Late to the Party: Halo 3 (Part VI)

Last time, we managed to finally recover Cortana from the Flood and now we figured as long as we’re here we might as well lay the hurt on the Gravemind, too.
Chief must be the world’s worst house guest. I have the image in my head of him visiting a fancy cocktail party one evening and then breaking open the gas lines to the stove before leaving, engulfing the place in fire.

Can you imagine what the insurance premium on a SPARTAN is? Ouch.

But apart from that, there is something a little odd about this. See, we’re lead to believe that the Gravemind is on this ship, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re blowing the whole place. That makes sense, “blowing up the bad guy” is pretty much the primary goal of any story like this, but Gravemind was set up in the last game to be the leader of the Flood who are arguably the primary antagonists of the game (I can’t really decide if it’s them or the Covenant). Now here in the final installment we don’t so much as see the Big Bad before we blow him sky high. Does this seem a little anti-climactic to anybody else?

I mean, granted, the Flood are basically a psuedo-hive minded conglomerate, and the Gravemind does actually attempt to rebuild himself fairly soon, re-igniting the threat, but it’s all in the background. I hate to keep bringing up Mass Effect, but this really reminds me of what happened to Harbinger: we go through an entire game with him being built up as the biggest threat facing our hero… and then we never see him again and that threat never truly metastasizes. It’s the same thing here, only Halo arguably handles it better by keeping the nature of its antagonist consistent. It feels like a missed opportunity to me, but I do see what they were trying to go for by painting the Flood as an entity that can never be stopped by conventional means and I have a lot of respect for that as a thematic decision, maybe just not as a dramatic one.

But anyway, we fight our way back out, run into an old friend:

And get the hell out of dodge, ready to go save the galaxy.

As we fly towards the partially-constructed Halo ring, I find another very genuine compliment I can deliver:

Like I mentioned in regard to the first game, Halo is pretty good at making good use of color contrast, and the graphical quality of this particular title, especially with it being a launch title, is still pretty impressive. But the scene I’m talking about here is just a very wide shot of a dropship flying in front of a matte painting background. Call me old-fashioned but I really, really like matte paintings. While in modern cinema they’ve largely fallen by the wayside in favor of CG and on-location shooting, but in the entirely fabricated realm of video games I think they still have a place. In my Dishonored review, I mentioned how much I loved the oil on canvas art style. In games, where everything you see visually has to be created, using matte painting backgrounds can create a really striking style. This is almost certainly one of coolest shots I’ve seen in the entire franchise and it has entirely to do with that background. Unfortunately I can’t find a good screenshot of it but I’m willing to bet most of you who’ve played it know which shot I’m talking about. I really wish more games would make use of art assets like this. Anything to step away from the photo-realism fetish the industry has these days.

Atmosphere I guess I can understand as it’s almost certainly artificially created, but the fact that we appear to have defined geography, topography, and climate is a bit silly. I’m not a meteorologist, so I have no idea how climate within a controlled system would work (if indeed it could) but it just strikes me initially as being a bit far-fetched. Plus, if my interpretation of time is correct, then it really hasn’t been very long at all since the first Halo was destroyed. How fast does this automated construction system work? And how can we figure out a way to replicate it back on Earth?

Unfortunately, the new Halo is filled with more than just improbable snowfall.

One of my biggest problems with the Call of Duty games is their improbably high number of enemies. Every encounter consists of taking up a moderately covered position, shooting a million people, then waiting for a pause in the endlessly-respawning baddies so you can make a suicidal charge to the next covered position and repeat the whole thing over again for six hours.

While I never determined if the enemies here kept respawning or not, but there were a lot of them. I died more times here than I did anywhere else in the entire game, and the checkpoint system was glitching out so much it might as well have been in a Bethesda game. I’d get halfway up this frozen, flood-infested hill and get mobbed, and while sometimes I’d be halfway up when the game loaded, other times I wouldn’t be. And this is despite distinctly seeing the “checkpoint… saved” icon in the lower left of the screen.

It’s always a delicate balance, going into the finale of a game. You want the challenge to be sufficient so that the player really feels like they’ve overcome something but you don’t want it to end up being a repetitive slog that takes all the drama and emotion out of a scene to be replaced by frustration. Halo does alleviate some of this by having virtually no load times between dying and getting back into play but re-playing the same 20 feet over and over again isn’t particularly fun any way you slice it.

Looking past my frustration, though, it is actually a pretty cool final encounter. Flood are literally dropping out of the sky, swarming over every structure like spiders, and getting subsequently mowed down by me and my shotgun. The sense that this is the final push before victory comes across very well as the Flood try to stop you with everything they have.

When we finally get to the control room it looks like we’ve won: all we have to do is activate the ring and we can all go home.

Of course, it’s never that simple.

Now, I imagine that this was supposed to be the twist; we get to the control room, we’re about to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but then our supposed ally turns on us and attempts to ruin all that we’ve worked so hard for in an eleventh hour reversal of fortunes. Only it doesn’t really work out like that because anyone with a brain knows that 343 is an unstable, dangerous nutcase who never should have been brought here at all.

In a lot of ways and despite all the bitching about him I’ve done, I actually kind of like 343’s character. He was designed with a very specific directive being his only real purpose in life, and that purpose is left entirely unfulfilled for a very, very long time. His goals to oversee the rings often roughly coincide with those of our heroes, prompting a very tenuous working relationship, one in which the parameters can change very quickly. 343 never acts out of character unlike much of the rest of the cast, and we can easily understand his point of view.

The problem I have is understanding why he’s even here at this point. Unless I missed it, I don’t think he aided us in any way during our time here on this new Halo, and seeing as how our current objective will result in the destruction of the thing that his sole purpose in life is to defend of course he’s not going to just go along with that without a fight. His presence here represents a huge operational security risk and if anyone else was thinking they would have gotten rid of him a long time ago. But because basically everyone in this plot is an idiot, they decide to let him hang around so we can have this betrayal that we all could see coming from a mile off.

Come to think of it, how many plot points involve Master Chief being betrayed by somebody? I think this guy’s naivete is actually the major driving force of the entire narrative.

But getting back on track, 343 goes nuts, fries Johnson with his laser, and then tries to kill us. Lucky for us, our laser is bigger.

Believe it or not this was actually something of a therapeutic moment for me.

So at this point, we’ve basically won. The Halo is set to fire, 343 is dead, and the Flood have no way of escaping in time. Our victory was not without casualties, however.

Seeing as how we was really just a stand-in Marine NPC from the first game that survived being shot, blown up, beaten to death, and quite possibly Flood-ed, I don’t see how “hit with a wimpy laser” could be any more fatal to him. Johnson lives. Believe you me.

But now is not the time for mourning or debating NPC mortality; we’ve got a ship to catch.

As the Halo prepares to fire, we rather desperately need to be somewhere else. The Arbiter has gotten a hold of the Forward Unto Dawn and is standing by to pick us up, but we’ve got to get to him first. To do so we have to take a trip down memory lane:

In what I believe is one last middle finger to me personally, we have to navigate through those copy/pasted environments from Halo: Combat Evolved before we can get off the ring. Normally something like this would be a nice throwback, allowing players to see some of the same places that started off this whole adventure before we come to a close. But seeing as how these environments were awful it really isn’t nice at all. I don’t think people get very nostalgic about their last migraine either, y’know?

When we finally do emerge from the labyrinthine horror, we get yet another callback to Combat Evolved: a high-speed escape on a Warthog before everything goes kaboom.

Only, everything seems to already be going kaboom.

I’m not sure why activating the Halo ring, which was always described to me as more of a biological weapon (remember it’s only ever described as killing life, not as an all-encompassing destructive power) is now resulting in a truly ridiculous amount of fiery explosions everywhere on the surface of the ring but I guess we needed something more dramatic than a countdown timer. The thing is, the screen was just a little bit too busy at this point. There was so much fire, particle effects, and general debris flying around that I could hardly tell where I was going. This resulted in a few instances of me falling to my death or otherwise impacting something in such a way that totally halted my forward momentum and thus damaged the tone, as this sequence relies entirely on a sense of speed to convey the proper feeling of narrow escape. I think even Michael Bay might have pointed out that covering everything in explosions is probably going a bit overboard.

But we finally make it through the obstacle course and ramp the Warthog into the back of the Dawn, right as Arby punches the throttle and sends us up and away.

Halo doesn’t appear to want us to get off that easy, though, and the activation of the weapon appears to have created some kind of black hole. The Dawn begins to break apart around us as Chief painstakingly claws his way away from the widening rift in the ship’s hull and towards Cortana as she can only look on helplessly and in obvious worry (hooray more awkward romantic subtext). Ultimately there isn’t much the two of them can do as they stand back and watch the expanding detonation of Halo, taking the Ark and (hopefully) the Flood with it as the Dawn desperately flies toward the portal back to Earth. Before the ship can make it through, however, the portal closes (for some reason) and it looks like that’s all she wrote for the Chief and Cortana.

Back on Earth, a ceremony commemorating the end of the Human/Covenant war is being held, and last respects are being paid to the Chief, who played such a part in putting an end to it all. To my surprise, the Arbiter is in attendance, and speaks briefly with one of the Human leaders before leaving with the rest of the Covenant. This raised a few questions.

See, the cutscene in which the Dawn is torn apart isn’t particularly clear. I thought the ship was disabled and left behind to be destroyed by the firing of Halo, with Chief and Cortana caught in the blast. But after the next cut, it turns out this isn’t the case.

I thought I smelled the re-ignition of Covenant hostilities, as I couldn’t imagine why both of us would be alive but Arbiter would allow everyone to think Chief dead unless he always sought to get him out of the picture. Buuuut…

Apparently the ship was torn in half by the closing of the portal, with the fore end and the Arbiter returning to the galaxy and the aft remaining behind, still holding the Chief and Cortana. The ship isn’t destroyed but it is very much disabled, and probably lightyears away from even the very edges of our galaxy. I can see why some might assume we’d be dead, then.

And that’s it. With a long way to go before they have any hope of getting home, Cortana and Master Chief drift through space, Chief in cryogenic sleep and Cortana overseeing what remains of their crippled vessel. While there’s a lot of questions that could be asked here (and from what I’ve heard, attempt to be answered in Halo 4) ultimately I don’t think that’s much of a concern. Master Chief has served his role as the protagonist of this story: he’s saved the galaxy from certain destruction, and since he was only ever a soldier his purpose is entirely fulfilled. His final line (of about a dozen total in the entire series) is “wake me if you need me” which is entirely fitting given his position as not much more than a tool for warfare. We don’t need some grand send-off for his character because he doesn’t really have one: but we can rest assured that if we ever need the galaxy to be saved again, all we have to do is wake him. It’s actually a very appropriate close to this story.

Whew.

That was… well, that was a lot of tweeting. That does it for the trilogy, but I’ll have one more (hopefully much shorter) entry on Wednesday where I’ll put this whole thing to bed once and for all by giving a few concluding thoughts on this little venture, the Halo franchise, and what I might do in the future.

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