Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Swords of Sanghelios

UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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

Where we last left off with Osiris, arrangements were being made for Osiris to be deployed to Sanghelios in order to gain access to the Guardian at Sunaion which has yet to be awakened. By feeding the Guardian coordinates gleaned from the Meridian Guardian’s slipspace coordinates, they will end up going to the same place.

I mean… we later learn that Cortana is summoning all the Guardians to Genesis anyway before deploying them, so this plan is ultimately pointless, but hey, I guess they don’t know that.

There was a lot to criticise in the last mission where we covered Reunion, that single post was one-fifth the length of my entire Halo 4 analysis to put it into perspective. Fortunately, we are now at my favourite part of the game so we can enjoy a respite with some more generally positive analysis. However, there’s still a number of things worthy of critique as well.half172Speaking of which, I’ve got some to raise right now…

We begin this scene with Halsey and Palmer together by a Pelican as preparations are being made for deployment to Sanghelios. Let me rephrase that: we begin this scene with yet another missed opportunity, add it to the score if you’re keeping track.

Here’s the thing, right? Halsey and Palmer are on pretty good terms in Halo 5, this was something I picked up on before the game even launched back when the second episode of The Sprint came out and showed the actors performing the opening scene of Glassed. The way in which Halsey and Palmer speak to each other still has an underlying sense of tension, but they have established a working relationship and we have been left in the dark as to how things got from Point A to B.

Point A being Palmer’s intense moral issues with Halsey based on her knowledge of the woman’s history with the Spartan-IIs to the point where it came across as downright personal, and she says as much in Escalation.

Whether you were a fan of this particular arc or not, this was the focus of about three years worth of fiction. From the third episode of Spartan Ops where Halsey entered the stage, through the Escalation comic series, right up to Halo 5’s release, and beyond to the final issue of Escalation. The central arc that was foregrounded by the narrative was the tension between Halsey and Palmer, with the first arc of Escalation (issues #1-3) setting up Palmer’s character to have this change in perspective when she talks with Scruggs. He calls her out on her black-and-white view of the conflicts in the galaxy, how what you fight for isn’t always the same as who you fight for.

I’ve brought this up a few times, but Chris Schlerf charted a very clear course for her character arc to take – for her to grow. Just as he charted a very clear course for the Reclaimer Saga in Halo 4 with all those major plot points which have been ignored or tossed aside in this game, but we’ll do a proper recap of that in the analysis on the final mission – Guardians.halsey palmer arcThe above is from the Janus Key arc (issues #13-16, click the image for a larger view) which further builds on this arc.

This was some really good stuff, and in her debrief with Lasky she says that there was something about this encounter that resulted in her not being able to shoot her. Palmer was, on some level, starting to think about what Halsey was saying rather than blithely dismissing it, about how she is being used as a scapegoat to make the hands of others look clean. And it further emphasises Osman as this central, antagonistic figure which fit in really well with the story from the marketing (like Hunt the Truth) where ONI was being set up as a central antagonistic force as humanity split apart.

We were supposed to see the culmination of this arc in the Absolute Record storyline, I mean… the cover of the final issue is literally Halsey being reflected in Palmer’s visor. This was meant to be the pivot-point where everything that had been built up over the previous three years of fiction would reach a confluence with the result of Palmer having this shift in perspective. They had six issues to work with here, more than they had for any other story arc in Escalation, and yet somehow it still ended up being a rushed mess.

So what did this arc all boil down to?halsey palmer arc1

Four panels…

Four panels where Palmer is just willing to drop all the moral baggage she had with Halsey because she “overplayed her hand” and didn’t kill Palmer when she had the chance. That’s it. That’s what those three years built up to, on top of the Janus Key and Absolute Record literally (no, really, literally) being zapped out of existence.

No meaningful shift in perspective or greater depth of understanding of the complexities in the ways in which the landscape of the setting is changing.

Nothing to do with ONI or Osman. No growth, no development, just a sudden, abrupt change – which is pretty much Halo 5’s main story summed up in a sentence, right?

Why do I bring this up, you ask?

Well, looking at Halo 5 itself, it’s clear that they wanted this Halsey/Palmer stuff out of the way (just like every other plot point established by Halo 4 and built on in peripheral media) because these two exchange a grand total of two lines – both of them coming from Palmer (she says “nobody lets the Chief do anything. He does what he wants” in Glassed and “open your eyes, Doc. You’re missing all the fun” in Battle of Sunaion). That’s it. There are as many lines between Halsey and Palmer as there are mentions of the Ur-Didact in this game. Whatever else they say to each other is off-screen.

We see them together, but we don’t see them together. They couldn’t even spare one scene where these two have an actual conversation with one-another, and the extent to which you care may well be based in how much you were (or were not) invested in this particular character arc, but one way or another it’s quite simply bad writing to have yet another one of these major stories watered down into outright nothingness. This was something I was invested in seeing, a lot of people wanted to see Palmer grow as a character considering how she was initially received, and they built on that promise so well before deciding at the eleventh hour to drop it altogether.

They couldn’t even spare one scene where Halsey and Palmer have an honest-to-god conversation, which wouldn’t exactly be much of a strain on resources because it’s just two people talking. Fleshing out their perspectives, coming to some sort of understanding, not becoming best pals but having a newfound sense of respect and getting on with their jobs because they have to work together.half67Back to the cutscene, we get a moment between Locke and Vale – leaving Tanaka as the only one not to have one, despite being the co-founding member of Osiris and the whole of the Meridian arc where they just neglected to give her a scene…

Vale questions Locke about the target dossier he complied on Thel ‘Vadam(ee):

Vale: “So, you wrote a target dossier on the Arbiter when you were with ONI.”

Locke: “That was six years ago. What’s your point?”

Vale: “You recommended assassinating him.”

Locke: “After he killed millions of our people.”

Vale: “So why didn’t you?”

Locke: “Things changed.”

I have… mixed feelings about this exchange.

Locke is written here as being very closed-off, which is just odd to me because the way he’s written in the missions themselves in how he interacts with Osiris is a lot more open. Considering how Sanghelios was likely supposed to be the first act of the game originally (which I’ve talked about in previous posts), it’s possible that this is an oversight and they didn’t bring Locke’s characterisation up to the point he’s actually at in terms of how open he is with his team. But it really does come across as quite a stilted line.

On the other hand, it does its job of further building on Locke’s mindset. This is not a man bound by prejudice, he is somebody who responds to a situation in the way he deems is appropriate for things going forward in the long-term. I really like that about him. Locke is a malleable and fair-minded individual, he looks at things from a broader perspective than most others in this setting do.half70This is a UNSC soldier, a Spartan, and former-ONI agent who shows up on an independent colony and doesn’t stick his nose up at the people there or treat them with any scorn. That’s practically a trope at this point in the Halo universe, the air of superiority that tends to come hand-in-hand with a lot of ONI characters.

Locke understands their anti-UNSC sentiments, having grown up a jaded and cynical orphan after the UNSC lost Jericho VII. So what does he do? He turns to the member of his team who grew up like the people on this colony and asks her how they might present themselves more amicably to the colonists.

And now he’s going to Sanghelios and finds himself working with somebody who he’d previously signed up to assassinate, somebody responsible for the deaths of over 1.6 billion humans. He sets any grudges aside and gets to work. Dwelling on the past, causing complications by throwing doubt into the extent they can trust the likes of Thel – it’s not going to be helpful to anyone. He silently places his trust in this individual that no personal complications will arise, just as he did in Nightfall on the shard of Installation 04 where he was totally willing to play fair and give the two smugglers Arris and Haisal an equal chance of living when they were going to draw straws to decide which two get to leave.

In Locke’s own words: “Things changed”. Thel ‘Vadam is no longer the same person he used to be during the Human-Covenant war, they’re on the same side now. People have the capacity to change and to be better, and Thel most definitely has worked to be better than who he once was.

Locke is a rare exception in the Halo universe as somebody who will play fair, do his best to understand and get along with others, and above all do the right thing. And that’s important, I think – he’s a notable exception to the norm of how humanity is generally portrayed in this setting. That’s the kind of character I think ought to be looked up to because if there were more people like Jameson Locke in the setting then the galaxy would undoubtedly be a better place.

But yeah, “things changed” is a line that could have been written a lot better. To the average player, I can definitely see why they’re going to hear that line without any additional context and get the wrong impression of Locke’s character.half173We then cut to Lasky and a random Sangheili walking up to the group, and just… dear god would it have killed them to have had this Sangheili actually be someone?

N’tho? Usze? Both of whom have actually met Vale so you could have an interesting character dynamic there which would serve to explore her character and history a little better. How about Ayit ‘Sevi, the Sangheili introduced in Escalation who is an ONI operative? In the version of Halo 5 that delivers on the premise of what was set up with ONI, this could provide a fascinating alternate view of the organisation.

Ideally though, they should have made this Mahkee ‘Chava because she is a persistent presence throughout the Sanghelios arc yet we never actually see her. You wouldn’t even need to create a unique character model for her because The Thursday War tells us that the only notable difference between a male and female Sangheili is that the females are slightly smaller and they smell like clean feathers, whereas the males smell like leather. Obviously, the latter point there would have absolutely no bearing on the presentation in the game whatsoever…

There’s no excuse here as far as I’m concerned, especially since this scene is so damn short and the Sangheili has one line. This should have been the establishing moment for Mahkee’s character rather than just having her appear on the comms at the start of the mission like she and Osiris were mid-conversation.

I don’t know why they didn’t do this. If you’re going to establish a new character, then introducing them in a scene like this is just basic storytelling.half71Lasky has a private word with Locke where he starts to say that if things on this mission go south, but is interrupted by Locke who says that he understands, and that this isn’t the first mission he’s been on that “doesn’t exist”. Joining the others on-approach to the Lich, Locke heads out. Lasky looks concerned, then looks at Locke’s ass (no really, it’s great, he totally checks him out as he walks off, it’s great) and the Lich flies off.

At this point, the UNSC Infinity won’t be seen again until the final cutscene of the game – seven missions from now. So far, the ship has done absolutely nothing and it just heads off to some human world which may or may not be Earth for the end of the game.

I still don’t understand why the UNSC is allegedly so against getting involved with their allies the Swords of Sanghelios in the final push to end the Covenant… The one ‘Covenant’ group that they maintain friendly, diplomatic relations with.

Surely this is just as much in humanity’s interest as it is Thel’s?

Not to mention that fighting alongside joint human-Sangheili teams in these missions (particularly Enemy Lines and Battle of Sunaion) would have been an incredible spectacle, as these two forces brought together six years ago to be unlikely allies finally get to finish the fight that has plagued both of their civilisations.

While I do still regard this arc as a net-positive and the best damn part of the game (you probably haven’t quite gotten that impression from what I’ve been saying just yet), it just lacks that feeling of being a confluence like Halo 3 did when you charge the Citadel on the Ark with Sangheili and human allies alongside you. By some measure of contrivance, Infinity is slipped out the back door of the story again and what is supposed to be the final end to the Covenant loses a great amount of the gravitas it should have – which is only compounded on further by the fact that the Covenant were slipped a ‘get back in the setting at some point’ card in Escalation with (*groan*) Sali ‘Nyon.half174The next cutscene is of the Lich approaching Sanghelios, with the Phantom carrying Osiris breaking off from it and heading down to the planet.

We don’t get any kind of scene aboard the Lich or the Phantom where Osiris and the Sangheili talk to each other, establishing any perspectives or tensions the way we saw in the bookend cutscenes of the Master Chief Collection where one particular Sangheili gets up in Locke’s face and says he doesn’t trust him, to which Locke simply responds “noted”. That was a great little moment there which was reflective of how Locke was perceived, the implication and presumption here being that this Sangheili knew about Locke’s target dossier on Thel – so his distrust mad sense.

But we don’t have anything like that, or anything like… well, anything here. Halo 5’s cutscenes are just far too brief and lacking in any of the meat that all the previous games have, but it’s especially jarring in the wake of Halo 4 which was wholly driven by character-oriented scenes.

This is our first time going to Sanghelios in the games, this should be a moment. Instead, we get a ten second scene showing a Phantom landing over some rocky terrain and that’s it. Sorry, but that’s rubbish.swords15I think back to Halo CE where you emerge onto the surface of Installation 04 for the first time.

Or Halo 2 where you have that epic drop scene down to Installation 05 and are immediately thrown into the action.

Or in Halo 3 where you arrive at the Lesser Ark and have that sequence in the blood tray of the Pelican looking out over the desert covering the horizon while your fellow Marines admire the view, then looking up in awe as they see the Milky Way galaxy.

Or in Halo 4 where you emerge from the wreckage of the Dawn, the music starting slowly and ominously as you wander through the caves, and then head through an opening where the world just bursts into view with those shifting Forerunner spires hanging over what looks like a small city embedded into a cliff wall by a waterfall. It’s going on four years since Halo 4 came out and I still get goosebumps from the way the music swells to capture that unique sense of awe and beauty of Requiem.

This was also the case in ODST and Reach too, I will never forget seeing the desolate streets of New Mombasa light up with its neon signs and noir skyline after jumping out of the drop pod.

Making landfall in these beautiful alien environments is something that has always been given a kind of ceremony, they’re unforgettable moments because a great deal of thought and structure was put into how those moments play out.

Here in Halo 5, there is no such ceremony. You’re dropped out of a Phantom and Mahkee suddenly appears on the communications channel as if we’re already acquainted with her and she drops some exposition that could (read: should) have been done in a cutscene on the way to the planet so that when you are dropped down to the surface you can then focus on instilling a sense of awe in the player at finally coming to Sanghelios.

For some, I expect the sheer novelty of that was enough for them to get excited and I can totally understand that, I get that too. But looking at it in-comparison to the previous games, I really don’t think that this introduction is anywhere near the same calibre.swords18Now, having said all that, bloody hell these missions are gorgeous!

I’ve really got to give props to the Sanghelios world team at 343 because it’s clear from both reading various interviews with them and laying the game itself that a lot of effort went into crafting these spaces. We know that these were amongst the first missions that were worked on for Halo 5, and it really shows because these are some of the best designed missions in the game – and certainly the ones that, minus a few oddly placed invisible walls, are the most polished.

I mentioned earlier this idea of a ‘confluence’, well that’s very evident to me in these missions – just how well the music, atmosphere, art, and level design come together to form a coherent and unique world.

In the article linked above, Nicholas Bell (the lead world artist) tells us that the Sanghelios world team actually went on a fifteen mile hike through The Narrows in Zion National Park for inspiration and artistic reference for these environments, climbing over boulders and waterfalls to get a sense of the feeling of adventure they wanted to translate into the gameplay with the new Spartan Abilities. I really got that feeling because there’s so many different ledges you can clamber onto and high rocks you can jump across which creates a multi-level playground for you to really engage with the enemy encounters in different ways.

There’s seldom a point in these encounters where you’re idle, there’s so many places to move and it just feels fluid and natural across the board. Really, really solid level design in my opinion. Funnily enough, Bell goes on to say that this is the product of his experiences with the early Tony Hawk games in “the seamless nature of how my skater transitioned from moves and onto new elements in the environment”. The design philosophy here was to replace ‘skater’ with ‘Spartan’, chaining together jumps and thrusts and clambers as you would skater tricks. As I was replaying this mission, I felt that I got that.

There’s a sense of momentum in how you traverse these missions that I really haven’t felt many of the other games managed to capture in quite the way it was done here.swords14Not only that, but there’s a real sense of warmth that comes across from the art design as a result of the colours they’ve chosen and how it stands out from all the other locations in the game – as there are seven distinct art palettes in the game.

Kamchatka is this icy warzone, matched by the cold grey interior Forerunner spaces that intertwine with the natural environment at times and its piercing blue lights. It’s hostile and unwelcoming.

Meridian is a broken husk of a world with nothing but glass and industrial equipment for as far as the eye can see, pockmarked with small makeshift settlements for people who are going about making a living in their everyday lives.

Genesis is a distinctly artificial world comprised of abstract shapes, strange plants, and muddy green and brown shades to its colours – a world with a distinct sense of not being quite right to it.

Sanghelios, though, is a world that gets the ‘Earth treatment’, which I’ll talk more about later.

Of all the locations we go to, it is by far the most grounded and ‘realistic’, and it feels like a world worth fighting for – which is fitting considering the narrative here. The ambient noises of strange birds wheeling in the alien sky, the flow of the water as it trickles downstream like it’s naturally guiding you to the next area (hey, intuitive game design!), the major upgrades to the engine which enable things like bugs to be rendered and implemented rather than join the long list of alien life that has been cut over the years (RIP Porky), the visually pleasing contrast of the colours of the rocks and foliage, and the sense of worldbuilding in the environmental storytelling with the statues and murals.

It all serves to make Sanghelios feel like an authentic, fleshed out, rich location and the Sanghelios world team did an incredible job. I really don’t think I’d change a thing here.swords12The conceit of this mission is to effectively find Thel, who is being targeted by the Covenant remnant groups that are throwing themselves at Sanghelios in their death throes to try and bring an end to what Thel represents.

On some level, this could be said to be an interesting parallel to Osiris pursuing John, who, in that alternate universe where Halo 5 actually follows up on its marketing, is seemingly awakening the Guardians himself – that’s the perception that the marketing presented the UNSC as having. Thel and John would have effectively ‘swapped places’, but nothing is actually done with that so it’s not an avenue we can really go down for analysis.

Let’s talk a bit about the Swords of Sanghelios though, because the history of the group itself sheds some interesting light on Thel’s character.

According to the official Waypoint universe entry, the Swords of Sanghelios actually began long before the Covenant when Arbiters were still judge-kings and they hadn’t yet expanded beyond their homeworld. One tyrannical such Arbiter was the ruler of Sanghelios’ continent of Qivro, which is the continent we are actually on in these missions. Those who were against this Arbiter formed a brotherhood of Kaidons who worked together to overthrow him and their tales of loyalty, sacrifice, and honour passed through the generations, evidently into the modern era.

It’s interesting that Thel, the Arbiter, would choose to revive this particular organisation…

He’s succeeded in uniting the Keeps, he is pretty much approaching his endgame here, so what happens beyond that when the Covenant is defeated and there is no great enemy to fight will be interesting as the first great period of both independence and peacetime for this generation of Sangheili.

But Thel clearly doesn’t fully trust himself.

If he were to step out of line for whatever reason, he’s revived the Swords of Sanghelios as a potential platform for these Kaidons to unite against him. There’s the added irony that the last incarnation of the Swords was during the inception of the Covenant where they fought against those who opposed the signing of the Writ of Union, so it’s interesting because this is the Sangheili reclaiming their past and their independence to make way for their future. They will no longer be bound to the San’Shyuum, nor the toxic beliefs of the Covenant, nor the fear that tentatively held the Covenant together for all those years. They reject that, Thel rejects that, and they’re fighting for a new future that they’re going to decide on their own terms.

Looking at this broadly, intertextually, as I tend to, this tells us a lot about the kind of person that Thel ‘Vadam has become after all these years. It’s a shame that this history isn’t actually told to us in the game because this is really quite enriching for his character, as well as the overall worldbuilding of the Swords of Sanghelios. It’s really good stuff, this is something that I actually feel a sense of investment in, but by the end of the game that investment is all for nought – but we’ll get to that eventually.swords10We’re learning a lot about the Sangheili so far, but what about the human attitudes we see in Osiris?

Early in the mission, you arrive at an area where the Covenant ambushed a group of Swords and slaughtered them.

Locke: “Bodies ahead. Swords of Sanghelios. Covenant must’ve caught ’em by surprise.”

Vale: *speaking Sangheili*

Locke: “What’s that, Vale?”

Vale: “Sangheili burial prayer. ‘A warrior at birth, a warrior in death’.”

Buck: “Arbiter’s an ally, so these dead here are our brothers as far as I’m concerned.”

Tanaka: “Agreed. Time for payback.”

This is… fantastic, really. It’s one of my favourite bits of dialogue in the game, this sort of progressive thinking in these characters is exactly what the setting needs in order for things to develop in new ways.

Here we have this group of dead Sangheili, neither we nor Osiris have any idea who they are beyond being allied forces, and this group of humans treats them with the respect and dignity they would give to their own kind. Vale recites the burial prayer, Buck says that these were their brothers, and Tanaka gets the team motivated not just to push on in doing their job but to avenge their deaths.swords9It’s interesting as well that Buck uses the word “brothers” considering the overarching theme of family in this game. You may recall how I brought up a podcast with Greg Bear in the analysis on Glassed (Sparkast #17), well his insight is relevant here too as he says:

“I think the whole Halo story evolves out of conflict within a huge galactic family, which now includes us. And so this family controversy continues, which means your actions really do have consequences – you don’t know who you’re related to when you’re fighting them.”

Bear talks about this in-reference to the conflict between the Librarian and Ur-Didact, in that the Didact has this very clear idea of who the ‘family’ is – the Forerunners. Whereas the Librarian feels that they have to reach outside of the family in order to fulfil the designs she has in-mind for the future of the galaxy.

This can also be said of the San’Shyuum, who were once closely allied with humanity (read: they were ‘the family’ from their perspective) and fought the Flood with them 110,000 years ago, only to end up being the ones orchestrating the genocide that was the Human-Covenant war after various major events and circumstances had resulted in a the loss of their previous history. So the San’Shyuum had no idea that they were once ‘related to’ humanity, if you understand my meaning.

We can see that the same principle is emerging here, as the Sangheili are in the process of consolidating their sense of who the family is now that they are flushing out the trauma and toxicity left behind by their previous ‘relatives’. While the theme of family was very much mishandled, in my opinion, on the smaller-scale with how Blue Team were handled and some aspects of Osiris, on a broader scale the theme of family as it pertains to these civilisations was really well handled.

Of course, once the external family drama is ended, things inevitably turn to drama from within, which Vale brings up in ambient dialogue during this mission.

Buck: “So, Vale, d’you think Arbiter can win his war?”

Vale: “Easily. Maintaining peace afterwards will be the hard part. Arbiter built the Swords of Sanghelios from a coalition of bickering clans, it’ll be a hell of a magic trick if he can keep them from turning on one-another once they don’t have the Covenant to fight.”

swords6Speaking of family, the intel logs give us the first part of a two-part mini-story about the ‘Arach brothers – Jacul and Kitun.

Jacul’s loyalties lie with the Swords of Sanghelios, Kitun’s lie with the Covenant. Both are urging the other to join their side because they do not wish to fight.

As you may recall me mentioning in the analysis for Osiris, we actually meet Kitun in the first mission and have the potential to ally with him if we help his Covenant forces charge the Promethean lines up the hill.

Jacul, Log 1: “Kitun ‘Arach, my brother. Though we fought as we were growing up, only now are we truly enemies. I hope you will see through the lies of Jul ‘Mdama. The Swords of Sanghelios would welcome a warrior as strong as you.”

Jacul, Log 2: “Kitun ‘Arach, my brother. I remember our first hunt together, when we brought our prey home, it was a moment of greatness, of hope. The Covenant brings only shame to the Sangheili, but it will soon fall. I wish to hunt with you at my side again, brother. It is not too late.”

We really get a sense of just how tired the Sangheili are of fighting. This is effectively their endgame, their future is in-flux as there is only one question to be answered – who will win, the Swords or the Covenant? Either way, this is clearly the last fight the Sangheili want to get into, even on the side of the Covenant where they’re just throwing themselves at Sanghelios. This is their last chance to win, they can’t put it off any longer, this is the moment Sangheili future is going to be decided.

And this story is told to us through the lens of two brothers who find themselves on opposing sides. Their story is about a minute long through all the dialogue we have in these two logs and the ones we get later from Kitun, but in that small period of time the voice actors beautifully convey so much history and emotion and weariness.

Because it’s one thing to show how the galactic family goes through these huge shifts all the time, but, as I quoted Brian Reed as saying in the Reunion analysis – “Without those quiet intimate moments, no one is going to care how many planets you blow up.”

Well, this is one such occasion where credit where credit is due because I think they nailed it. They got it absolutely right in the Sanghelios arc, they told a really enriching, well thought-out, multi-layered story over the course of these missions.swords5We then come to a really awesome bit of gameplay where Mahkee drops off a group of Swords of Sanghelios fighters and two Mantises. I’ve talked a lot in previous missions about how 343 has really had a lot of trouble making these feel like moments, where something comes along to change the flow of the gameplay in the way that giving you a Scorpion does.

That is not the case here…

They managed this really well in Halo 4 as well, where you press the control to bring the Mantis up and then blast through the doors to rain destruction down on the Covenant and Prometheans while the track (fittingly titled) Mantis plays. They recreated that here, literally remade the track as Walk Softly this time around and had you lead an all-out charge on the Elder Council Chamber.

Honestly, this is where Halo 5’s gameplay really shines. It gives you these huge, open arenas filled with groups of enemies and vehicles, and lots of different paths on the left, the right, through the middle, and then different tiers of elevation along each of those paths. I remember when I first played this mission where I decided to go straight through the middle, but I didn’t want to deal with the Wraith so I went downstairs on that same route thinking it’ll be safer. Nope! I came across two Hunters waiting for me instead who I would have had a much easier job dealing with on-foot rather than in the slower, bulkier Mantis which promptly got blasted apart.

I had so much fun playing this part of the game, it felt to me just like the ‘Rolling Thunder’ run in the Scorpion did in Assault on the Control Room. This was yet another confluence moment where the visual and gameplay design, the music, and the writing all came together to produce something really quite spectacular.

Doing this while fighting alongside Sangheili allies only served to further endear this moment to me. In Halo 2 and 3, I always made a concerted effort to ensure that all the Sangheili allies survived and I get to do the same thing here.swords4It’s so easy to get caught up in the way that the momentum is building and pushing you forward that you miss all of the subtle details in the environment.

In the broken building just before you get to the courtyard outside the Elder Council Chamber (and in the Elder Council Chamber itself) there’s actually a number of murals depicting moments in Sangheili/Covenant history.swords48 swords49 swords50As far as environmental storytelling goes, this is really fantastic stuff. Veterans of Halo fiction may actually recognise some of these, as they appeared in the original scripted version of Sacred Icon’s opening cutscene in Halo 2, but ended up being removed.

Bungie showed us these in the Cutting Room Floor Cinematics video a long time ago, it’s always a treat to see these visual elements that didn’t make it into one instalment find their way into another more than ten years on.

There’s no attention drawn to it, there’s no boatload of exposition dumped onto the player. It’s put there for you to take the time to go out and explore and find it, to put the story together in your head – which these murals do a great job of depicting.

In the first two murals, you see the images framed within the Reclaimer glyph (represented by the Halo ring as the inner circle in the first mural, and then the lines around it forming the rest of that particular visual reference). You see Sangheili worshipping, you see the very recognisable image of the Keyship from Halo 2 and 3, you see the San’Shyuum in the final mural and the Sangheili taking up their position as the Covenant’s enforcrs.

I really want to see Halo do this kind of storytelling more often because it really conveys the richness of that history just at a glance. I’m reminded of Journey, where you have the simple goal of just wandering towards a mountain and on the way you can find murals in the desert and the other locations you visit which convey the history of the setting to you solely through the images you see. The story reaches its final confluence as you see the murals as part of a greater tapestry that has slowly been coming together, and you see the complete image – where you began, the trials you have endured, and a glimpse at the trials yet to come.

Thinking about how you might apply this to Blue Team’s storytelling as well, doing something like this by finding terminals you can interact with in the world (say, on Genesis) which provide John an image of the past from the Domain would have been a really good way of weaving that major plot point introduced in Halo 4 into its sequel rather than just using it to set up the plot and forgetting about it altogether after that.swords3We then get to the Elder Council Chamber where the Swords of Sanghelios are losing the fight and there’s no sign of Thel.

There’s a palpable sense of tension here that’s really well conveyed. The music moves towards its climax as Osiris fights their way through the Covenant forces, Vale shouting to the Kaidon that they’re here to help, the injured Sangheili outside the chamber telling Osiris to move to the upper levels where we get our epic introduction to Thel.

Two Sangheili stand against Thel, moving in for the kill.

Arbiter: “The Swords of Sanghelios will be victorious! Come closer, traitor, and see how a true Sangheili fights!”

Sangheili: “It would be my honour! Kill him!”

Thel stabs one as he approaches, the other takes his opportunity to charge but Thel skilfully slashes him down to the floor – like he’s done this a thousand times before.

As we learn in the intel logs for this mission, Covenant loyalists have been hiding within the ranks of the Swords looking to strike at Thel when they get the opportunity, something which Jaruth ‘Ghattam finds particularly vexing.

“Claim allegiance to the Arbiter, but a traitor’s working with the Covenant! Why do you skulk in the shadows? Come, draw your blades! You live without honour! Must you die the same way? I will kill you all myself!”

Thel is well accustomed to betrayal from within, it’s something that has dogged him ever since he became Kaidon of ‘Vadam – which we see in The Cole Protocol, as Elder Koida ‘Vadam sends a trio of assassins after him and fails, paying the price with his own life.

I often think to myself that 343 could make a really interesting animated television show of Sangheili politics at just about any point in their history and the ‘game of thrones’ they have within their own Keeps.

Game of Keeps…?swords1With Thel secured, Mahkee arrives with her Phantom and they escape the Elder Council Chamber, Thel looking confused about the presence of Spartans.

And… that about wraps it up.

See, I told you I had lots of good things to say!

You were probably starting to doubt that after the first two thousand words regarding the mishandling of Palmer and Halsey’s relationship, as well as some of the other areas where things were lacking.

I maintain that there is zero excuse for why there are no female Sangheili in this game. They literally would not need unique models or anything, it is canonically established that there is very little in the way of sexual dimorphism beyond them being a little shorter and smelling like clean feathers rather than leather. Al 343 had to do was hire a few female voice actors. That’s it. We’re on bloody Sanghelios, their home planet, where the women are the ones who actually run the Keeps, and we only have one female who doesn’t even physically appear.

It makes Vale’s line at the start of the mission about how she’s impressed that Thel has instigated this cultural development by allowing females into his ranks ring pretty hollow, especially having read Broken Circle which had a fair degree of focus on characters like Lnur ‘Mol who were part of a secret group of females who maintained their ‘protector of eggs’ warrior traditions.

However, with everything else I’ve covered, I think that this is undoubtedly the best damn mission of the game so far.

Speaking of which, we have now crossed the half-way point of the game. Well done on making it this far!

5 thoughts on “Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Swords of Sanghelios

  1. Halo 5 had so much potential, and in some ways it paid off, in other ways it fell very short. If every mission could have been as great as this one, if the storytelling could have been as great as (some of) the books and H4… Halo 5 could have been damn near perfect. Hopefully, they’ll nail that balance with the next game… I mean, I’m terribly disappointed like many others – and at times, looking at all the dark things… It’s very hard to remain positive… But I still maintain hope. There’s so many good things along with the bad, that if I continually focus only on the bad, there’s no joy to be had in the good things that were accomplished. (Not to say that we should just ignore the flaws, mind you)

    Reading this part of the analysis… Really was a relief for that reason. Halo 5’s story was filled with flaws, but there’s still good to be had. Hopefully, with Halo “6” the story won’t take a backseat to the multiplayer, and they can find that near-perfect balance.

    1. I think you’re correct, the story came a distant second to the overwhelming focus on multiplayer and esports. And when it was considered, it feels (to me at least) as though it was lashed together at the last minute and then reorganised for some reason.

      There’s an interesting comment by the author of the first story in the Halo Graphic Novel, essentially he says that those who write for Halo (in any medium) have to keep in mind that people have been playing the games as the Master Chief for sometime and therefore they are invested in the characters in ways that wouldn’t usually occur in other media types. Therefore the writers must respect and understand why has gone before and be true to that.

      I’m paraphrasing and the above it what I understood the writer (whose name escapes me now) to mean. I got the distinct impression from Halo 5 that whilst the writing team may well understand what has gone before, they have neither respected or been true to it.

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