Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Meridian Station

UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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.

With the Prometheans cleared away from the town of Meridian Station (good going on avoiding collateral damage there, Cortana…), Osiris has a moment to take a bit of a breather as we enter the first of three ‘weapons-down’ missions – which have proven to be a very divisive addition to the formula of Halo 5’s campaigns.

Where I have begun each of these posts so far with a criticism to raise, I’m breaking the mould here because I have much to say in adoration of these ‘weapons-down’ missions. So let’s get right on into it.meridian12Actually, first of all, let us cast our minds back to a game that came out in 2014. A little game called Alien: Isolation, you might have heard of it…

Alien: Isolation is a game with a very particular kind of focus in its atmosphere and fluctuation in pacing through gameplay, as you’re constantly being pursued by a lone and unbeatable Xenomorph most of the time while trying to complete your objectives. It’s a very effective survival-horror game, I think it’s easily one of the best of its genre in recent years.

But amidst the adrenaline-fuelled sprints to the nearest locker you’re trying to hide in to avoid detection, and the onslaught of hostile androids, you have these occasional segments of the game that are totally removed from that kind of gameplay. You find yourself in these little moments that do the game so much credit because they put so much effort into highlighting the worldbuilding, tone, and atmosphere. I advise you to take fifteen minutes out of reading this post to check out one particular example from the game that ties in with the films, it’s absolutely incredible.

Why do I bring this up?

Because when I first played this section of Isolation, my immediate thought was “Halo really needs to take a leaf out of this game’s book”. And they did.

Obviously, Halo 5 isn’t a survival horror game with anything close to the same kind of atmosphere and tone as Alien: Isolation, but in watching that clip I’m sure you can see what I mean when I say that it can be a great boon to your story if you take the chance to slow the pace down from time-to-time and really seize the chance to make the player focus on details they otherwise would likely pass by without taking into account.

When I first learned that Halo 5 had these weapons-down missions, I was absolutely ecstatic. There’s so much you can do with this sort of thing, and I think a much more worthwhile discussion can be had regarding how Halo can continue to expand on this concept rather than saying it should be tossed out the airlock altogether as some have suggested. I am very much somebody of the opinion that Halo needs to find ways of expanding its formula outside the typical conventions of the FPS genre in order to service the story and the overall setting, it has long been an issue for me that Halo being so traditionally rooted in the conventions of the FPS genre has led to a lot of missed opportunities in giving the narrative its due – this is one such opportunity which, in my opinion, was right on the money.meridian11We begin the mission with Locke asking Holly what kind of welcome Osiris can expect in the town from the people – this is an interesting and subtle touch to Locke’s character which comes up again a few minutes from now where Locke says that “the best intel comes from the people”.

Thinking back to Nightfall, the continuity is well-preserved because this is exactly the same kind of thing we saw established with Locke’s character in how he dealt with the Yonhet smuggler Axl – that he’s even able to speak the Covenant fringe species’ language. Locke is quite distinctly a people person, hell, this is the guy who took on a Sangheili Zealot in the middle of a shopping centre, bested him, and offered him a chance to surrender rather than just straight-up shooting him dead when his energy shields were down. That kind of behaviour really speaks to Locke’s mindset, and it’s great to see that this is something that carried over into the writing of the game.

As a result, we see that Locke is consistently open, courteous, and apologetic towards Governor Sloan and the NPCs you can interact with around Meridian Station – also, props to 343 for having a very racially diverse group of models for these NPCs rather than just reusing ‘generic white male/female’ models, it’s another leg of effort they put into fleshing out the people within the setting that deserves to be recognised. And as you wander around and explore, there’s about a dozen NPCs you can exchange dialogue with and it sheds some light on their perspective as well as Locke’s. To give a few examples:

Before you see Governor Sloan, one of the troopers guarding the entrance rather gruffly tells you that the battle is over so Osiris better keep their weapons down. Locke replies with “of course” in a respectful manner, which then prompts the trooper so add “oh, and welcome to Meridian Station,” obviously no less upset about the UNSC being present but courteous enough to offer a welcome.

On his immediate left at the other side of the entrance (next to the ramp leading up to the Pelican) is another trooper who Locke apologies to, saying “I’m sorry we couldn’t do more to help”. She replies abruptly, saying “there’s nothing we can do about it now,” which, again, shows she’s not happy about the situation but she’s a forward-thinking person that’s just going to get on with the situation at hand.

There was one person in particular that I walked up to, a guard, who was staring out over the glasslands covering Meridian while fires burned in the distance from the battle in the previous mission and if you interact with him Locke asks “are you okay?”

Oh, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with the soccer ball easter egg that you get when pressing the buttons on a vending machine a certain number of times. Locke playfully challenges Buck to “bring it on, old man” and see which of them can score first when Buck says that he used to play a lot of football in his younger days. We get a really good understanding of Locke as a people person with these little moments, in seeing how he drops that mask I’ve talked about a fair bit in the first and third missions. And if you play co-op and approach these NPCs with other members of Osiris then you get different dialogues.

I really recommend for those of you who maybe weren’t quite as taken with these weapons-down missions to go back and spend a good amount of time wandering around to see what kind of dialogues you can get – sadly, there aren’t any complete transcripts available so I can’t post them all here.meridian10Likewise, this is where Holly Tanaka gets a few moments to shine – though I would definitely say that more could have been done here for her.

Vale: “I’ve never seen a glassed planet in person before. It’s kind of… pretty.”

Buck: “Vale, you’ve got a weird idea of ‘pretty’.”

Tanaka: “Homeworld got glassed… I was on the other side of Minab when the Covies hit the capital city. Survived the blast easy. But when the ground melts, debris gets thrown into the atmosphere – blocks out the sun. Instant ice age for the whole world. Surviving that’s a bit less easy.”

Cynthia McWilliams (Tanaka’s voice and mo-cap actress) does a tremendous job at conveying emotion through how she delivers her lines here. She has a lot of little pauses between her rather short sentences, she perfectly conveys the impression that this is somebody who is speaking out about her experiences for the first time, which is a significant moment of growth for her that a lot of people tend to miss because it’s not so obviously telegraphed.

Despite the impression you may have gotten from my analysis of the game so far, there is subtlety and nuance in Halo 5 to be found and it’s in these missions where the writing gets a chance to properly breathe. The cutscenes are rushed, important scenes are skipped altogether, there’s the pervasive Cold Tea problem I spoke about in the post on Glassed, but these weapons-down missions are all exceptional in how they convey information tot he player about the setting and about the characters in a very natural way.

Another example of ambient dialogue between Osiris tells us a lot about the mindset humanity is in right now as well regarding glassed worlds.

Buck: “Gotta wonder if it’s even possible to resettle this mess…”

Tanaka: “There’s sense to the plan – chip off the glass, hope the soil below is still viable.”

Buck: “A quarter-mile deep sea of slag across most of the globe?”

Tanaka: “That’s where the hope figures in.”

We get a sense of just how broken the setting is in the aftermath of the Human-Covenant war – broken worlds and broken people, like Tanaka. They established this in the previous mission’s intel logs as well with Evelyn Collins’ logs about how she’s joining up with Liang-Dortmund’s initiative to chip away the glass and reclaim the world that was once her home, motivated by the prospect of what the planet could one day become.

It’s speculated in one of the intel logs found in this mission that the job can be done in about twenty years because the Covenant’s glassing of Meridian was a “rush job”, which isn’t really that long if you think about it. This is a generation of people who would have lived their normal lives, evacuated from their homeworld when it was glassed, returned years later to rebuild their world, and potentially live to see it on the path to a proper restoration. It says a lot about the ‘mundanes’ of the Halo universe, the ordinary people who aren’t the giants we play as in the games, that they have this sense of hope that drives them.

To me, this just makes the whole storyline with ‘the Created’ all the more irritating because we get things like this which are leaning towards progress happening in the setting, only to be derailed by an all new galaxy-spanning threat.meridian6But let’s save that for a future post, we’re on a bit of a roll with the positive analysis here and I’d hate to change my tune now. Let’s look at some more of the intel pieces in this mission:

Priya Singh log 1: “I found a body in the glass today. Shook me up. Doc Hale said I should talk about it, so here, I’m talking about it. Think I’m done now.”

Priya Singh log 2: “The high winds the plasma kicks up? Scatters things for miles. Stuff can get thrown into the molten soil, and if it doesn’t burn up, it- it sticks like a fly in amber. Or things get caught in bubbles of ash, like inside a snow globe. Sometimes things just happen. Like finding one single house, untouched in a glass field. Figure that’s just to help us remember. Make us remember.”

William Khaleed log: “The plasma they use to glass planets burns so hot most stuff just vaporizes. But sometimes there’s a flicker in the beam and the temp drops just enough. That’s how get you stuff that’s still intact. And yeah, sometimes you get bodies. It’s ugly, but I didn’t get hung up about it. What gets me though is the dogs. Just excavated a homestead and there was a leash leading under the porch. So I’m taking the day off.”

Micah Durbec log: “Cleared deep the other day. Cut through what used to be a forest. Dug through the glass and cracked right into a natural cave formation. Found actual plant life and pools of standing water with little white bugs hopping around in ’em. After working sterile glass for so long, seeing those bugs done me a world of good.”

First of all, I’d like to point out that this can be tied in with one of Benjamin Giraud’s logs from Hunt the Truth regarding the BXR Mining Corporation which discusses the economy around these glassed worlds and the sense of abstract horror that comes from the realisation that the boom in availability of the silicate trade contains “the partial remains of millions of melted people”. When this was discovered by BXR, they simply labelled their silicate products “organically enriched”… Yeah. The victims of genocide are being made into commodities, with the PR departments of the companies wanting in on this trade trying to reassure everyone that the victims of these glassed worlds just evaporated.

As we can see from the logs of this mission, that is far from the truth.

This is a really neat bit of overlap between the game and Hunt the Truth, as Ben’s description of the world of Bliss as he’s seeing it on-approach from the sky closely matches what we see when looking out at the glasslands in the Meridian arc of this game.

Further out, it was all quarries, spanning into the distance, gouged a quarter-mile deep into the crust, massive drills and earth-movers growling way down at the bottom. From the road above, the workers looked like ants.

Beyond the periphery though, I saw the real glassed planet: a wavy, bumpy, chaotic sea of brittle, black glass, cresting in the strangest shapes, crunching and cracking underfoot, jaggedly rough, then suddenly smooth. The landscape resembled a bizarro, surrealist’s nightmare, completely abstract until a familiar shape would materialize from the chaos—skeletons of buildings, pieces of vehicles, the most unexpected pieces of civilization. I guess everything melts a little differently.

I feel the need to point these out because there’s so many areas where Halo 5 tosses its peripheral media out the window, but to the credit of this particular weapons-down mission we see it very nicely reflected – another thing that builds on my good will towards the introduction of these missions to Halo’s campaign formula. Even the quarter-mile figure is directly referenced by Tanaka.meridian8We really get a strong sense of the people we’re seeing in this mess. We learn about their traumas (linked with Tanaka’s own), we learn about the traumas suffered by the setting as a result of the glassings, and we learn about what is driving these people to spend potentially decades of their life contributing to the deglassing of their worlds.

I’ve criticised the main thread of the narrative for telling us more than showing us, but the opposite is the case with these weapons-down missions. When the writing is given a chance to slow down and breathe like this, it is your interactions with the characters – the mundanes – that does a tremendous job of really broadening our perspective of daily life within the Halo universe amongst these independent colony types.

This is further reflected in the design for the buildings that you walk among as well, with neon electrical signs highlighting clothing stores and the like – it has a very Halo 3: ODST vibe about it which is a big win in my book, as it’s in my top three favourite games in the series. A lot of effort went into characterising these spaces, they weren’t just done because 343 didn’t want to design a whole mission where they had to work this stuff in as a peripheral sort of thing. They jam-packed these areas with detail because there are players like myself who will spend even up to an hour looking around every nook and cranny for little pieces of worldbuilding.

Now, however, I have a proposition which you may find interesting to think about…tfor8The Fall of Reach animated adaptation… yeah, I’m bringing this up.

I wasn’t at all happy with this production for reasons that could well justify its own complete analysis, but the story was bookended by two very interesting scenes. John calls Blue Team to return to Reach with him to an area they trained when they were young, to reflect on Sam-034’s sacrifice and for John to ask his life-long friends:

“Last time we were here, I asked Sam to trust me to take us home. To follow me. Will you trust me now? Will you follow me?”

Here’s the thing, right… this whole situation makes no sense at all in the context it’s presented to us. As we know, John has been with Blue Team pretty much from the moment he got back to Earth after Halo 4 and has been running missions with them. This clearly takes place at some point during the eight month time gap between Halo 4 and 5, at which point Blue Team has been ‘following’ John on missions a good while.

It feels like there is a great deal of context missing here, but here’s my proposition to you:

What if Halo 5 didn’t feature Meridian, but instead had the glassed world setting be Reach?tfor10You wouldn’t have to change a thing about the stuff that happens in terms of the mission structure, but we’d be playing on Reach instead of Meridian. Liang-Dortmund would still be present, we’d still have all the background story regarding the civilians going back to the world to ‘deglass’ it and all that, but it would take place on a more established and perhaps a more relevant world.

This would be where you could have a weapons-down mission with Blue Team in an area they trained during their childhood for the Spartan-II project. This would be the perfect opportunity to explore Blue Team’s history with each other in the actual game by way of flashback sequences, general ambient chatter between them, and so on. I’m imagining something similar to the Normandy Crash Site mission in Mass Effect 2 which has you reflect on the Normandy SR1 and her crew from the first game, it would have a similar kind of mournful atmosphere with the same kind of weight to that history John has had with his closest friends.

It would also be a chance to pick up on Fred questioning John’s emotional state and how he’s pushing himself so hard with all these missions. John has to clear the air and ask if they will trust him, since their acceptance of going AWOL as it’s presented in the game is just so… uncalled for. They don’t even ask how John learned about Cortana being on Meridian, the vision from the Domain isn’t referenced at all.tfor11In addition, it would further build on the whole premise of this narrative set-up we had established in the E3 2014 trailer for the Master Chief Collection in Thel’s voiceover.

“To find him you have to forget the stories, forget the legends. You’ll have to do more than walk in his footsteps. For he is more than the sum of his actions.

I tell you this, not because I trust you, Agent Locke, but because all our lives are at stake. Because the seeds of our future… are sown in his past.

What a neat way this could be to make that actually relevant, right? Because, as it stands, this is another victim of the Cold Tea effect where an idea has been set up and pretty much forgotten about.

Not to mention the whole Guardian element of the story would make a lot more sense if you ended up going back to the Forerunner complex under the Menachite Mountain, which was ridiculously extensive. Halsey lamented that we would likely never know the full extent of it.

It would be an opportune location to have a Guardian, whereas Meridian seems to be a bit of an odd store of conveniences. Prior to Halo 5, it was a location renowned for containing a Luminary which revealed the locations of Installation 05 and the portal to the Lesser Ark on Earth.

I think that using Reach here would offer a bit more in the way of storytelling opportunities, as well as tying in essential fiction from the books into the game. It would still expand the setting while tying it neatly into the journey that our main characters have been through (and are still going through). I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on that because I’ve not seen it suggested before.tfor9Regardless, Meridian Station (and the weapons-down missions in general) is one of Halo 5’s triumphs in my opinion. It does succeed in developing the setting and developing it well, while also providing some great little character interactions which enhance our understanding and perspective in a range of different ways.

The reveal that Governor Sloan is an AI was well done as well, I haven’t really talked about that. It comes as something as a surprise at first, but when you think about it we’ve seen AIs running colonies before – like Juliana, who was in charge of The Rubble which we see in The Cole Protocol. Sif and Mack were likewise renowned figures to the public on Harvest, so it’s really nice to see these little tie-ins. For the first time in this analysis, I’m finding myself pointing these things out which lend a sense of connectivity to the universe at-large, as opposed to the last three missions which have largely been contributing to Halo 5 feeling like an AU.

I like this mission, I like the writing, and I like what these weapons-down missions offer for the campaign – and the potential they have to be expanded on in future instalments.

Overall, I think this is great stuff.

10 thoughts on “Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Meridian Station

  1. Totally agree, although I should admit to finding the transition to these weapons-down missions a little jarring at first.

    Following on from you suggestion that Meridian should have been Reach, if that had been the case there would ha ‘ve been an opportunity for some interesting characters development. One of Blue Team might have discovered Noble 6’s helmet – left on the ground, with the faceplate shot through. This might have lead to some interesting retrospection from John – “If it hadn’t been for Noble 6…” Which would have tied nicely back to Halsey’s closing comments in Reach.

    And that might have lead naturally into Blue Team asking John about the first Halo and being paired with Cortana for the first time. Which would have almost certainly lead onto a discussion about how John feels about the loss of Cortana. This we would have hit the “how does John deal with the loss” as well as coming full circle back to Reach, where it all began.

  2. Man, if you wrote a novelized book where ALL your ideas of how Halo should continue I would stop playing the games because your lore is way more interesting and well written in my opinion. As I said before, if the story of Halo divided into two: the games and those hypotetical books, the latter would be MY canon.

  3. Blue Team on Reach is a gold mine for narrative and expansion. I hope 343i picks up on this in Halo 6 and makes it all tie in together even with “The Created” plot line. I’m sure they can figure out some way to take them back to Reach if they wanted too and oh how they should. Like I said, hopefully Halo 6 squares all this up as 343i finds the perfect balance between awesome multiplayer AND awesome story.

    Looking forward to the next analysis especially with the closing cutscene and I’m curious to your interpretation of the fight, (like with John “toying” with Locke for the first half, not really considering him a threat)

  4. I think the one thing that would be missed if we moved from Meridian to Reach is a portion of Tanaka’s perspective. It wasn’t just that her homeworld got glassed, but also that her homeworld was on the fringe of UNSC civilization and thus knew how anti-UEG/UNSC it could be. Were it Reach that was being de-glassed, I feel like it would be a major political move and thus have more UNSC supporters working it. It’d be less privatized.
    I don’t dislike the idea, and heaven knows Blue Team’s story needed some emotional weight (plus it’d allow for a nice tie-in for Locke’s assassination recommendation on the Arbiter), but we’d probably lose a bit of Tanaka’s story.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been trying to think of ways in which the loss of that perspective could be circumvented but I’m coming up with nothing particularly good so this would be the trade-off.

      Since Halo 5 doesn’t actually do anything with the whole anti-UNSC theme and the human Great Schism, I feel I might be more inclined to say the trade-off is worth it to serve the main narrative and the history of four characters rather than one.

      I think you could still have Tanaka comment on the whole deglassing situation with Reach along the lines of “of course Reach would be among the first worlds to get this treatment, but who’s going to be in a hurry to do the same to Minab?”

      But I get your point, it wouldn’t be the same.

  5. Another excellent analysis! It makes me sad that these great pieces of storytelling, Laura building, and small picture moments or forgotten by the tractors who say these levels were “just boring” and ” there wasn’t fun gun play”. I genuinely think a lot of critics and players need to appreciate writing a narrative more as an entire holistic experience instead of just focusing solely on how the player in the game share a mechanic in the gameplay. Great usage of the Alien Isolation from example in how it really constructs a scene and promotes so many terrific things in a narrative.

  6. You talked a lot about the writing, but I can’t help but notice you failed to talk about the level itself. I’m just saying. I think most people were so dissatisfied with these levels because they were jarring and they felt like padding, often only consisting of “Talk to X character, then talk to Y character” in terms of objectives, which is kind of terrible game design in terms of the game itself.

    I definitely don’t disagree that the world building on Meridian is itself pretty good and the things found in this level certainly help that, but as a level and piece of the game itself, Meridian Station is just woefully lacking. There’s no reason they couldn’t insert some of this gold fictional stuff they’ve created into the game without breaking the pacing so badly and taking agency away from the player in a tangible way.

    I agree with you that this was good writing, but I just can’t call these levels good. I really think a small section like this could be inserted into different levels for the same effect without ruining the pacing. I also find your parallel with Alien: Isolation to be extremely faulty, almost solely because of audience. Halo 5 is an FPS where 343 spent a lot of time tuning the player experience to feel empowering and meaningful in its mechanics. These guns-down sections, where players can no longer shoot or perform many of the new mobility mechanics, takes that control away from the player, thus breaking the power fantasy established by the game prior. This is a huge contrast to Alien: Isolation, because the power fantasy in that game is *all about* making the player feel small and weak in the face of their challenges. Sections of the game with no weapons work a lot better as a result; it feeds into that power fantasy of that game to be stripped of power. It just doesn’t work in Halo 5 (the game, not necessarily the story) at all. I like your analysis of the fiction here, but I don’t think you dug deep enough into how ineffective the game design was at marrying that fiction to the player’s actions here – it just didn’t work.

    1. I was saving that particular discussion for Before The Storm, as I’ve been saying there’s a pretty big challenge here in juggling when to talk about particular topics so I don’t just run out of material in the first half of these analyses.

      Additionally, I’d spent about 13,000 words in the Osiris and Blue Team analysis with more of an emphasis on the negatives. I wanted to try and balance that out with some more positive analysis in this mission. With the Sanghelios arc of the game I’ll be taking a more positive perspective because I really like those missions, so the criticism (of the weapons-down mission) will be a bit more distinct rather than just being thrown into the melting pot.

      My comparison with Isolation was more about the concept of a weapons-down mission itself and how Halo can take from that. By no means am I calling these missions perfect, I actually do very much agree with you on many of the points you raised – there’s a hell of a lot more they could do with them, but I think their implementation in Halo 5 is a solid starting point for this new concept.

      We know that there were significant cuts in this department, as there was supposed to be a weapons-down HUB on Infinity which was planned (I think I talked a bit about this in the Osiris analysis).

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