Blow the Fusion Cores

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been playing through the Maser Chief Collection on PC with my friend Ryan in the evenings, often whilst waiting for it to cool down enough to do anything more taxing. I played a lot of Halo 1 and 2 as a kid on the original Xbox but never got around to the third game nor any of the spinoffs for a lack of the more recent consoles.

Their arrival on PC was something I’d been looking forward to for some time but for some reason despite buying the entire set on launch day I’d not touched them until now. We played through Halo Reach, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary and Halo 3 in co-op mode on normal difficulty and I’m going to share some thoughts on all four games. Expect another post in a few months when Halo: ODST and Halo 4 are out on PC as well.

Also, expect spoilers.

Halo: Reach

The last of the Bungie era of games was also the first chronologically, and it still looks pretty good. You play Noble Six (and Noble Six-A), a Spartan supersoldier transferred from covert black-ops to the Noble team who are at the start of the game being sent to investigate “suspected insurrectionist sabotage” of a communications array on the secret research planet of Reach.

Quick segue. This is basically the only mention in the games so far of the Insurrectionists. Halo’s background is pretty bleak. Earth commands a series of interstellar colonies with an iron fist and was, before aliens arrived to ruin everything, busy subjugating said colonists so hard they’d rebelled.

The entire Spartan program was designed to fight other humans, humans who objected to Earth nicking all of their stuff through systems of colonial oppression. It’s just handy that right when it came time to use those supersoldiers, aliens showed up and decided that humans were bad and had to go.

Back to Reach. You join Noble Team consisting of Kat, the tech specialist, Jorge, the very large weapons specialist, Noble One, your gruff leader, “I scratched a skull into my helmet and play with a large knife when I’m bored”, who is rude and some other guy who shows up in one mission with a sniper rifle. I don’t really remember anyone except Kat and Jorge.

You discover it’s not the Insurrectionists after all, it is in fact the Covenant! A religious alliance of multiple alien species that hate humans for ill described reasons at this point. They’re also winning the war, despite humanity having the supersoldiers. After doing some recon, you discover that the covenant are here to do some serious invading, and things very quickly go south.

Halo: Reach is a game that is full of amazing set pieces, and the first major one comes some way into the game where you sneak onboard the enemy capital ship with a spaceship engine rigged to explode and having fought your way on you discover that the automatic timer on your bomb doesn’t work. Jorge, the gentle giant, takes his helmet off, announces that he’s going to trigger the bomb manually and shoves you out of an airlock so that you can’t argue with him. It’s a touching moment, even if it’s a massive cliche wrapped in a second larger cliche.

It also sets a precedent that when a spartan takes their helmet off, they’re probably about to die doing something stupid.

The bomb goes off, the supercarrier gets exploded and everyone cheers. And then a hundred more of them arrive. Reach is now Grade A, Organic, Home Grown, Capital F Fucked. Your mission has changed from “beat the alien invaders” to “run away”. Before you can, the Office of Naval Intelligence (or ONI) have a side project for you. You need to go “destroy” a secret facility. Everyone moans about how it’s not worth your time to go do demolitions but SURPRISE you’re actually there to pick up a secret package and get it off-world.

Turns out there was a massive alien artifact on Reach from the Forerunners and they’ve unlocked part of it using an AI that you need to get to safety. That AI is Cortana, not the windows assistant but the glowy blue woman from the other Halo games.

The rest of the game is a series of big set-pieces where you shoot your way through a number of environments to get to the other side. Kat gets shot in the head by a sniper for no particular reason in a cutscene apart from to show you that Things Are Serious Now. Noble One takes his helmet off and then crashes a Pelican (big VTOL plane, one of the iconic Halo vehicles) into an enemy unit. Sniper dude dies at some point?

The last level has you fight your way through a shipyard to get to the last spaceship on Reach, the Pillar of Autumn, and Mr. Skull Helmet stays behind to man a big anti-air gun to give covering fire whilst you go with the ship. Except he gets shanked by an alien in a cutscene and you have to stay behind to man the gun instead. And then as a reward for finishing the game it gives you an infinite stream of enemies you can’t defeat.

Halo: Reach was a very fun game, even if a lot of it blurred together. It was generally well written for what it was and it was quite pretty even being a decade old at this point. The main issues I had with it were a few issues around pacing. A few levels had gimmicks that outstayed their welcome, but there were no obviously bad levels.

Halo: Combat Evolved

I feel kind of bad ragging on the original Halo. It set the standard for console shooters and when it’s in its element it is a wonderful game. But even with the Anniversary Edition remaster it’s not held up visually too well, and there’s not a lot they can do about the levels that don’t work.

The game opens where Reach left off (or more accurately, Reach ends where Halo started) and you’re presented with the titular Halo. A giant ring station floating in space. The Covenant are on it, and you crash land on it, You, playing as Master Chief, the last Spartan supersoldier, run around finding survivors until you discover that the Covenant have awoken the Flood, a hegemonic parasitic alien that takes over corpses and spread itself like an olive drab zombie nightmare. A flying robot football called Guilty Spark tells you that the ring is in fact a weapon to stop the flood.

This is where Halo takes an abrupt about face from being a really fun game about shooting colourful aliens in big, varied arenas and it instead forces you to traipse though basically the same corridor fifty times shooting the same enemies with fundamentally the shotgun, and then it makes you do it all again but in reverse. The level, Library, is the worst in the entire series. It’s dull, repetitive, needlessly hard and includes basically nothing of what makes Halo good.

Back to the story. You nearly fire the weapon until it’s revealed it stops the flood by killing off everything the flood could eat. (It’s also revealed that the Forerunners who built the Halo, also kept samples of the flood on Halo, for ill defined reasons). You don’t fire it, and you decide that the only way to stop both Halo and the flood is to blow it up. And so a plan is hatched to detonate the fusion reactor of the Pillar of Autumn, which will blow a huge hole in the ring and destroy it.

Halo briefly becomes fun again as you fight through a jungle and then a covenant ship to get the captain’s brain implants so that you can overload the reactors, and then through the wreckage of the Pillar of Autumn to get to the reactor to overload it.

And then there’s “The Maw”. The last bit of the last level has you drive a warthog (the iconic open top truck with a minigun on back) through “an access corridor” that runs the length of the ship. The game previously stated that the ship is about 1.5km long. The corridor is, by the game’s own nav marker, at least 3.5km long. It’s also a sodding rollercoaster. It has no reasonable excuse for existing as an in-universe thing. It’s also timed.

I feel like I should give the game some credit. It is 19 years old at this point and even the remaster is a decade old and functionally runs in the same engine. There are some problems though. Coming straight from Reach the downgrade in graphics were a bit of a punch in the face and the shift in the writing gave both of us a bit of whiplash. There’s a lot of the background that hadn’t been written in 2001, but it’s weird that a lot of stuff is painted as “we’ve never seen that before” in Halo 1 that everyone just knew by name in Halo Reach.

Halo 2

Halo 2 was remastered in 2014, including pre-rendered cutscenes for all the story bits. It is, at least so far, the best looking game in the series. If they just made a Halo film in the style they used for the cinematics I’d pay to watch that.

The story is roughly as follows. Master Chief is at Earth following his escape from Halo. There’s a ceremony to celebrate your victory against the covenant when SURPRISE they show up at Earth. You fight them on the space station you’re on until it turns out they brought a bomb with them to take out the orbital defence platforms. There’s a big bit at the start where a character exposits at you that these orbital defence platforms make Earth impossible to attack.

Anyway, you stop them from destroying the station you’re on but they’ve already gotten past and they land on Earth in Kenya at the city of New Mombassa. You tool around here for a bit fighting aliens whilst the game teaches you the ropes and there’s some pretty nice set pieces. The remaster makes it all look really, really nice and Halo 2 is probably still mechanically my favourite game. You can dual wield basically anything smaller than the rifle and it’s wonderful.

It’s still a lot lighter on the old story than Halo: Reach but there’s a lot more of it in the cinematics and they went to town on both the writing and the camera work. It’s a bit space opera schlock at times but that’s what you’re here for, right?

You fight through New Mombassa until it’s clear to the Covenant that they’ve seriously underestimated the defences and decide to bugger off. The only problem is that their big carrier is about 200 metres above the surface and when it leaves it levels the entire city. You follow in a small human spaceship to reveal…

Another Halo! It turns out the Covenant religion revolves around the Halos and they believe that firing them will start “the Great Journey”. Basically the rapture but for aliens and also everyone actually dies.

There’s also the B plot of the game where an elite, one of the alien races in the Covenant, is first tried for letting Master Chief destroy the first Halo and then instead of being executed is named “the Aribter” and sent on a series suicide missions to figure out how to activate the second Halo.

The Covenant are broadly a mix of the Hierarchs who sit on floaty chairs and talk about religion and order everyone else about, the Elites who are the big strong and clever aliens who are the backbone of the Covenant military, Grunts who are little triangle people who get scared a lot and run away, Hunters who are (and I don’t joke) barely sentient groups of worms living in a pair of giant suits of armour and equipped with a giant plasma cannon, and the Brutes, giant ape like aliens with an affinity for violence and the most recent addition to the Covenant.

Whilst the Aribter goes on several suicide missions and refuses to die, it’s revealed that the Hierarchs blame the Elites for the destruction of the first Halo and they give over the Elite’s favoured position in the Covenant to the Brutes, which culminates in the Brutes attempting genocide on the Elites. It’s all a bit stupid, and probably meant to be a parable about something. The Arbiter’s initial arc ends with the chieftan of the Brutes pushing you off a cliff.

Anyway, after landing on the second Halo you try to stop the Covenant from firing this new superweapon, run around doing a lot of shooting in a series of really fun, varied environments and then there’s several bits where instead the game makes you stand on a single moving platform whilst they throw enemies at you. This happens at least twice, and whilst it’s never quite as bad as the Library in Halo 1 it’s still pretty bad.

You end up killing the Prophet of Regret, one of the three leading Hierarchs, and the Covenant respond by blowing up the entire building you’re in. We see Master Chief fall into the water and get dragged away by a tenticle.

In Halo 1, the Flood were a mindless set of zombies, but Halo 2 introduces the Gravemind, the central intelligence of the Flood who speaks in iambic pentameter for reasons that are never explained. It’s captured both the Arbiter and Master Chief and gives a little speech about how circumstances have made them allies and that the Prophet of Truth now has the ability to activate the Halo. The speech includes the excellent line “This one is nerve and machine and has its mind concluded, this one is flesh and faith and is the more deluded”, which just sounds really nice.

The game resumes with Master Chief being teleported to the Covenant HQ where you shoot your way through that to get to the Prophet of Truth, but he gets away before you can get to him and importantly he sends the key off to Halo alongside two of your allies to fire the weapon as well. But surprise, Gravemind tricked you and this was mostly a ruse to infect the Covenant HQ with the Flood too, and you then have to fight your way back through the city but now it’s all infected and unlike the flood levels in Halo 1 it doesn’t get so repetitive.

Eventually you fight your way onto the spaceship that Truth is using to go to Earth for reasons and the Master Chief arc ends.

We pick up with the Arbiter again who is teleported back onto Halo and has to fight his way into the control room to stop the weapon being fired. It’s made all the more fun because now all the Elites have rebelled and it has turned into a full on civil war.

There’s a bunch of fun set pieces and mini boss fights until you get to the end where you have to fight the brute chieftan in a boss fight that typically either lasts for ages or ends really quickly.

The final cinematic explains that there are a) more Halos (seven to be exact) and that deactivating this one has put them all into remote activation mode where they can all be fired at once from “the Ark”, which might be on Earth, which is where Truth is going.

Halo 2 is still my favourite game in the series and with it’s 2014 remaster it’s easily the best looking too. Everything about it looks and feels great.

Halo 3

Going from Reach to Halo: Combat Evolved was a bit of a shock, but it was one I was expecting. Going from Halo 2 to Halo 3 was worse, because whilst Halo 1 has had at least a fresh lick of paint, Halo 3 has not aged well. At all.

The story isn’t quite as good, the writing is a little more “mid-budget video game”, the camera work is worse and everything just looks like an Xbox 360 launch title during cutscenes. During the actual gameplay often it looks pretty good except on some of the wide shots. But the worst bit is the facial animation. Or the complete lack of it. Any time a character is speaking, their face just flaps about a bit and it sucks the gravitas out of even the most poignant scenes, and despite the many flaws in the writing there are some pretty good scenes. So long as they don’t do a closeup of someone’s face.

It’s also the only game that actually does something other than “the main character’s twin brother who we never mention” for co-op, with player one controlling the Master Chief and player two controlling the Arbiter.

The game starts with Master Chief falling from the sky and being taken to a forward operating base somewhere in Kenya. Like with Reach, humanity is losing the battle with the Covenant and they’ve excavated a massive hole where New Mombassa used to be and found “something”.

Lord Hood, who appeared in Halo 2 at the very start giving everyone medals, orders you to go do some stuff whilst you effect a fighting retreat and then drive warthogs down a motorway for a bit to meet up with the remaining forces.

As a second brief segue, I should talk a bit about vehicles in Halo, Halo was pretty revolutionary at the time for the fact there were just vehicles you could get in and out of and fight with and it’s a lot of fun. But half the fun of Halo for me and Ryan was to try and get the vehicles past the obvious places the designers had intended you give them up. The often very forgiving physics generally allowed you to get a vehicle up, over, through or generally past any obstacle that wasn’t a sheer wall and through any door that was bigger than a player character. Several sections we blazed past for virtue of having access to the main gun of a vehicle where you were expected to have nothing more than a rifle.

Eventually you’re given an actual mission, disable some anti-air batteries so that they can make a strike with some space ships on the thing they’ve unearthed. Except that once you’ve done that it’s revealed that this isn’t the ark, it’s a giant portal to the ark! Also the Flood arrive and you fight through them to a downed spaceship where the plan is to overload it’s fusion reactor to destroy the flood infestation.

A lot of problems are solved in Halo by blowing up fusion reactors.

Anyway, there’s a discussion between Lord Hood and some Elites about what to do in which Lord Hood advocates making “humanity’s last stand” on Earth. Now, they’ve not mentioned the colonies much at this point but they’ve also not mentioned losing all the other colonies either and it’s not been that long since (chronologically) Reach in which they talk about the other colonies as being things that are still important and existing.

He’s overruled by Master Chief and the other main characters deciding to go to the Ark and finding something to stop the flood and also stopping Truth presumably. They don’t mention this until later when they’re already there and I feel like this is an omission. Halo 3’s story is a bit all over the place like that and it doesn’t really stand up to Halo 2 or Reach.

The game then turns into a mix of Halo 1 Again and Halo 2 Again as you fight your way across the Ark, discover that Truth has locked himself in the control room again and you fight your way to there, and then the Gravemind says “lets team up” again and then betrays you AGAIN and there’s more cinematics that are robbed of their impact by the complete lack of facial animation and then the game ends.

I don’t particularly rate the closing chapters of Halo 3. Minute to minute it’s fun enough with interesting gunplay and only one bit where the difficulty spikes massively and another bit that’s just confusingly built in a way that has unfortunate parallels with the Library from Halo 1, and also the very final section where you have to get back to the ship Forward Unto Dawn (which is a very cool ship name I am angry I didn’t come up with) where you drive a warthog over a really repetitive identikit landscape and OH GODS ITS THE MAW AGAIN.

And then a final cutscene where they try and be all sombre with a ceremony where they dedicate a memorial to all the people who died on Earth except again the fact that all the facial animations are just random mouth movements robs it of any gravitas and also the writing was just very “SERIOUS VIDEO GAME FROM THE LATE 2000S” followed by “whoops the Master Chief isn’t dead, he’s just trapped somewhere in stasis” which just felt like an unnecessary cliff hanger.

Ultimately, it’s taken us about thirty hours to complete the four game so far and I don’t regret the time spent. I enjoyed it enough to want to write another 3500 words about it afterwards, so.