not unlocked the first time) and it is unarmed. Apart from your own impatience, there is no pressure to move quickly or slowly.
Entering the lunar complex in which the sorcerer lurks should be more cautious and deliberate. That's not the case. While halo interiors often provide a few ways forward, the lunar complex, like many of the interiors in Destiny is simple and too often fraught with bottlenecks. Darkness does not hide any challenging battles, but a series of lame jump-fear delivered by Hive villains.
Finally you fight the wizard. But it's all wrong. The cramped space restricts the flying sorcerer, who can easily be cornered and dispatched. Waves of smaller enemies try to distract from this problem, but are too weak and obvious to hold you back for a long time. Then the sorcerer dies and that's it. The mission ends and Dinklage (later replaced by Nolan North) says the famous line.
Compare this to Winter Contingency, the first (real) mission of Halo: Reach which serves the identical purpose of pulling the curtain from a big evil. In the first few minutes, you will not shoot, but capture the scenery of the game as you explore a linear but open area. The scene increasingly contains menacing signs that something is very, very wrong. When the covenant is revealed, it is inside and in a small space and makes for a hectic first encounter.
There follows a series of firefights that quickly switch from room to room between larger open brawls and strained battles. It's not particularly difficult or long, but it skillfully performs a bite-sized rendition of the formula that Bungie has perfected since Halo: Combat Evolved .
They are briefly bombarded by enemy fighters. Friendly planes shadow you in the distance. A short Warthog sequence gives you the opportunity to drive or shoot the big, clunky tower. It all ends in a tense and potentially deadly close combat with two Zealots leading the ever-frightening Energy Sword. The Zealots are smart enough to hide when they try to distance themselves but can kill you with one swipe. You are forced into a cat and mouse game in which it is unclear which role you fill.
Both missions follow a common mission formula and serve the same purpose. But where Destiny stumbles out the gate Halo: Reach begins strong. Winter Contingency offers more variety, more challenges and better story beats than The Dark Within.
Bungie has been trying to improve Destiny's missions, but despite the five years that have passed, the problems remain the same. Diversity, if attempted, is introduced by cumbersome, obvious mechanics. Sometimes you have to pick up a ball. Or move something. Or wait until a sign drops off.
However, none of these increases your heart rate, as Destiny 2 still relies heavily on linear spaces and predictable waves of enemies that sometimes have respawns on them. Even so, Destiny's campaign missions are not difficult. The real challenge is reserved for Nightfall Strikes and Raids, both activities that a new player can not access without investing ten hours in the game.
It's all part of Bungie's plan
Destiny's failure to reach the heights of Halo: Reach and that of the Halo franchise as a whole are no incompetence. Bungie recalls the formula that made Halo: Reach an instant classic, and has tried to repeat it in Destiny . However, the formula remains unchanged since Destiny is another franchise in a different genre with different goals.
Halo: Reach had a campaign with one goal: to deliver an outstanding single-player experience. Players could revisit it on a higher difficulty level, but Bungie knew that many would not. Halo's famous multiplayer is a separate and independent experience. The campaign, which lasted only 10 hours at a leisurely pace, had to impress the players on their own.
Destiny just has to be fun enough. The real goal is the binding of the players. Bungie needs players who come back again and again. Moment-to-moment gameplay is a kind of progressive window dressing that keeps players coming back. This treadmill has all the experience, no matter which mode you play. The treadmill is the real game.
I do not begrudge Destiny . I'm stepping up through the famously long campaign of Final Fantasy XIV: A Reborn Empire so I'm done. Give me numbers with a way to get them up and I can entertain myself.
Even so, my weekend with Halo: Reach was a wonderful, hard reminder of the rigid profits of games in the past decade. Destiny 2 is bigger, louder and more attractive than anything else in the Halo series. A new player loading Destiny 2 faces a pile of #content today that can outlive any end-to-end halo game.
But when I think of fun – the moment-by-moment joy of interweaving a complex, varied, historic mission – Halo: Reach is a generation above all what Bungie has since made.