Ask Halo fans what the series’ best beach level is, and most will give the same answer: The Silent Cartographer. As the most iconic level in Halo: Combat Evolved overall, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree. Its nonlinear approach, which encourages exploration and lets you complete objectives in any order, tense firefights, and curiosity-inducing plot threads give it a balanced feel that few other Halo levels can match.
Yet here I am, head above the parapet, offering a counterpoint to that opinion. For me, there’s another beach mission in the franchise that is seriously underrated and, dare I say, better — Halo: Reach’s Long Night of Solace.
It might seem sacrilegious to say so, but Solace deserves more credit than it gets. The mission’s emotional impact, perfectly refined gameplay, pounding soundtrack, and level design stand up against Cartographer. Solace’s ability to squeeze all of this into its relatively brief beach section makes it a superior level.
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Storming the Beach
With four Halo titles under their belt prior to Halo: Reach’s development, Bungie was able to tweak and perfect the franchise’s combat system for their series’ swan song. Battling the Covenant has always been fun and frenetic, but the improvements and additions to Reach’s combat made it an utter joy to play.
For starters, you weren’t a one-man army anymore. It was always a thrill to kick butt as Master Chief, but there was something about fighting alongside your Noble Team squad mates that made battles feel more alive. Your teammates’s callouts about enemy positions, commands to coerce you into flanking the Covenant, and banter made it feel like you weren’t alone. Even if you were playing the campaign solo, it wasn’t one genetically enhanced space marine against the world. You felt an affinity with your comrades, and looked out for them even if they couldn’t actually be downed or killed. As Master Chief, you feel bound to protect UNSC marines you fight alongside during Cartographer, but the camaraderie of being part of a specific team just wasn’t there. The troops you fight alongside as Master Chief are mostly unidentifiable and, without your Spartan abilities and upgrades, can be easily killed. They’re your charges, rather than your comrades.
Solace’s beach battles are bigger in scale too. With the Covenant’s invasion of Reach in full swing, Noble Team comes up with a plan — Operation: UPPER CUT — to destroy the titular Long Night of Solace supercarrier. To destroy it using a makeshift Slipspace bomb, Noble Team needs to regain control of the Sabre Program facility, launch into space to intercept a Covenant Corvette to plant the bomb, and detonate it as the Corvette refuels the ship.
Attempting to retake the Sabre Program facility leads to a swift Covenant response. Drop pods continually deliver Elites to the battlefield, Jackal snipers line the shore’s cliff edges, and plasma grenade-equipped kamikaze Grunts all attempt to halt your progress. The battle becomes a real challenge on Heroic and Legendary difficulties as you take cover, strafe, and use your armor ability to stay alive.
Nowhere is the scale of Solace’s coastline contest more evident, however, than with regards to its infinitely spawning enemies. After successfully fighting your way to the Sabre launch facility’s entrance, Covenant Spirit dropships will continually deploy troops onto the beach. It isn’t compulsory to engage them, but doing so provides an optional tough challenge especially on Heroic or Legendary. This isn’t the only campaign mission where you face unlimited enemies — the game’s Lone Wolf level does this too — but it’s the only one where you can receive the Unfrigginbelievable medal for killing 40 enemies without dying. You can’t boast about this achievement to your friends on Cartographer, but you can on Solace.
Seashore Sights and Sounds
There’s so much more background activity in Solace’s beach section than Cartographer’s as well. Seraphs and Phantoms bombard the Sabre facility. Airborne vehicles crash into the building and onto the seafront. Sabre base turrets light up the sky with endless rounds of ammunition to hold off the enemy assault. And, once inside the facility, you head into orbit to partake in the only playable ship-to-ship space combat fight in the series. The game’s lighting and graphics make every peripheral event look and feel more punchy, and adds a tumultuous background layer to your personal skirmishes.
Cartographer’s opening section comes with Halo’s legendary orchestral score attached, so it seems silly to try and compare Solace’s music to the former’s iconic arrangement. Master Chief isn’t the hero of this story though. Halo’s renowned score is intertwined with Master Chief’s story, so Solace required something unique. As it happens, iconic Halo composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori returned to score Halo: Reach and give us the edgy music that Solace’s beach assault required. Pulsating guitar riffs and deafening drums add to the intensity of the firefight, and keep you focused on your objectives despite the hectic scenes playing out around you. The rousing soundtrack pumps you up and juxtaposes the emotional story blows that are to come later in the level.
It’s the Hope That Kills You
Halo: Reach is a unique entry in the series. Halo: The Fall of Reach, the Halo: Combat Evolved prequel novel, told us in advance that there would be no happy ending to the game — it ends with the world falling to the Covenant. Solace proves to be the turning point in the game’s plot, as Jorge-052, one of the Noble Team Spartans, sacrifices himself at the mission’s end and sets up Noble Team’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop the Covenant from glassing Reach.
However, the level’s opening beach section still offers hope that Reach can be saved. Noble Team’s plan seems solid — destroying the Covenant supercarrier, could turn the tide of the war. It would give the UNSC and Reach’s inhabitants hope and inspire confidence to push on and defeat the invading forces. We know that Reach won’t survive, though, and it makes Noble Team’s increasing desperation to stop the Covenant emotionally gripping in a way that Cartographer isn’t.
Cartographer is only the fourth mission in the entire series, which means that we don’t yet have an emotional connection to Master Chief, Cortana, and the rest of the cast. Conversely, we’re already invested in Noble Team by the time that Solace rolls around due to its position as the sixth campaign mission in Reach. It makes storming the beach a more personal, emotionally invested fight than Cartographer’s opening area. We strive to keep Noble Team, and the rest of Reach’s inhabitants, alive even though we know it’s a futile endeavour.
Long Night of Solace’s beach portion isn’t actually that long. It’s a small part of a longer campaign level and, in the scheme of Halo: Reach’s plot, it’s a drop in the ocean. But compared to The Silent Cartographer’s lengthy seaside mission, there’s more depth to Solace than you might think.
The perfected combat system, compelling score, graphical fidelity, and emotional resonance combine to make its beach section as dynamic, powerful, and stirring as possible. It marks a critical shift in the game’s arc from hope to despair, and leads into the emotionally charged ending that also ended Bungie’s involvement in the franchise.
It might not be an hour-long journey, provide a shocking twist, or be on many gamers’ lists as a brilliant beach level. Long Night of Solace, though, acts as a platform for the original Halo trilogy’s plot. Without the beach assault, we wouldn’t have the supercarrier’s destruction and subsequent arrival of a larger Covenant fleet to destroy Reach, Noble Team escorting Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn to team up with Master Chief, and — ironically — The Silent Cartographer mission itself.