UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with. While many of the points it makes stand well enough, and the scope of this project remains something I am quite proud of, the way in which these points were made is not satisfactory to me.
I would encourage you to read this rumination piece before diving into this article.
I know, I know! I said I wasn’t going to do this.
On this day two years ago (I swear didn’t actually plan the timing here), I finished the Halo 4 analysis – a labour of love for a game and a story that absolutely deserved the two months I put into writing about as many aspects of the campaign as I could think of. I replayed Halo 4’s campaign recently and my opinion has not shifted an inch, I still absolutely adore it.
As many of you are probably aware of my largely negative reaction to Halo 5’s story, not only did I not feel the game was worthy of this level of attention from me, but on some level it would seem downright insulting to the Halo 4 analysis. That I would effectively be giving a game I regard as a net-negative a lot more attention over one that I love. Additionally, I don’t want this blog to start filling up with negativity, this has typically been about making positive analyses about the intricacies of the Halo universe.
But, as we’re almost half-a-year out from Halo 5’s release and I’ve talked about it with friends and people across various communities, I’ve found that I simply will not know peace until I have noted down everything I have to say on the good (please believe me: I do have a considerable amount to say that is good), the bad, and the Kai Leng-tier stupid.
With all that said and done, let’s get into this…First of all, let’s consider what the second act of a trilogy is generally meant to do – I am operating under the assumption that the Reclaimer Saga is still comprised of three mainline games because when the announcement of ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’ to ‘Reclaimer Saga’ was made they weren’t at all clear as to whether that meant we were getting more games, just that ‘Saga’ more broadly referred to the peripheral fiction that was relevant to the story. The direct quote from Phil Spencer states:
“While we originally said trilogy, we’ve actually expanded this to more of a saga, so we don’t want to limit the Reclaimer story within a trilogy.”
Additionally, when talking about the broader term of ‘Saga’, the works being included under that umbrella are:
“As we said prior to the launch of “Halo 4” last year, we have a long-term vision for the future of the “Halo” universe and are excited to tell many stories in a variety of ways, such as Spartan Ops and games on other devices like ‘Halo: Spartan Assault,’ so we don’t want to limit our plans to a trilogy. Our ambitions for the franchise are even broader than that, although the core story of the Master Chief and the Reclaimer Saga is still being approached with a classic narrative approach, with a beginning, a middle and an end. We simply have more storytelling tools at our disposal now.”
The things they’re mentioning here are peripheral stories, not mainline games. So yeah, still operating under the trilogy assumption here.
The second act of a trilogy tends to have very little plot, if you think of stories like Empire Strikes Back, Mass Effect 2, even Halo 2 – pretty much any example you can name – they are all extremely light on that particular aspect. The plot of Empire Strikes Back is literally ‘Darth Vader pursues Luke Skywalker’, everything else that happens is a reaction to that because it’s about putting the characters in situations where they grow and change. Now, that’s not a weakness in my opinion, because the second act of a trilogy is where you really focus on two main things: Developing the characters and fleshing out the setting. You take the groundwork established by the first act of the trilogy and you build on it to set the stage for its climactic conclusion.
Just… bear that in mind. I’m going to be coming back to that a lot throughout this analysis. It’s a hell of a challenge trying to space this out when I could just try and talk about everything right now.
I know, right? The very beginning of the game, literally the first few seconds, and I’m already taking issue with it.
Halo 4 was criticised for not doing an awful lot in the way of explaining a few key concepts in the game to bridge it from Halo 3 – the main example of this being the return of the Covenant. It’s just sort of brushed over and Josh Holmes said in the 2013 GDC postmortem panel he did on Halo 4 (it’s a fantastic panel, if you’ve not seen it it’s absolutely worth watching for the in-depth look it gives at the story’s development process) that this is an area that 343 would strive to improve on in the future.
Well, they did to some extent, and they also didn’t.
Halo 5 has a lot of peripheral fiction. In fact, 343 devised a handy infographic for it:Now, for people like me who consume this fiction like our lives depend on it, it’s never a problem when it comes to playing the games and knowing pretty much the entirety of the story’s context. But it is also important to note that we are a minority group, and your game is going to have to hold the hand of the majority of players who haven’t read the relevant books and comics, listened to the Hunt the Truth episodes, or watched the live action material, etc.
Therefore, would it have killed them to have opened Halo 5 with a recap? Or, at the very least, put a timeline like what we got in Halo Wars? Or, something that’s long overdue, an in-game codex…
I mean, consider just how jarring it is going from Halo 4 to Halo 5, especially factoring in Spartan Ops. One minute Halsey has an assassination hit on her, she’s lost her arm, says she wants revenge, and is in pursuit of the other half of the Janus Key to go to the Absolute Record. Literally the next cutscene those players see opens with this brand new cast of characters who are going to rescue Halsey, with the conflicts and build-up pretty much forgotten completely.
This is ordinarily the point where I’d say “if you turn to x piece of fiction, you’ll see this play out”, but I can’t in this case. Because the conflicts with Halsey, the Janus Key and Absolute Record – literally the biggest game-changers in the modern setting – are treated terribly in the Escalation comic series. That entire plotline was outright dropped: the Janus Key literally zaps out of Halsey’s hand, the Absolute Record zaps out of its current location, and Palmer just decides that she’s cool with Halsey because she failed to kill them when she had the chance.
She just drops all of that moral baggage, all of her issues, because Halsey overplayed her hand.
After waiting literally over two years to see this story progress and conclude (and there was some really great set-up in the earlier issues of Escalation which were leading up to Palmer’s worldview embracing the much greyer nature of the conflicts she was a part of), it all boiled down to nothing.
Halo 5 could have quite easily opened with a scene recapping some of the relevant stories that occurred during the time period between the end of Spartan Ops and the beginning of this game. John’s reunion with Blue Team and them facing off against the Ur-Didact, as rushed and poorly told as that story was in Escalation, is a pretty essential thing for people to be brought up to speed with.
The growing tensions between the UNSC and the rising New Colonial Alliance who are out making deals with ‘Covenant’ mercenary splinter factions, who apparently have agents on every human world (including Earth), and are gearing up for all-out war. Not to mention the major focus on ONI, how they were very much being established as an antagonistic force, various other disparate groups like Sapien Sunrise, and the return of Dasc Gevadim… We were gearing up for what appeared to be a stunningly brilliant parallel to Halo 2 with another Great Schism event, but this time it would be humanity breaking apart.
Of course, the reality of the matter is the fact that none of these actually bear any relevance to Halo 5’s story at all. If they had actually done a ‘recap’ scene at the start then they’d have their playerbase scratching their heads in confusion as the game went on because 343 has decided to utterly demean those conflicts in-favour of the Created. It’s what makes Halo 5 feel like it’s some weird AU because it’s so utterly disconnected from just about everything set up by Halo 4 and its peripheral media.
“Spartan Locke, I have spent enough years with ONI to know the truth. Once this is over, after all I have done, they will order you… to kill us both.”
There’s some neat little things to spot in this scene, like Halsey’s journal and the picture of Miranda, but it kind of feels like they’re trying to distract you from the problem with this scene: it’s meaningless in the context of Halo 5’s story. It exists to effectively tell us that 343 is committed to this course with the Created narrative in the future but does nothing to do what an opening scene is supposed to do in establishing the tone, the themes and the general atmosphere of the game you are about to experience.
Contrast this to Halo 4’s opening where you have the interrogation scene with Halsey. It achieves so much: It establishes who Halsey is (because Reach literally forgot to do that), the flashbacks to the Spartan-IIs establishing her inner-conflict and guilt, we get a broad recap of the history of the Spartan-IIs, the exploration of their humanity which is a core aspect of Halo 4’s narrative is set up, the dialogue about how Cortana was just a tool for John set up her own very human tale that was the main focus of Halo 4. That’s not even everything, that scene did so much to set the tone for the game, but I’ve already talked about that at-length.
I adore Fireteam Osiris, I think they’re one of 343’s best additions to the series. I will say that I do wish their characters had been established earlier, in an ideal world they would have been the cast of Spartan Ops in place of Fireteam Majestic and we’d have seen them grow in the years leading up to Halo 5, but as it stands I think they were very well-integrated into the story.
A fair amount of controversy has come up over Osiris having the spotlight over Blue Team and the Master Chief, a lot of people feel that Blue Team was sidelined. We were told that “Chief is the main character and hero” of Halo 5 by Frankie, but that is blatantly untrue.
No, really, John is not the main character in Halo 5, just as he was not the main character in Halo 2 – Thel was. Locke and the other members of Osiris are Halo 5’s main characters, John isn’t even the one driving the plot – Cortana is. I don’t know why 343 seems to be having so much trouble with this, it’s practically on the level of trying to argue that the main character of Homer’s Odyssey is Telemachus and not Odysseus.343 wanted to build up Osiris as Halo’s own Avengers-type team, and I think they succeeded. I’ve really got to give credit to Mike Colter and Ike Amadi, Cynthia McWilliams, Nathan Fillion, and Laura Bailey – their voices and delivery of the dialogue, their motion capture work, the subtleties in some of their interactions, they were what made Halo 5 worth going through for me. It’s often said that a bad work can be salvaged by good performances from the actors and that’s pretty much how I feel about Osiris in a nutshell.
I’ll be talking about them a lot as we get further into this analysis.
They get their mission from Lasky and Palmer – recover Halsey and, if they get the chance, kill Jul ‘Mdama (ooooh boy, we are going to talk about this!)
We then get out first insight into Tanaka’s character. Actually, that’s not true, we get our first insight into Tanaka’s character when she passes Vale a pistol. We are specifically shown this action, the camera focuses on it in a moment where it could be looking at any number of other things.
Why?As a gesture, we know it’s not one without meaning because 343 has often used this sort of thing as a method of expressing some aspect of their characters. In Halo 4, I talked extensively about how John spent a lot of time uncomfortably fiddling with his assault rifle during scenes where he had to respond emotionally to what was going on.
Take the beginning of Shutdown where Cortana has her existential soliloquy about how she’ll never be able to tell if Requiem’s sun looks or feels real, John is in the back uncomfortably checking his assault rifle despite the fact that he knows it’s loaded, he knows it’s in good condition, and so on. He does this at the end of Composer as well when Ivanoff Station is Composed, he can’t even look at Cortana for the majority of that scene because of the amount of pain she’s in.
We’ll talk a bit more about this in the next mission as well where Kelly hands John his assault rifle in the Pelican. There’s obviously intent that’s being left to us to read into here, and it’s an interesting gesture because we know that Holly Tanaka is the most closed-off member of the team. She and Locke were the two ‘founding’ members of Osiris and even he doesn’t know that much about her, according to the dossiers we get in the limited edition of the game.
“Quiet, self-reliant, and unfazeable, Holly Tanaka has no close friends, and rarely fraternises with her fellow Spartans. She is a founding member of Fireteam Osiris together with Jameson Locke, though even he does not know her well. This reticence to connect with others is a result of her traumatic experience as a survivor of Minab’s glassing in 2550.”
Despite being closed-off, Holly is still somebody who can be described as incredibly selfless and considerate of others. We saw this established in her introduction in Escalation where a UNSC mission to the glassed planet of Cleyell is complete and they’re about to move on until they catch a distress signal from the planet. The ODSTs say that it’s a waste of time because survivors of glassed planets typically survive about a month, at which point Tanaka steps in (having survived over three years on her glassed homeworld Minab largely by herself) and convinces the Commander that the right thing to do is to answer the distress call. In her own words:
“May not mean much to the UNSC to head out on a mission like this. But if someone’s alive down there, it’ll mean everything to them.”
Here, then, is a character who is constantly thinking about others. For a person who has “no close friends” and “rarely fraternises with her fellow Spartans”, she is still somebody who has a very clear sense of doing whatever she can to help people – people she doesn’t know and probably won’t ever see again.
Holly Tanaka is selfless and goes above and beyond to help those in need. There can be no doubt: this woman is a Spartan.
I feel the need to gush here because there seem to be a number of people who don’t really ‘get’ Osiris, and in a lot of ways I think that’s down to some of 343’s poor writing in bringing over the stuff they’ve established in the foundational material for these characters. As is typical in my method of analysis, we’re going to be reading into things as intertextually as possible to bring out the good and the bad of this story.Another relationship we see is Locke and Buck. Now, we’re gonna think a bit about the live action film Nightfall because, and I suspect a lot of you will disagree with me on this: for all its flaws, I still like Nightfall.
I agree that it was, in many ways, a let-down and padded out with a lot of things that made it seem like it would be a different kind of story to what we got (which is basically 343’s modus operandi these days), but in terms of how it established Locke as a character and his perspective on what it means to be part of a team, it’s really an important thing to take into consideration with Halo 5. I’m actually going to pass you over to my good friend Greenreticule, who you may otherwise know as DilDev on the Halo Archive – intrepid author of many -a-brilliant article since March last year.
“Horrigan again is making love eyes at Locke, and even though his whispering still sucks, he has learned to wait until he and Locke are a decent enough distance away from everyone else. And then he starts to propose.
Now before I go further, I would like to say that loyalty is important to me. I respect loyalty. It’s hard for me to remove myself from toxic friendships because I never want to abandon anyone. Loyalty is also what made me like Sarah Palmer as a character – while she dislikes Halsey, and the execution order came from the top, her ultimate reason for going after the doctor was not out of spite or for orders. It was to cover Lasky’s back.
That being said, Horrigan’s ‘loyalty’ does not seem like anything brotherly or romantic, at least not in any healthy way. He clings to Locke like a stalker or the aggressor in an emotionally abusive relationship. It’s clear that he thinks highly of Locke (and rightly so), but he has this possessive bent to the relationship. Horrigan’s reluctance to share information on Locke is not for Locke’s privacy’s sake. He doesn’t want to share because that would mean that a part of Locke would then belong to someone else, not him. He is insistent on the fact that he chose Locke to survive and he wants Locke to choose him back.”
Horrigan was an incredibly controlling individual and he tried on multiple occasions to exercise that over Locke through emotional manipulation. Really, I recommend going back and rewatching Nightfall with your mind squarely focused on the character dynamics rather than the plot – there’s a lot of really well written material there.
Locke quite openly says that he loves his team. He is fiercely loyal to the people he leads, so what comes of that is a need for open friendship and support. He lost that in Nightfall, what with his team turning against him and dying. Now we see him with Osiris, we see that Locke tries to come across as a lot more detached than he has previously been. He’s taken a step back here, he still obviously cares about his team but you can see that he is actively being somebody who is more to-the-point.
But there are moments (which increase in frequency) where he drops his mask and is a lot more transparent towards his team. Buck is effectively coming to fill in the kind of place on the team that Horrigan once had, only the relationship between him and Locke is a lot healthier, a lot more positive. There’s always good value in portraying that in fiction, I believe, which Greenreticule goes on to say:
“Locke loves Horrigan back (still love that line of Locke’s), but he’s not buying into any of Horrigan’s emotional manipulation. And ultimately the fact that Locke never gave Horrigan control is what makes Horrigan turn on him.
And now Locke has Osiris. And I don’t want to discount Tanaka and Vale (good grief no!), but it almost appears that Locke and Buck have made a connection that’s similar to the way they had each connected with their previous teams. and Buck seems to not just like, but respect Locke as an authority and a person. Buck may wave the occasional middle finger to authority but he always respects people. Horrigan didn’t.”
Buck has no incessant desire for control over anyone, and he specifically wanted to be put on a team where he wouldn’t be the leader. He clearly respects Locke, and, hell, if anyone understands the emotional burden of being a leader it’s Edward Buck.
In classic Buck fashion, he openly banters with Locke. We get the start of the running joke of Buck buying everyone the first round of drinks when they get back, it’s a set-up that proves to be endearing for the team and does a good job of establishing the kind of dynamic they have. So far so good with laying the foundations of these characters, it can be tricky to do that in the middle act of a trilogy but Halo has typically handled this really well (take Halo 2 for instance with its Covenant storyline).Again, just to highlight my point, we see the mask that Locke portrays fall away when the rest of the team jumps out of the Pelican. He stops for a second, and he smiles: he’s back in the fight, and he’s with a team he feels he can count on – this is really all Locke asks for, being a career soldier.
We then have another scene which is somewhat controversial, the freefall from the Pelican and the battle down the slopes of Kamchatka.
The main argument against it is that it breaks the cardinal rule of cinematic storytelling in games, that you don’t show the characters doing anything more ‘badass’ than what you can do in the game. Personally, I don’t think that this does that. While it’s obviously presented in a much more fluid way than is (obviously) possible in gameplay, pretty much everything you see Osiris do is showcasing the new Spartan Ability mechanics.
It starts with Buck sliding down upon his landing and blasting a Sangheili in the face with a shotgun. You can do that.
It shows the various members of the team ground pounding their way through several clustered groups of enemies. You can do that.
It shows Holly charge through a god damned rock with all the ferocity of a startled honey badger. You can do that – there are plenty of destructible environmental pieces, such as walls that open up new paths and areas in the levels.
The only thing really that isn’t possible is Vale’s martial arts. So I really don’t hold anything against this scene for showcasing what Spartans have been doing in the books ever since The Fall of Reach.On that subject, I’d very much like to point out that this scene is actually a neat parallel to the opening chapter of The Fall of Reach. For those of you who may need a reminder, the opening of that book introduces us to Blue Team’s characters by literally pitting the four of them against 1000 Unggoy.
It is a scene that establishes the unique fighting styles of each of the team’s members, just as this scene in Halo 5 does. I’ve already talked about Vale’s flashy martial arts, she’s small and quick and agile. But my personal favourite is how Tanaka literally just bulldozes her way through everything – through Banshees, through rocks. She owns her space, anything that gets in her way is going to end up broken and it’s just really fun to have a character like that.
Suffice to say, I really like the introduction to Osiris. I also really like how the game’s cinematic director clearly wanted to employ some well-regarded cinematic techniques, as from the moment Osiris makes the jump to the end of the cutscene there isn’t a single cut. It’s all one smooth, continuous motion that follows each of the characters as they’re doing their thing, it’s really well constructed and I definitely want to give props for that.To briefly comment on the level itself from a gameplay perspective, I think it’s the best opening mission in the franchise.
I was replaying it earlier today to prepare myself for writing this piece and I really have to appreciate how 343 stepped up their level design. For all the campaign’s flaws, I think that the way they went about building these levels was top-notch.
Traditionally, the mainline Halo games open with a very linear mission set on a spaceship or space station. You meander through confined corridors clearing out rooms of enemies until you get to the second mission where the level design opens up – all the mainline games except Halo 3 did this. It’s a tried-and-true formula that’s fun enough, but I really wanted to see a bit of innovation this time around and that’s exactly what we got.
Osiris essentially gives you a series of playgrounds and just says “go!”
There’s no drawn out “I need you to look at the flashing lights” tutorials, you’re not even guided through all of the new movement mechanics. You are given a series of different encounters with Covenant and Promethean forces and you’re left to deal with them however you like – you don’t have your hand held through it, you’re left to figure out a lot of these mechanics by yourself.
I tend to like it when games do that because replaying tutorials ingrained into a mission is never a particularly fun experience. Being dropped straight into the action was a solid design choice in my opinion, and the more open-ended design of these spaces with multiple paths to go through and different elevations to fight enemies… it was just really well done. It encourages replayability, it tells you that you don’t have to approach any single fight the same way. Options are always nice, and as much praise as I heap on Halo 4 there were definitely missions that felt overly linear.
Another thing that was awesome? The redesign of the Promethean Knights. They’re super fun to fight now, after some of their cheap tactics in Halo 4 were removed. They actually feel like mini-bosses in this game and their overall design with the bits of armour you can shoot off and the two second opportunity to land an insta-kill on them was really fantastic design. The teleport ability still exists for the Soldiers, but you can actually track their movements rather than just having them reappear in a random location. They did a beautiful job on improving the design of the Knights.
In addition, there’s another thing I’ve got to talk about and that’s the opportunity you have in this mission to be allies with the Covenant. No, really. When you get to the bit where the Kraken appears and you see the Sangheili General (Kitun ‘Arach from the intel logs), if he’s alive after you charge the hill and break through the Promethean lines then he and his forces become friendly. They’ll actually have dialogue with you. It’s really quite difficult to pull off, but it’s so rewarding when you accomplish it. Again, I’ve got to compliment the design here because this adds some really good ‘flavour’ to the game. It grounds you in the setting a bit more, I think, that these are not just enemy avatars to be shot at and killed. There is some deeper level of interaction with them that is entirely optional.As a note on the Forerunner architecture in this game (seen throughout Kamchatka and Genesis in particular), we have outright confirmation on multiple occasions that these are Builder constructs.
In this mission, Tanaka mentions it in idle conversation.
“Gotta respect the Forerunner Builders. They made things to last.”
For those of you who may not have read it, I actually wrote a lengthy analytical piece last year that analysed the nuances and differences in Forerunner architecture. This is something that actually has thought put into both in the fiction and in the actual design process, as each rate of Forerunner society essentially has their own unique kind of style.
Builder architecture tends to be a lot more triangular than Warrior-Servant architecture, which formed the bulk of what we saw in Halo 4 with one or two exceptions. Everything with the Builders in terms of their shapes is characterised by fins and struts, they are a lot more connected in terms of overall design with fewer floating parts. Warrior-Servant design is about the more organic, ‘accident’ mess of geometry. It actually speaks to the mindset of the two rates – finding order in chaos versus imposing order in chaos.
This is honestly something that I love to keep in mind when playing through the Halo games, ‘playing xenoarchaeologist’ and pilfering every artistic detail is something that I get a lot of satisfaction out of and Halo 5 really delivered on that front because it has seven unique artistic styles/themes across human, Covenant, and Forerunner spaces. A hell of a lot of effort was put into the design of these spaces, so I want to give credit where credit is due by talking about the intricacies of this design.So, what are the Covenant actually doing on Kamchatka? The Unggoy soldier Kibkib Yany explains:
“Jul ‘Mdama, he say we go to Kamchatka and get big weapons, but this place is so cold. I hate it. But maybe, if weapon big enough, it can smash the Arbiter! I hope he goes squish when it happens. Or maybe pop, pop!”
The Covenant are preparing to make their assault on Sanghelios and bring an end to Thel ‘Vadam. This is connected to what is easily the best part of Halo 5’s campaign, the Sanghelios arc. Expect a lot of gushing when we come to those particular levels.
This information is told to us through something new that Halo 5 introduces called ‘mission intel’, voice recordings from various characters in the Halo universe. There are 117 intel items in the campaign and they were placed there as a substitute for Terminals, which had become something of a tradition for Halo since 2007. Their absence was due to Sequence working on that god-awful adaptation of The Fall of Reach (read: the god-awful adaptation of one of the arcs from the comic book adaptation of The Fall of Reach). I’m not going to go into that, but suffice to say I absolutely hated it and feel it did a horrific disservice to the book.
But yeah, no Terminals. I am… still divided on this.
On one hand, these intel pieces allow for a much broader range of topics to be covered when compared to the comparatively limited scope of the Terminals. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel like a lot of these intel pieces are a bit lacking in direction and serve as ‘fast fiction’.
I think that I’m more inclined to be positively disposed towards them because, as I said at the start of this post, the point of the second act is to flesh out the setting. There’s a lot of logs on Meridian and Sanghelios in particular that do exactly that and they do it really really well. So I think I’m leaning more towards a net-positive perspective on them because there are some great stories we’ll get to talk about in the coming levels.Having said that, I do have to offer criticism on the Halsey logs in this mission.
Log 1: “The signal is consistent with previous, I hesitate to call them, messages; that implies communication. This is more like, echolocation. A signal bouncing off Forerunner objects. Mapping! Searching for something. But what? What could she think to find?”
Log 2: “We have penetrated the structure that was a focal point for the last signal. I have yet to gain access to anything informative. Jul’s people are more concerned with ceremony than allowing me to do my work.”
Log 3: “Attained scans of new Forerunner glyphs. One is completely new. Running the other through the system revealed it contains a similar design to an ancient Sangheili symbol. This symbol referred to a demon who sleeps in the ground and must not wake. How this relates to the signal I am unsure.”
Log 4: “All of the readings I would expect from a Forerunner structure of this scale are erratic at best. I am beginning to wonder if the signal is in fact bouncing off these locations as I theorized or if she is trying to access them directly, and failing.”
Before the game ended up being leaked, there were various showcases of different missions from Halo 5 – which I thought was moronic because they showed off about 4 or 5 missions, including this one. One of the Youtubers (can’t remember who) found the first log which referenced a “she”, and my immediate thought was “oh my god, is the Librarian the one causing the Guardians to awaken?”
Again, I wrote an analysis about the Librarian and her plan last year regarding its rather more sinister nature. Of course, at this same time, we had the ongoing Absolute Record arc going on in Escalation where Halsey and the Librarian meet once more.
Around this time, we had the preview for the penultimate issue which released on October 28th – the day after Halo 5 came out. I thought to myself “okay, we’re all going into the game with some missing context”, but since we would be filled in on that context within the next month it wouldn’t be too much to deal with. Anyway, in the preview, we got shown this panel:
Now I surely can’t be the only one who looked at this and saw its sinister side, right?
Halsey has, at this point, achieved her goal. She’s at the Absolute Record, she’s face-to-face with the Librarian. She’s in awe, this is great, all of these years of pain and torment are finally about to pay off!
And then the writers chose to specifically highlight “our work” in that speech box. With the knowledge we had at the time, it seemed entirely logical to think that what happened at the Absolute Record – the place that, when united with the Janus Key, contains the real-time location of every piece of Forerunner technology in the galaxy – was going to be the trigger for the awakening of the Guardians. The Librarian(‘s ancilla) is aware to some extent of the situation that the galaxy is in right now with the Covenant (let alone its other conflicts), and she is driven by her desire for humanity to inherit the Mantle of Responsibility.
She is using Halsey as her means of achieving this. Halsey, who is so enamoured by the wonders of the universe she is being shown, being the one who was chosen by this ancient Forerunner whose essence has endured for over 100,000 years to tell her that she is part of a grand plan to propel her species. If there’s a way for Halsey to be manipulated, this was surely it.
Indeed, there has been a lot of discussion about Halsey having been the original antagonist of Halo 5, which seemed to be corroborated by this UI concept piece from Halo 5’s early development by Ramiro Galan.
Unconfirmed is the fifth mission in Halo 5, part of the Meridian arc.
“The secret of Dr. Halsey is out and the UNSC forces are quickly discovering.”
Poor wording of the mission description aside, it seems that Halsey was meant to play some kind of major role here. Her “secret” has some interesting implications, she might not have even been back with the UNSC at this point in this version.
The objective listed says:
“Destroy the Forerunner warship and recover the intel chips.”
As we all know, this doesn’t happen in the game either. We know from various pieces of concept art that a number of Forerunner units (War Sphinxes and land tanks, Packmasters, Cavaliers) were cut, and it appears that some kind of Forerunner warship was being concepted too from these two pieces.
Not to mention the fact that, in the Escalation issue, Librarian tells Halsey to awaken a group of automated Dreadnoughts.
Now, it seems to me that Halsey being the original antagonist of Halo 5 makes a lot more sense. Below are quotes from Spartan Ops (written by Brian Reed, also Halo 5’s lead writer):
“Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and gave it to humanity. I’m simply curious what gifts, if any, the Promethean lifeforms have to offer.”
“Life is too short, I will never learn all that exist in our tiny galaxy let alone the rest of the universe. And I so desperately want to know… everything. But the UNSC acts like children at play in a sandbox. Mistaking its edges for the limits of the world.”
“If people would just share things with me I could solve all the world’s problems.”
“That’s easy, Jul. I want revenge.”
“At the moment, I’m experiencing a slight delay in my journey to the Record. For that, I have only myself to blame. Yes, the circumstances were extreme, but my actions were rash. I made the error of mistaking an enemy for an ally. I no longer think in such simplistic terms. Now there is only the objective: Reuniting the Key. Fulfilling the Librarian’s instructions.”
Anti-UNSC and ONI sentiments? Check. They literally had her imprisoned for almost half a decade and used her whenever it was convenient for them. Her hatred of Osman was further set up on multiple occasions through Escalation.
Drive for knowledge about the Forerunners (and beyond), to the point where she would likely use the Composer on herself just to ensure some abstraction of her mind lived on to continue her work? Check.
Literally chosen by the Librarian to bring the socio-political system of the Mantle to humanity and all the problems inherent within that religion? Check.
Personal relationship with the Spartans (Blue Team) that would make her putting them in a Cryptum consistent with her previous actions (like when she kidnapped Kelly and had the rest of Blue Team sent to Onyx to sit out the war because she was desperate to save their lives). Check.
While I don’t think it would have been a particularly fantastic story, the set-up was there and it sure would make a lot more sense for Halsey to become this elevated figure as the Librarian’s plan reaches its critical point. Instead, the Janus Key and Absolute Record arc ended up being a complete waste of time because nothing came from it. Games obviously do go through a lot of rewrites during the process of development, that’s just the nature of that particular beast, but with Halo 5 there is a lot of stuff that one can take as being indicative of some dodgy rewrites.Also keep in mind that at this point we had been repeatedly told that Cortana was dead.
After the destruction of New Phoenix, and the death of Cortana, Master Chief must carry on. [Halo 4: Epilogue mission description]
“We got asked a lot about what happened to Cortana – what’s her fate? Well, her fate is, obviously, very clear at the end of Halo 4. The story is really about ‘what effect did Cortana’s sacrifice have on the Chief, and what effect does her loss have on him?’ It’s more about the long-lasting impact she’s had on him, and the whole universe, and that’s kind of a metaphor for the effect she’s had on fans now that she’s gone as well.”
“There’s more to the Chief’s story, I think, that people are going to find in Halo 5 that deals with how he copes with loss, and how he deals with is memories, and what those memories help him contextualise.” [Game Informer: Revealing The Story Of Halo 5: Guardians’ Campaign]
Again, we were outright lied to about the fundamental premise of this game’s story…
There’s no two ways about it, we were promised a completely different, much more thematically consistent and interesting story than what we actually got.
But that’s enough on that (for now), because it’s time to talk about one of the worst scenes in the game. Like… oh boy, you start of by giving us a great introductory level through the gameplay and then you go and shoot the story in the foot right off the bat!Jul ‘Mdama… to many, one of the best antagonists in the series. I was no fan of the Kilo-5 books, but it was Jul’s point of view chapters that kept me going through Glasslands and The Thursday War.
“We are not Game of Thrones.” ~ Bonnie Ross
We were promised this, that “we actually want to make sure going forward we have a larger cast of characters with which to tell stories”, yet they killed off a major character who they had put years of fiction into establishing. I’ll talk more about this with regards to the handling of the Ur-Didact as well later.
I honestly get the feeling that Brian Reed just doesn’t get Jul ‘Mdama because nowhere in Reed’s fiction have we seen any indication that Jul is not actually a religious zealot. He comes across as this incredibly underwhelming presence who, for some reason, has had his eye colour changed from grey to EVIL SATANIC RED just to visually drive home how irreverently he’s being handled by the writing.
We can only hope that this is indicative of Jul having a body double or something… I’ve already spoken about how I’d have handled Jul’s story in Halo 5, which you can read here. I’m not going to repost it here because I’m rambling on enough as it is!
Suffice to say: Jul deserved so much better than this.
I might have been able to accept his death on some level if this was the one thing in Halo 5’s story to let me down, rather than being the head-first plunge into a singularity of bad writing. Halo 5 was obviously supposed to be where we bring a final end to the Covenant, they’re pooling all their remaining resources into staging an assault on Sanghelios. And, at the time, we had every reason to believe that they were going to follow through on this…
Jul ‘Mdama, who had two books, Spartan Ops, and Escalation establishing his character – telling us his story, from being a relatively minor Shipmaster in the Covenant, to a political opponent to Thel after the war, to his involvement in the origins of the Blooding Years, to his capture and imprisonment in Trevelyan where he learned about the Didact, to his escape to Hesduros where he reformed the Covenant, to his arrival at Requiem, to his campaign to retrieve the Janus Key (etc etc)… This character who we have known since 2011, whose family we know (his wife, a major POV character in The Thursday War), his children, and his friends.
This character was killed off to be replaced by SALI ‘NYON. A nobody character who sprung up out of practically nowhere, who appears in a grand total of about eight Escalation issues which show he’s nothing more than a religious zealot who thinks he’s the true Didact’s Hand for some reason. I know that sounds reductive to say, but I am somebody who will drag abstract references across fiction from years ago to inform my perceived depth of fiction in the present. And I just… I have nothing good to say about Sali ‘Nyon. Even his name just sounds hilarious to say aloud.
As it stands, Jul’s death was literally pointless. No, really. The death of the Didact’s Hand was supposed to mark the end of the Covenant as they regrouped and, in their death throes, attacked Sanghelios. It was, at the very least, supposed to be an advancement for the setting in how the Covenant are finally torn down and the Sangheili are united.
Now, Jul’s death served absolutely no purpose for the setting at all. The Covenant is still out there – with a CAS-class assault carrier, no less, other ships that were taken from Jul by Sali’s loyalists, and a slew of Forerunner artefacts recovered from the Requiem campaign.
Within a month, 343 was already undoing one of the most important advancements Halo 5 made to the setting. It wasn’t enough that the Created had to come along and sweep every other major development in the fiction over the last 3+ years under the rug, they had to slip the Covenant a free pass as well. This is honestly what has completely put me off theorycrafting for Halo now, which, looking at the main body of what this blog has been about the last three years, is pretty significant to me. Absolutely anything can happen without any regard for internal consistency with the set-up material from the books and other media, down to the games themselves. What is the point in fans like me spending time interweaving these plot threads if they’re going to be either wildly inconsistent or just outright dropped?Halo needs to expand and grow, and taking something like the Covenant out of the equation would have been a bold move.
Their resurgence post-Halo 3 made sense as a temporary measure, but at this point we have no indication of 343 actually doing anything interesting with the Covenant – and you could.
In the wake of all that has happened, having Covenant sects arise dedicated to different beliefs would be a refreshing change. For instance, a group that is devoted to the destruction of all Forerunner constructs because they are something poisonous to fight over. Another group might be a splinter group of ‘Composer Cultists’ who are looking to transcend their physical form, allowing for some interesting gameplay with Promethean units based on Sangheili, Unggoy, and other species.
But instead we’re just getting more Forerunner-worshipping, human-hating zealots. At this point, it’s just getting boring.And that’s pretty much all I have to say on this mission. It gets off to a good start with its gameplay, but ends up kicking you in your nether-regions with these ‘developments’ (read: regressions) in the story.
You might begin to see why I feel things are leaning towards a net-negative with this game, because as much as I can gush about some of the strong aspects of the character writing with Osiris, it’s all just completely overshadowed by this awful, awful shift in narrative direction and tone.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I had no idea I’d end up writing this much about the opening mission, but you can probably take this as being indicative of the length of the rest of the posts to come…