Bursts of plasma energy fill the air around me, leaving scorch marks in the wall just feet behind my head. I hide behind a broken-down tank, my shields recharging, checking my weapons. The usual arsenal of far-out sci-fi weaponry: a plasma rifle, an alien sniper weapon. Then I make a plan, trying to chart a path of destruction through the aliens bearing down on me. I pop out of cover, ready my weapons, and get to work.
I’ve done this a hundred times before. It’s the basic combat rhythm of Halo, a chaotic sandbox of supersoldier vs. alien menace, one of the defining gaming experiences of the early 21st century. Halo and its sequels made the Xbox a viable videogame platform, proved that first-person shooters could work on consoles, and fundamentally changed the videogame landscape. The story was simple, with enough depth in the margins to create exhaustive lore for serious fans to pore over: an alien armada called the Covenant advancing on a futuristic, spacefaring human society. We are losing. You’re here to fight back.
Now, for the first time, these games—the entire series, sans the most recent Halo 5—will be on PC, opening them up to a new platform audience for the first time since a pretty good *Halo: Combat Evolved * PC port and a disastrous Games For Windows Live port of Halo 2 in the mid-2000s. They will come as part of the Master Chief Collection, an omnibus archival project featuring updated versions of Halos 1-4, and the two spinoff titles, Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach.
I’m thrilled about this news, and I’m not the only one—fans were so excited that they sent developer 343 Industries pizza. So much pizza, in fact, that 343 had to beg them to stop. Recently, I’ve found myself revisiting these games, particular Halo: Reach and Halo: ODST, both of which will find their way to a non-Xbox audience for the first time ever soon. (No release date is announced, but the games will appear on PC in order of their place in the fiction, beginning with Halo: Reach and continuing until the entire MCC is out.)
ODST and Reach are different from the other Halo games, and I think in 2019 they offer some of the most compelling experiences the series has to offer. If anyone is taking lessons from Halo in 2019, I suggest it should be these two games they take lessons from, because they offer something that, in the world of games, is increasingly special.
In the primary series, Halo 1-5, you play as Master Chief , the ultimate human supersoldier, or someone like him. A character who has a reputation for preternatural luck, who always wins every fight they’re in, who singlehandedly changes the course of history every game. You fight, and you advance, and even if you have to resort to desperate tactics, you always win in the end.
In Reach and ODST, however, you don’t. You play as normal humans in ODST and much less lucky, slightly less powerful supersoldiers in Reach. And you get a new experience, one that I don’t see nearly as often in triple-A games as I’d like: You learn what it’s like to lose.
Both campaigns have you, as a player, constantly on the back foot. You find yourself regularly overpowered, cornered, trying to cut through massive numbers of enemies. Both campaigns have siege moments, protracted defense sections that end not with you winning but you retreating, usually setting off bombs to destroy whatever was behind you, a scorched-earth defense that buys time but not much else.
These Halo games offer the experience of being a hero, fighting impossible odds, winning battles, and even saving lives. They also offer a distinct flavor of experience, one that communicates desperation, the experience of being overwhelmed, the experience of fighting battles against opponents you know you can’t beat. Master Chief never runs away from a fight, but in these games, you do. You have to.
This isn’t the sort of experience you get much in new single-player games. These games seem to have less friction than ever before, and victory comes relentlessly and constantly, a heavy stream of positive reinforcement that emphasizes and amplifies every success of the player. The ride can be fun, sure, but there’s a thrill in occupying a more complex, more fragile role. There’s something engaging about being able to role-play as a character willing to take risks, to make sacrifices, to possibly die, fighting the unlikely battles so the big heroes can someday win the war. It’s exhilarating to be the hero holding the line at the Battle of Thermopylae, seeing your defeat but trying to hold the line as long as you can anyway.
When the Halo games come to PC, I’d recommend all of them, but these two especially, for the specific way they frame their settings, reversing standard empowerment narratives and forcing you to be a more creative player, a more thoughtful player, in the process. Any superhero can win a war. To be the one who helps the hero, despite the odds—that takes something special. The most interesting Halo games let you occupy that role, and they’re essential for it.