You drop right into a firefight, plasma crackling as it flies past your head. You push forward, blasting away at a pack of grunts, causing them to panic. An Elite taunts you with a burst of blue fire from his rifle, but he backs off when, having caught your attention, you go after him. Starting right in the thick of things is a wonderfully chaotic way to begin a level — in this case, the level is ONI: Sword Base, and it showcases everything great about Halo: Reach.
When I discovered that Halo: Reach had been added to the Xbox One's backwards compatibility mode, I couldn't resist another playthrough. Reach was Bungie's last Halo game, released in 2010 before 343 Industries took it over, but it's a prologue for the entire series, setting up the events of Halo: Combat Evolved and everything that follows. Sword Base is one of the many great levels in Reach, but to me it's the purest one, a level of textbook perfection that balances player freedom with great pacing.
You play as Noble Six, a super soldier Spartan like Master Chief, and the planet you're on, Reach, is being invaded by the alien alliance known as the Covenant. ONI: Sword Base is the campaign's third mission, and it's set near the beginning of the invasion, when the Covenant are really hitting Reach hard. Your job is to rescue Dr. Halsey, a VIP working for the Office of Naval Intelligence located at Sword Base.
Bungie drops you right into the action: you have to clear out the Covenant who are assaulting the base. Halo games normally provide you with a clear vantage point before entering a fight, allowing you to plan your avenue of attack. However, Sword Base starts you downhill, so you can't really see what's going on up ahead. If you're quick, you can nail a trio of advancing grunts with your DMR, a semi-automatic precision rifle, before the reticle has even loaded in. If you're not, you're going to face an uphill battle.
Approaching the encounter from below is great because it obfuscates your vision. Because you can't see what's going on ahead, you're inclined to push forward, with the grunts ahead act like breadcrumbs to pull you forward.
Halo's AI has always been great, but it's at its most interesting in Reach. Sometimes, you'll manage to lure an Elite to the top of the right hand side of the map; other times, you'll draw the attention of a few curious jackals. You have three options — left, middle, right — and depending on where the enemies show up, you can end up tackling the firefight from three different directions, each one playing a little differently. It's a nice way to bring some variation to the encounter.
It's a chaotic firefight, too, leaving you no room to breathe. As soon as the mission starts, you're knee-deep in the dead. More than a dozen enemies await you at the top of the hill, including an Elite with the concussion rifle, the Covenant equivalent of a grenade launcher. It's an intense, exhilarating fight on Heroic difficulty, and it sets the tone for the rest of the level: things only get more intense from here.
A big problem a lot of shooters face is one of communication: how do you tell the player when and where the enemies are coming from without it feeling too confusing or artificial? I've played plenty of modern military shooters where I've had to try to figure out which samey-looking enemy was doing the most damage so I could focus on him. But Halo's answer to this has been slow-moving, easily-distinguishable enemy attacks. It's easy to differentiate between a concussion rifle, a plasma pistol, or a needler, because each one looks so distinct. This combat legibility allows you to make decisions quickly.
The distinct visuals of enemy attacks also help you prioritise them — the Elite with the concussion rifle is going to cause you problems, but his projectile is so distinct that he highlights himself with each attack. Halo does everything in its power to let you know who's doing what, which means that you can dedicate your all of your brain power to tactics. Want to use a needler? Find the guy with the pink projectiles. See that grunt who just equipped a bright blue grenade? Shoot him so he drops them and blows up his friends. Colour inspires tactics.
Not only that, but the slowness of the projectiles and the generosity of the recharging shield system help you realise when something's hitting you from behind. You can see projectiles whirring past and spin around, immediately identifying who was shooting at you. You never end up feeling like you're unaware or someone surprised you.
For all these reasons, it's almost a shame that the beginning of Sword Base ends too quickly. A few skirmishers — a jackal variant — attack, but you dispatch them easily and move on. Your reward for this is the target designator, a power weapon that only has two shots. You'll need them both, because a pair of Covenant tanks are approaching your position. The target designator makes taking them out an easy task, but it's still a satisfying one. After the brief but intense battle you've been through, watching the tanks explode is a great conclusion, a fantastic pick-me-up before what's to come.
This approach to pacing is another thing that makes Reach such a great game. It puts you in a stressful battle, then gives you a power weapon that makes you feel awesome. Each encounter has a distinct emotional quality to it, which staves off the repetition other shooters sometimes suffer from.
After you blow up the tanks, things get better: a dropship flies in and gives you a Warthog to drive around in. You hop in, your AI buddies join you, and you're presented with two different options: go right to activate an anti-aircraft gun turret to clear the sky of invading forces, or go left to fix a radio beacon to get back in contact with Command.
This degree of choice is welcome. So many games these days force you through ultra-linear corridors, make you wait for people to open doors, or take camera control away from you at inopportune moments. Reach does the opposite, letting you pick which objective you want to do next.
Going right, you'll have a nice, quick engagement with some Covenant forces. Press on and you'll find the gun with a dozen or so Covenant protecting it. Most of them are easily dispatched with the Warthog's mounted gun, but a pesky Elite sitting on top of a nearby building has a concussion rifle that can quickly flip your Warthog if you're not careful. Worse still, because the gun isn't functioning, the Covenant are able to fly more troops in to keep you on your toes. It's a crazy encounter, made completely different by the addition of the Warthog, though the ease with which it can be toppled means you can't just blast through the fight.
Race to the top of the structure, take out the concussion rifle-carrying Elite, slam the button to reactivate the gun, and you're rewarded with the massive gun spinning up and firing at the approaching Covenant forces. It makes your actions feel tangible and meaningful. Compare this with Halo 4, where an entire level is spent moving from point A to point B, pressing a button or two, not seeing any meaningful effect, and then returning back to point A. This moment in Reach makes you feel like you're striking back against the Covenant; it makes you feel heroic.
Hop back in the Warthog and follow the road. Pretty soon you'll find another small group of Covenant on your way to the radio facility. It's a quick, tense fight, with the Covenant throwing some ghosts into the mix to knock you off-balance. Once you've dealt with them, you'll find the radio facility. Covenant snipers overlook the area, a small force guards the two buildings that make up the facility, and then the Covenant Revenant makes an appearance. The Revenant is a sort of miniature tank, but it's still fast and deadly. It's a new challenge for your Warthog, once again completely different from every other encounter up until this point, with you playing the part of a matador and the Revenant acting as the bull. Once you've dispatched the Revenant, a Covenant dropship brings in a handful of skirmishers, but they're easily dealt with.
One of the buildings has a rocket launcher, which you could use on the Revenant, but there's a better use for it. A friendly dropship gives you a new Warthog — this one with a railgun that can kill most enemies in a single hit — and you can hop in and make your way back to Sword Base. If you had come the other way, tackling the radio station first before going to the gun turret, the dropship would have dropped the railgun Warthog there instead. Either way, you've got a powerful new vehicle.
This time, Sword Base is being guarded by a handful of Revenants, and you'll have to dodge all of them if you want to survive. Once, I managed it solo. Another time, I somehow convinced my AI partner to drive a separate Warthog, and she and I raced around the Revenants, the marines riding our mounted guns blasting them away. Both encounters were totally different experiences. One was tense and involved calculated movement; the other was wild and frantic. This kind of AI complexity allows for totally different play experiences that make Sword Base feel endlessly fresh.
Once you've killed the Revenants, the base's doors open up. Fight your way through more Covenant troops, and you'll notice that another set of doors has opened. It allows you into the facility's basement, which is great — except for the pair of Hunters guarding the entrance.
Hunters are tough. Most weapons just bounce off their armour, and they have got a powerful charge-up gun that can kill you almost instantly. But Bungie wisely makes the gun extremely readable so you can dodge it. The Hunters alternate this with a swift melee attack — they don't look fast, but when you're running away from one that's chasing you, they sure feel fast. But if you hit their weak point, they go down hard.
The next sequence puts all of your skills to the test in a gauntlet run up to the top of the building. It has multiple paths, with Covenant forces at critical junctures. The tight spaces are completely different from the large, open spaces of the rest of the level, but they create some great close-up combat encounters that allow for more melee and grenade use. The tight hallways ensure that enemies can't simply leap away the way they do in some of the more open areas, so you can do some real damage.
At the top of the building, you face off against three Elites — two are invisible, and another has that pesky concussion rifle. It's a challenging fight, and it doesn't help that a bunch of Covenant ships are bombarding you at the same time. I think it's the hardest encounter in the level, but taking out three Elites in quick succession then pummelling the Covenant ships with rockets is a satisfying conclusion to a tough mission.
Sword Base works for a multitude of reasons. On its own, it's paced beautifully: start off with a tight fight, get a power weapon to feel awesome about yourself, make the choice of one of two objectives with distinct challenges, then face off against two challenging fights in a row, first with Revenants and then with Hunters. After that, it's a tight gauntlet up to the final boss encounter. The mission's stakes are constantly escalating, but every encounter you overcome makes you feel heroic.
At the center of Sword Base's strength is the core combat unique to Halo. The clarity of enemy communication allows you to track way more information than you could in other games, allowing for a lot more planning and decision making than in other shooters in which you simply react to enemy fire. Halo is a game of proactivity, of thinking through encounters. Few shooters manage that. Even 343 Industries has failed to pull this off in its Halo entries.
Reach works because each enemy is distinct and immediately recognisable. Each weapon has a clear purpose and function. The guns and the enemies dictate how you move and play; pick up a pistol and an assault rifle, and you're going to be running around the battleground in a completely different way than a player carrying a shotgun and a needler. When Reach pairs that with the series of distinct encounters in Sword Base, you get one of the coolest levels in gaming.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.