Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Battle of Sunaion

UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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

The time has come for Thel to lead the Swords of Sanghelios on the final great battle against the Covenant to kick them off his world, while Osiris navigates their way through the pre-Covenant city in order to reach the Guardian.

I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, I really have. I love this mission, it is quite easily my favourite in the campaign. When I finished replaying it for the purpose of this analysis, I immediately quit back to the menu to play it over again. To me, it’s easily the crux of Halo 5’s quality regarding the campaign.

Expect a good deal of gushing in this post, though we will be looking through a very critical lens at the end as we talk about the implications of the Covenant’s future and the main issue with the conflict in Halo right now.half178Before we get to any of that stuff though, we have this wonderful little scene with Osiris aboard the Lich, flanked by Banshees and Phantoms, as the Swords of Sanghelios charge towards Sunaion – which we see silhouetted in the background with the Covenant’s fleet stationed around it amidst the Csurdon Sea.

We cut to Locke, walking in to order Osiris to assemble. It would have been interesting to see what Locke was doing in the other room during the time it took to get to Sunaion… Had Halo 5 actually stuck to its marketing with Osiris’ hunt for the truth about John’s activities, this would undoubtedly have been the point where the Master Chief Collection’s bookend scenes take place. But, of course, as we’ve already noted as far back as the second and third mission: everyone just knows what is going on. So that’s a no-go.

On Locke’s approach, we see that Vale is chatting with a Sangheili – which would have been great if that had been an actual character like Usze ‘Taham who she formed a bond with in Hunters in the Dark…

Sorry, I’m trailing off here because I said this scene was “wonderful” but I’m picking issues already. The scene itself is actually really good. There is stuff they could have done that would have made it better, but what is actually here is good.

Buck asks Tanaka “a favour”, he asks her if she would say a word or two – as she had offered back in the opening mission before deploying to Kamchatka. And she smiles, they all do.half99Here’s the thing right, I’ve seen a lot of complaining about Holly Tanaka’s character, with all of Osiris, but with Tanaka especially for some reason that I just cannot fathom.

Out of all of Osiris, out of everyone in the game, no really, everyone, she is the only character who has an actual arc – who clearly comes out of the game a different person to who she was at the start of it. The status quo of her existence and her characterisation undergoes change.

I talked about this waaaay back at the very start of this analysis – about her reticence to connect to other people, about her trauma, about how she becomes part of the family that is the team. This moment is the culmination of that character arc, where she realises that she’s not alone, she’s not fighting a guerilla war just to survive another day. She is surrounded by a team of people who she knows she can count on, who have her back. She’s not just smiling in this scene, she’s openly grinning.

To bring up her character card that came with 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.”

Does she come out of Halo 5 “quiet”? No, she’s given the floor here to make her voice heard amidst one of the definitive battles of the post-war era.

Does she come out of Halo 5 “self-reliant”? Obviously that is a skill she has cultivated over the years, but she now has people she knows she can rely on.

Does she come out of Halo 5 with “no close friends”, “rarely fraternising with her fellow Spartans”? No. This scene is where she has truly come out of her shell and positively evolved as a person because of the family dynamic of the team.

It’s a genuinely subtle and understated arc, so I can understand why this has gone over the heads of a lot of people (with the exception of the cretinous likes of HaloFollower who declared her the worst character of the series, there’s just no help I can offer there), but it’s there. It’s there and I love it, it’s one of the highlights of the writing for me.half100And, as always, Cynthia McWilliams absolutely nails the line delivery.

“Come a long way together. Long way yet to go. Let’s make a good jump like we mean to, and handle fools like we need to… And may Buck buy the first round when we get back.”

This great character moment is compounded on in the ‘hero shot’ that follows with Osiris, Thel, and the Swords all standing together on the edge of the Lich’s deployment bay. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Buck very deliberately places his hand on Tanaka’s shoulder as an affirmation of support.

At SDCC last year, Frank O’Connor said:

“I think people are going to feel really good about Tanaka and Vale after this game – they’re real characters, they’re fully-formed. And Olympia Vale in particular, is a very posh name, and is a very posh, clever girl, is going to be a brilliant cipher for people to understand more about the Covenant, and spends quite a bit of time surprising the Covenant themselves with her understanding of their culture and language.”

I mean, he goes on to talk more about Vale and stuff we really don’t see reflected in the game to the extent that Mr O’Connor makes it sound, but the intent for Tanaka to be a fully-formed character was actually delivered on – and delivered on well. I still have some issues with it, which I mentioned back in the Meridian arc where she doesn’t have a moment with Locke like Buck and Vale do (especially when the marketing showed that wonderful head boop between them), but… this’ll do. This’ll do quite nicely.

We cut to scenes of absolute chaos as the Swords pass through the city, with Covenant troops getting caught up in barrages of plasma as they fruitlessly try to take cover on their exposed balconies. The music here is one of my favourite tracks in the game as well – Osiris, Act 3. It builds such an epic atmosphere, and both of these factors tie into one of the greatest strengths of this mission – actually making you feel like you’re in the middle of a war zone.half102Halo has attempted this on many occasions, going all the way back to Halo 2’s original E3 demo in 2003. At almost every turn, things have either been cut or undermined in some way. I think back to Reach back in 2010 where it was bragged in one of the game’s ViDocs that the retooled engine could handle up to 40 AI and 20 vehicles all active at once, yet the only time we got close to seeing that properly was in the opening cutscene of Tip of the Spear. I think that The Ark and The Covenant in Halo 3 were the closest we got, until now.

The moment your boots hit the ground and Thel shouts “FOR SANGHELIOS!”, I was in the zone. I was totally swept up in the action to the point where, on my first playthrough, I didn’t stop to look around for any secrets at all, but instead just let the momentum of the level carry me through. And that momentum is just perfectly paced from start-to-finish, I don’t think I have a single gripe with the design of this mission. Perhaps some sort of vehicular section would have been nice, but then we’ve had Swords of Sanghelios and Enemy Lines which were quite heavily vehicle-oriented anyway so I’m not too upset about that.

As is typical of the Sanghelios missions, you’ve got multiple paths and tiers of elevation to work with, and enemies on all sides who are really engaging to fight because of the encounter design. Your objective in the first-third of the mission is to quite simply destroy the anti-air Shrike turrets you encounter.

I suppose it would have been nice to have had some kind of short scripted sequence in the skybox where you see Thel’s fleet gain the upper-hand as a result of your actions here, but in consideration of how that might detract from the momentum I can understand why they didn’t do that. As it is, the battle in the skybox is a hell of a sight to behold with over a dozen large ships firing at each other, so it’s not like there’s nothing there. Additionally, it’s just so cool to hear the Sangheili Flight Leaders coordinating with each other over the comms, with Siqtar, Lar, and Jardam Leaders all working together like something out of a X-Wing battle from Star Wars. It would have been nice to hear Mahkee ‘Chava take part in this though, as she does appear in this mission…sunaion10Speaking of skybox moments, at the part where the Guardian rises from the ocean and emits its EMP wave where you have to sprint to the ruined building. Well, if you hang around for too long, this happens.

I love stuff like this, it’s so easy to miss because of the way in which the level’s momentum just keeps driving you forward. But if you’re stubborn and say “no” to the game, then this was specially done for the likes of us – you get crushed and blown up by a Blockade Runner. How awesome is that?

Additionally, this is one of the only times in the game that we actually get an impression of the actual destructive power of the Guardians because for the vast majority of it they just float still in the scenery. Here, we have an actual memorable moment where the Guardian directly affects your progression through the level by causing massive environmental devastation around you.

Hell, I even liked the Warden fight in this mission!

As I was going through it to get screenshots for this post, something incredible happened.

I just had to stand back and watch in awe as Thel cut that bastard down, I want him on my Warzone team!

A friend of mine offered up some great commentary as to why this should be seen as the canonical outcome of the mission – that Thel is the one to strike down the Warden Eternal.

The fight itself though seems to have had a lot more thought put into it compared to pretty much all of the others, as the Warden Eternal actually tends to stay back and take a support role by using long-ranged attacks until you either defeat the two Knights that spawn with him or if you get up in his face and force him to respond otherwise. The additional layer of the terrain all being tilted at an angle, being such a large space, and also having multiple tiers of elevation makes it a worthy setpiece for what is probably the best Warden fight in the game – and I don’t mean that as a back-handed comment about the others being rubbish where this clings to some semblance of quality, I think that is was genuinely well constructed.

So the overall design of this mission is something I am extremely pleased with, it’s the one that I go back to replay whenever I feel the urge to go back to Halo 5 – just as The Silent Cartographer, Metropolis, The Covenant, NMPD HQ, New Alexandria, and Requiem are the missions I constantly go back to replay in the other games.sunaion14There are some fascinating and long-overdue environmental details to pick up on in this mission as well – I encourage you to take a look at the image above and see if you can spot what I’m talking about…

Yep, it’s the flags. This is the first time the games have shown us the actual scripture for the Covenant, which is a detail so easily missed after all these years. It’s nice to finally actually see it.

Sunaion itself is brimming with beautiful levels of detail in how different the upper-city is to the lower-city. The former has the very ceremonial, temple-like aesthetic which clearly characterises it as the religious site we’re told it is earlier in the game – the ancient Sangheili built this in the pre-Covenant era on great pylons when they discovered that the Guardian slumbered beneath the water.

The under-city is comparatively far more utilitarian in-appearance, owing to the large desalination devices – which are used by the inhabitants of Sunaion to extract minerals from the water. There is both form and function here, we get to see a little glimpse at the more ‘industrial’ sort of side of Sangheili design rather than just the décor.

Keeping in mind the purpose of worldbuilding that comes with the second act of a story, this does its job pretty darn well – the artists and designers of the Sanghelios team at 343 clearly put a great deal of thought, as I’ve praised them for in the last few missions, into things having a purpose for being where they are. The Kraken comes as an exception to that in Enemy Lines where we have no idea what it’s doing or why the Covenant are where they are, but in these other missions that kind of contrivance isn’t really the case.sunaion6Switching gears now to the in-mission dialogue, there’s really quite a bit to cover – particularly regarding Thel and Locke. This is the crux of their ‘mini-arc’, as Thel discovers a sense of respect and admiration for the man he approached back in Swords of Sanghelios as if he were going to stick a knife in his back.

We see this from the very beginning of the mission, just after you clear the opening area by disabling the Shrike turret.

Thel: “Spartans, the Guardian is at the far end of the city. There are more anti-air emplacements in that direction.”

Locke: “We’ll clear out air defences as we go.”

Thel: “Good luck to you, Spartan.”

Locke: “And to you, Arbiter.”

Note Thel’s wording here: he calls Locke “Spartan”.

When they first stood face-to-face in the opening cutscene of Alliance, Thel referred to Locke as both “ONI” and “Agent Locke”, to which Locke protested “I’m a Spartan now, sir”, which Thel dismissed with a wave of his hand. It meant nothing to him, he had no reason to trust Locke, and lets his more presumptuous nature take over a bit.

And here they are now, working together in the (supposed) final great battle against the Covenant. I said back in the Alliance analysis that Thel was testing Locke to see if he was as good as his word, and how the use of these titles are not merely an issue of semantics but highlight a key theme which applies to pretty much every major character in the series.

As of Nightfall, Locke’s arc has brought him to a place where he comes out above the lies and subterfuge woven into the DNA of being an ONI agent, he learns the virtues of duty and honour which comes with being a Spartan from Randall (just as Lasky learned from Chyler and the Master Chief in Forward Unto Dawn). Thel has come to respect that, to see that he was wrong when he dismissively waved his hand and said “I know who you are”. There was more to Locke than he initially perceived, and the missions following that where Locke talks with Vale in ambient dialogue about things like the murals they encounter, posing the question of “who is entitled to honour?”, served to exemplify how much the perspectives of humans (like Locke) and Sangheili overlap.sunaion5Another nice little exchange occurs between Locke, Tanaka, and Buck regarding the plan that Halsey came up with:

Tanaka: “Think the Constructor found its way through this chaos?”

Buck: “If it didn’t, someone better come up with another solution real quick.”

Locke: “Doctor Halsey said the plan would work. I trust her.”

Locke trusts Halsey. Again, this gets to the heart of who Locke is as a character – somebody who very much expects the best of people (to a fault, perhaps). Considering that she practically begged Locke to bring John “home” to her, he understands that she has a personal stake in this mission (she has more of a personal stake in it than literally all of Osiris) so in order to see that through she is going to be doing her absolute best to live up to her own responsibilities in helping Osiris. So that’s a nice touch, I’m intrigued to see how Locke and Halsey get on in the future because he seems to take quite a neutral stance towards her – which is a very refreshing change from the ‘Halsey Haters Club’ that has been popularised across much of 343’s fiction.

We later get another golden interaction between Thel and Locke, just before heading down to the under-city:

Locke: “Arbiter, we’re heading to the under-city. I want to warn you – before the Guardian jumps to slipspace, it sets off a series of concussive blasts. If you move your ships out of the way in time, the Covenant will take the brunt of it.”

Thel: “Victory and honour do not grow from timid seeds, Spartan. Your harvest shall be grand. When you see the Chief again… tell him I send my greetings.”

Locke: “I will indeed, sir.”

Now, I’m willing to ignore that Locke probably should have told Thel this earlier (like way earlier) because it’s just a wonderful exchange between the two of them – the culmination of all I’ve been talking about since these two characters met.

As I said in the Alliance analysis, Locke is a ‘guardian angel’ character who has saved (and will go on to save) some of the heroes of the setting – Halsey, Thel, later John, and, in this moment, many of the Swords of Sanghelios from the destructive power of the Guardian.

The question was posed by one of the murals in Enemy Lines, who is entitled to honour? The answer that Locke gives is that nobody is entitled to honour, you have to earn it. And that’s exactly what he’s done here in Thel’s eyes – he’s been in-pursuit of his own objective (finding the Master Chief), but he has also gone out of his way to help Thel and the Swords of Sanghelios, giving them no reason to doubt that they are indeed allies. Not in an uneasy, cobbled together alliance, but as two people who are remarkably similar to one-another in terms of their mindset and in their belief in the duty they have to perform which goes beyond themselves. I expect this would have been more effective if 343 played up the reaction from other soldiers that Buck brought up at the start of Glassed, about everyone hating them…

Next time we hear from Thel in this mission, he warns Osiris that the Prometheans have entered the fray, and when we meet up with him we see that he’s overpowered a Promethean Knight single-handed and disintegrates it with his sword. This is actually the point where we also get a degree of personal investment from Osiris (specifically from Vale), as, just prior to meeting up with Thel, we get a communication from him which cuts to static. Vale then says on the elevator:

Vale: “If we can help Arbiter…?”

Locke: “We do. But not at the risk of missing the Guardian. Reaching Master Chief is more important.”

Locke assures her that they will, but not at the expense of their own mission reaching the Master Chief – again, no wider mention of Blue Team, for some reason the writers have this thing were it’s only John who seems to matter. Additionally, Locke’s line here made me sad because it reminded me that the Sanghelios arc was an ancillary dimension of the wider plot which I do not enjoy.

In my ideal universe where Halo 5 was split into two games, Osiris’ role in the first game was not hunting the Master Chief, but instead taking part in events like the Sangheili civil war because they seem to be so much more in-tune with this than they are with the wider narrative of what’s going on with the Master Chief and Blue Team. Thinking about the theme of family – the first game (with Osiris) would focus on the ‘galactic family’ relations, whereas the second game would be about the more ‘personal family’ relations between John and his team in dealing with the aftermath of Cortana’s death and rediscovering who he is…sunaion8On this subject, let’s cast our minds back a bit to E3 last year…

Remember the gameplay demo we were shown of this mission? Give it another watch through to refresh your memory if need-be.

It’s like looking into an alternate universe, isn’t it?

For one thing:

Thel: “Sunaion, the Covenant’s final stronghold. That is where you’ll find the Master Chief and the Guardian he seeks.”

Strange, that. Because in the actual game, John doesn’t set foot on Sanghelios until the very end scene of the game, and the Guardian he was pursuing was on Meridian.

Now, it’s very much the case that demos will be small, curated slices meant to feed viewers with particular things about the game, but if you compare this to the Halo 4 demo we saw at E3 2012 you’ll notice there’s a substantial difference in that the only major change was that the animation of the introduction of the Promethean Knight happens in Forerunner rather than Infinity. That’s it, I’m sure we can all live with the coding for a single animation existing in a different mission.

With Halo 5 though, a fundamentally different story is told. Osiris is at Sunaion tracking the Master Chief, they find his assault rifle which has no ammo – the area being full of dead or dying Covenant forces tells them that he’s physically moved through the city and they’re hot on his heels on the way to the Guardian. But nothing of the sort happens in the game, a fundamentally different narrative is presented to us without any comments from the developers saying “things will happen quite differently in the game”.

This was surely far too late in development for Sanghelios to still have been where we started the game on (recall Bonnie Ross saying that the Master Chief Collection’s bookend cutscenes would leave you right “on the doorstep” of Halo 5).

This just layers on an additional tier of weirdness around Halo 5’s marketing for me… I think back to all the previous E3 demos of the previous games we’ve been shown, from ODST, to Reach, to Halo 4, we’ve never been misdirected like this before – the exception being Halo 2’s original E3 2003 demo, but Bungie were extremely transparent post-release about how Halo 2 was stuck in the Ninth Circle of Development Hell and frequently referred to their work on the game as a low point for the company.

So this has very much been a question on my mind: why did 343 mislead us with the E3 2015 demo?

Food for thought…sunaion9Back to the mission, let’s go over the intel.

Starting off, we have the remaining two ceremonial blades with ancient Sangheili proverbs inscribed upon them.

“Do not ignore the words of those who saw the sun before you.”

“No blade is sharp enough to cut an unknown enemy.”

The former proverb emphasises the respect that Sangheili place on the wisdom of their elders. And the latter seems very much like a callback to Jaruth ‘Ghattam’s log in Swords of Sanghelios where he rages against Covenant-loyal assassins who “skulk in the shadows”, having infiltrated the Swords. To do this, to a Sangheili, is to be without honour. Honour comes from knowing one’s opponent and facing them openly, rather than resorting to the kind of subterfuge the likes of ONI are famous for, concealing their presence and striking out when the opportunity presents itself rather than succeeding in a contest of superior skill.

This also references back to the inscription of the second and third ceremonial blades in Swords of Sanghelios, which say:

“The sun warms those who stand before those who kneel in their shadows.”

“Strength comes from recognizing another’s weakness.”

The mention of the sun is interesting because in pre-Covenant Sangheili mythology, Urs was regarded as one of their chief deities – “in Urs’ everlasting light” being a traditional Sangheili farewell. Therefore the imagery here from these inscriptions and how it ties to honour implies that to face your enemy in the open, to be warmed by the sun, is to be favoured by this old Sangheili deity over those who hide in the shadows.

Indeed, this notion of honour comes up in another intel log where the Covenant-loyal soldier Tsodon ‘Sakua says:

“We have fallen back again and again and now they are here. Here! The heretic filth has pushed into Sunaion! What madness is this that our strength can be overcome by their weakness?”

Earlier, in the mission Swords of Sanghelios, Cha ‘Kulma noted that the Generals leading the Covenant in the wake of Jul’s death would rather throw themselves at Sanghelios than “suffer the dishonour of a tactical retreat” to regroup on Hesduros. Tsodon very much seems to be one of the Sangheili with that mindset, his arrogance about the Covenant’s strength being part of the reason why it’s all falling apart.sunaion19On the subject of that toxic kind of arrogance and stubbornness, this is where we see the resolution to the story of the ‘Arach brothers.

Kitun ‘Arach, Log 3: “Jacul ‘Arach, my brother. Now that we are free of the corruption of the San’Shyuum and the foolishness of Jul ‘Mdama, you have no reason to refuse my offer of amnesty. Come home, brother.”

Kitun ‘Arach, Log 4: “My brother, it seems our ancestors wished us to confront our stubbornness. Today, I killed you for your betrayals. You… you were strong. You ensured, that by dawn, I will join you. Perhaps, beyond the battles of this world, we will find a way to live together in peace once more.”

It’s tragic, and Kitun’s final words are beautifully poetic. I won’t soil the writing here by drawing parallels to John asking Cortana to “come home” later in the game and whatever implications that has for the future, no – this stands by itself as a wonderful piece of writing that builds on the established dichotomy of Sangheili perspectives within the setting.

Again, it brings to the fore this idea of just how tired the Sangheili are of fighting each other, as they have been for about half-a-decade at this point. This was the price of those battles, a family torn apart – and how many other families do you imagine had loved ones on opposing sides who met similar fates to the ‘Arach brothers?

The ‘Arach logs are exemplary of Halo 5’s mission intel at its very best, something which stands separately from the Terminals and probably wouldn’t be quite as well done if we had actually seen every detail of this story. This is one particular example where it’s far more effective, in my opinion, to tell this solely through voice logs – it relies a great deal more on picking out the emotion and making the words that these characters say count because there’s no visual accompaniment. So whoever wrote these logs deserves a great deal of credit for how well they told this little story.sunaion17Next up, we have the penultimate chapter of Kit Pitlimp’s grand odyssey.

“Kit Pitlimp, here! I understand it now! The Guardian is connected to places all around! Others are afraid of it. They think that he will destroy us. I think that he is our real vessel to the Great Journey! When the time comes, I’ll be ready!”

We’ll find out exactly how well that turned out for the Unggoy in the next mission… But what’s interesting to me is the statement that the Guardian is “connected to places all around”.

What exactly does that mean? We know that there are dormant Guardians that have been buried across the galaxy, but this idea of the Guardians being “connected” to something is brought up in the last pieces of intel in this mission too.

Khrat ‘Thanta’s chant of the Guardian: “Speak not to the holy Guardian of Sunaion. Pray only that it remains still. Let it not stir, lest it tear our world asunder.”

Jeem Ribfi’s prayer of the Guardian: “Oh, Guardian! May this prayer keep him asleep forever. He keeps our world safe and protects the Covenant. The Domain cannot be opened as long as he stays sleeping. Oh, Guardian, magnificent sleeper!”

The Domain and the Guardians seem to have some sort of connection which doesn’t even see the beginnings of an explanation. You’d expect that connection to be that the Guardians can be controlled through the Domain, which makes sense because we’ve known for years that the Ur-Didact’s original star-hoping plan against the Flood involved connecting Mendicant Bias to the Domain so it could coordinate the entire system the Didact had devised.

But the implication here is flipped – the Domain cannot be opened if the Guardians remain dormant…

As I said, we get no explanation here, and there’s practically nothing in the way of substantial lore about the Guardians so there’s nothing solid to speculate on here. There are also two Sangheili who share a brief bit of ambient dialogue with each other about the Guardian just before you head down to the under-city:

Sword 1: “This is a good day for Sanghelios, brother.”

Sword 2: “Yes…”

Sword 1: “What is it? I hear worry in your voice. You should rejoice!”

Sword 2: “What will happen when the Guardian will leave?”

Sword 1: “Nothing will happen. Do not believe the stories you have heard – it is not a deity, it is barely a spaceship.”

Again, this tells us more about the perspectives held by the Sangheili rather than anything about the actual Guardian itself. It is also worth pointing out that these two intel items are actually translated verses from the chant in the track Covenant Prayers – another one of my favourites from the soundtrack.

I remember hearing the short excerpt of this for the first time in the A Hero Reborn ViDoc and knew from the second I heard the chants that it was a Sangheili track. The Sangheili language has come a long way from the days where the extent of what they said was “wort wort wort!”

The actual lyrics are as follows:

Gaa-dee-enn nou meh-kah day-teh-chee sah-woo-foo ro-h-nah. Doh-may-inn wu-doh-ja-doh.

Noh ee-say nn-ba-h ee-woo-roh ee-koh-woh roh-ghee-sah-sah.
Nay-koh-koh neh-nn-eay ray-moh-nay ray-moh-nay.

Gaa-dee-enn neh-kah-yoh rah-keh-yoh eh-mah-taa ra-e-mah. Doh-may-inn wu-doh-ja-doh.

Noh ee-say nn-ba-h ee-woo-roh ee-koh-woh roh-ghee-sah-sah.
Nay-koh-koh neh-nn-eay ray-moh-nay ray-moh-nay.

Gaa-dee-enn noh-koh-chee nn-teh-woe eh-mah-taa chee-mee. Doh-may-inn wu-doh-ja-doh.

Noh ee-say nn-ba-h ee-woo-roh ee-koh-woh roh-ghee-sah-sah.
Nay-koh-koh neh-nn-eay ray-moh-nay ray-moh-nay.

Gaa-dee-enn beh-kuh-yah noh-ran-kah shah-oh-yoh ta-y shee. Doh-may-inn wu-doh-ja-doh.

Noh ee-say nn-ba-h ee-woo-roh ee-koh-woh roh-ghee-sah-sah.
Nay-koh-koh neh-nn-eay ray-moh-nay ray-moh-nay.

I’ve honestly listened to this track so many times I can sing along with it…

In the area where you disable the last three Shrike turrets, you can actually see a group of Unggoy (with one conducting, perhaps he’s even a Deacon) singing this beneath the hologram of the Guardian itself.sunaion7And with that, we’ve covered the main body of the mission and are now at the final scene. Just before that begins though, as the Warden Eternal is defeated, Vale is given a really dumb line…

Warden Eternal: “NO! You must not… reach… Genesis!”

Vale: “What’s a Genesis?”

I don’t… understand what the point of that line is. It’s really quite jarring.

Is it a joke? It’s phrased as one, but it just seems like Vale has been thrown the idiot ball when, realistically, she would be the one to put two-and-two together and say that Genesis must be were the Guardian is headed.

Anyway, we get to the cutscene proper and it’s a real doozy – that’s not sarcasm, I actually love this cutscene. We actually get to see Palmer do something in this scene other than stand around, as she speeds towards Osiris in a Pelican to pick them up and drop them off onto the Guardian.

Not only that, but she actually says something to Halsey as well, which makes a grand total of two lines she shares with her – the last one being in Glassed (the third mission, and we are now at the eleventh) where she said: “Nobody lets the Chief do anything. He does what he wants.”

Can you believe that? These two characters share two lines, neither of which Halsey actually responds to. We had their arc built up across Spartan Ops and Escalation for over two years and this was what we got coming off from that… It’s bloody shameful.palmer14You know what would have been really good? A short scene that takes place just after the Pelican crashes following the Guardian’s final EMP blast where Halsey awakens but Palmer is still unconscious and Halsey faces the choice of leaving her in the Pelican or attempting to drag her out.

With the one arm she has left, her advanced age, and this MJOLNIR-clad Spartan, it would obviously be a hell of a struggle for her and you’d have a great opportunity for Halsey to start talking about her own perspective on things through gritted teeth as she clumsily drags Palmer inch-by-inch.

This would be a significant gesture, to have Halsey actively choose to help Palmer when she could easily leave her. And, if you wanted to have fun with the scene, then you could have Palmer ‘wake up’ just as Halsey succeeds in dragging her out, revealing that she was awake the whole time and heard everything she said – she just wanted to see if Halsey would actually go through with pulling her from the wreckage or leaving her to rot.

At which point, the Pelican would blow up next to them and they’d be joined by Swords of Sanghelios forces. Or perhaps they’d be surrounded by Covenant, about to be shot down, Palmer makes some quip about Halsey being the last person she expected she’d die alongside, and then they’re rescued by the Swords.

There’s any number of ways you could do this, but the bottom line is that these two needed a proper scene together in this game and they got nothing.half180We get another brief little gag with Locke and Buck which references the Guardian’s awakening at Meridian where Buck wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up with the others and ended up falling to a fiery death – only for Locke to come back for him. Here, the Pelican is hit by a Banshee’s fuel rod and Buck begins sliding out of the troop bay, but Locke catches him by the hand and quips:

Locke: “That’s twice…”

Buck: “What, we’re counting now?”

It’s a fun little exchange between the two of them which characterises Locke a bit more as somebody who very much is still capable of making light of pretty dire situations.

They land on the side of the Guardian as it prepares to take off, firing off its EMP and sending the Pelican that Palmer and Halsey are aboard crashing off into the distance. Locke is distracted because he is concerned for Palmer, which is another nice touch of characterisation for him, and Vale snaps him back into action as they run towards a big glowy light and seemingly enter the Guardian.

If you had any expectations of seeing what the interior of a Guardian looks like, or whatever actually happened to Osiris when they ran into the blue glowy light, you can forget about it because we don’t get to see a thing.

They run into the light, they disappear, the Guardian leaves, they reappear on its surface at the start of the next mission like nothing happened…tv29Anyway, the Guardian leaves and we then cut to Thel, who is triumphantly striding forward and declares:

Thel: “Hunt them to the last! Today we extinguish the Covenant’s light FOREVER!”

Except, we haven’t…

343 literally went back on this within a month of this game’s release, as the final issue of the Escalation comic series had Sali ‘Nyon (*groan*) seizing control of Jul’s trove of Forerunner artefacts recovered from Requiem and taking command of Breath of Annihilation – a CAS-class assault carrier, and one of Jul’s two most powerful flagships (the other being his own vessel, Song of Retribution).

Sali took Breath of Annihilation back to Sangheili space to show off his prize and rally more Covenant followers.

To demonstrate the three most relevant panels (click to see larger version):saliSo the Covenant… yeah, they’re not done.

Now, Sali ‘Nyon is actually referenced by name in Halo 5 in Alliance – the first weapons down mission of the Sanghelios arc. There are two Sangheili (standing by the intel piece containing the love poem for Palmer) who discuss him:

Sword 1: “Jul ‘Mdama. Thel ‘Vadam. They’re all the same… Nothing more than power hungry despots!”

Sword 2: “Talking like that might get you gutted around here.”

Sword 1: “Then my point is proven, they rule by fear.”

Sword 2: “Even just rulers have their limits.”

Sword 1: “Sali ‘Nyon, he was a true leader.”

Sword 2: “Who?”

Sword 1: “Sali ‘Nyon, the true Hand, blessed by the Forerunners. He moved against ‘Mdama and sought to unite us under a single leader.”

Sword 2: “And since I have never heard of this nishum, I assume he failed.”

Now, bear in mind the context here – Halo 5 came out before the final issue of Escalation, so at the time we were indeed led to believe that the Absolute Record arc would end with Sali’s death because he was an absolute nobody of a character. So you can imagine the shock we all felt, I’m sure you remember it, when we learned that Sali literally ended up jumping away with his own significant chunk of Jul’s Covenant.

That Jul ‘Mdama was killed off, this character 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 made to kick the bucket so he could be replaced by Sali ‘Nyon.

Sali ‘Nyon – a character who sprung up out of practically nowhere, who, to-date, has appeared in a grand total of eight Escalation issues which tell us literally nothing about him other than him being a religious zealot who thinks he’s the true Didact’s Hand for some reason. That itself is never explored, any actual personality traits or history about Sali beyond him being the generic religious fanatic who worships the Forerunners and hates humans (gee, we’ve never fought one of those kinds of Covenant characters before!) is something that will either be left for later or just never happen – regardless of which, I am utterly apathetic by this undeniably dull, flat character who has nothing to actually offer the narrative, the setting, or the Covenant in any way.sunaion23As 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 as their final bid to topple the Swords. 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, and a treasure trove of Forerunner artefacts.

Within the span of one month, 343 undid one of the most important advancements Halo 5 made. They’ve slipped a ‘get out of jail free’ card to the Covenant which just speaks volumes to me about their lack of vision. This story is not operating on its own internal logic, it’s operating on ‘fan logic’. They didn’t have the balls to keep Cortana dead and build on the emotional arc they’d set up for John following that, so they brought her back and made her the villain. And now they’ve apparently killed off the Covenant, put they’ve actually manoeuvred them into a position where they can bring them back in case there’s future backlash from fans who play the campaign but pay little attention to the story who will moan “it’s just not Halo without the Covenant!”

Oh, and here’s another thing. Remember how I brought up the E3 2015 demo earlier? Remember Thel’s line:

Thel: “Sunaion, the Covenant’s final stronghold. That is where you’ll find the Master Chief and the Guardian he seeks.”

Yeah, that line was changed for the final game where Thel says at the start of Alliance:

Thel: “Sunaion is the Covenant’s final stronghold on Sanghelios.”

Not “the Covenant’s final stronghold“. No, it’s “the Covenant’s final stronghold on Sanghelios“. That tiny alteration in wording just changes so much in what that line means…

And this all brings us to the heart of the issue of what has gone wrong with Halo’s conflicts.

Quite simply: Halo doesn’t have any distinct structure right now.sunaion22Let’s think back to Halo Fest in 2011, shall we? In the Halo 4 panel, the then-creative director Josh Holmes said that 343 has this trilogy-long arc that they’ve planned out for the Master Chief and the story of the setting going forward. And at the start of the Reclaimer Saga, they built a solid foundation with that in terms of the conflicts that would inform these new stories: Jul and the Ur-Didact were established in Kilo-5 and the Forerunner Saga which obviously fed directly into Halo 4.

We had Serin Osman as well and the threat to humanity’s development and relations with other species posed by ONI.

We had the three major conflicts laid out for the Reclaimer Saga – those from without and within. The fragile reformation of the Covenant, the return of the Forerunners, and ONI (which would tie directly in with the UNSC/New Colonial Alliance conflict). The problems in the setting which brought these factions to-bear were interconnected – Osman’s role in ONI’s black ops interference with inter-species politics caused Jul’s reformation of the Covenant, leading to the Didact’s awakening. The fractures all circle back around to ONI and we had complex and interesting characters through which this stuff was channelled. We had both civil issues to deal with, and the typical sort of larger-than-life issues that gives Halo its larger sense of scale.

Only, the Ur-Didact ended up being shafted so Cortana could take his place with pretty much the exact same motivations (to the point where she’s quoting him word-for-word later in the game).

Jul was killed off to be replaced by Generic Religious Zealot Antagonist #3729 (Sali ‘Nyon).

And Osman isn’t mentioned once in Halo 5, despite her more prominent role in Escalation and central part in ‘reasons why the galaxy is so messed up right now’. ONI does has some presence in Halo 5, it very much seemed like the experiments on Argent Moon was some kind of set-up for later events tying back to their plans for Sangheili genocide, but whenever any question about ONI came up it was dismissed and ignored.

So these conflicts effectively mean nothing at this point…sunaion1The Forerunner stuff is under the control of the ‘Created’, not the Forerunners. The intent for the impact of the Didact’s awakening has been forgotten about.

The Covenant’s end was punctuated by a “lol, not really”, just when it seemed the setting was going to progress beyond them – as we have just covered.

And nothing was done with the ONI/UNSC/NCA schism.

Now we’re just rolling in new antagonists who nobody cares about, with no introduction, proper characterisation, or history the way we got with Osman, Didact, and Jul. Instead, we’ve got the likes of Warden Eternal, Sali ‘Nyon, and then they resurrect Cortana to make her evil.

As I said, there’s no structure to it any more because it has been derailed. There is no interconnected series of conflicts, there is now only the conflict – the threat posed by the Created. The Flood was supposed to be the ‘threat of broad strokes’ that would come into the setting once the more personal stories of the Reclaimer Saga were resolved, so their return will only inevitably be less meaningful when it does happen because Halo 5’s writing team have ignored the groundwork laid by Halo 4 and its peripheral media and instead tried to one-up it.

It gets worse regarding the Sanghelios arc specifically because we’ve spent all this time in the game helping to liberate it, and that victory lasts about five minutes as the Created (the biggerer and badderer threat than the Covenant!) inevitably turn their gaze to it.

343 says they’ve got all these years of fiction planned out, which they quite clearly did back when they were doing Halo 4, but they clearly lost sight of that in the years that have passed since then.

That is the heart of the problem. That is why this Created stuff comes as something bloated and stagnant, regardless of whether or not it was planned when Mr O’Connor and Reed say it was planned however far back.

What matters is the implementation and the execution.

And I’m afraid that the way in which both of these were handled was not good.

Having said all of that, I am more than prepared to take everything I’ve just said about the Covenant back if Halo Wars 2 actually further explores the Covenant’s disintegration from the setting rather than serving to bring them back into it. I very much doubt that’s going to be the case, but if it is then I will quite freely hold my hands up and say “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I still hate that you killed Jul but you at least did right by the advancement of the setting you said you were going to make”.sunaion20That effectively brings us to the end of the Sanghelios arc of Halo 5’s story…

On the whole, as I prefaced this arc by saying, I regard this part of the game as the largest net-positive within it. This is where all of Halo 5’s best writing, worldbuilding, gameplay, level design, art design, and everything else is – so much of the Sanghelios arc feels like a confluence of talent. There were missteps along the way, like with the Kraken fight, but that stuff comes as notable exceptions to a plethora of things which are otherwise extremely solid.

There’s very little plot going on here, which is both to be expected from the second act of a story and actually serves as one of the main strengths of this part of the narrative – it’s largely disconnected from the bull-honkey going on elsewhere in the game with the Created, we actually have time to focus on building up the setting with awesome returning characters like Thel and new ones like Mahkee (who was still somewhat mishandled, along with the lack of any other female Sangheili being physically present).

I didn’t want to leave Sanghelios, I was happy here! I felt more emotional attachment to helping Thel kick the Covenant off his planet than literally anything else in the game.

As of this moment, we’re down to the last three missions of the game…

Brace yourselves for an absolute nosedive in any kind of quality from here-on out.

14 thoughts on “Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – Battle of Sunaion

  1. God… this was a good positive change in pace!

    But I’m so so not ready for the absolute nose dive that’s going to occur for the next three missions


    *sidenote reading this analysis with Halo 5 music playing in the background makes my mind race in all directions and really think more deeply into what you are articulating with these analysis’s 🙂 *

  2. Great analysis, as always. You don’t have to do it immediately, but I’d love to know what you speculate was the cause of the narrative disintegration (from the 343 demo to now, from Halo 4 to now, etc). You seem to have some ideas regarding why the story got restructured late in development, and why they scrapped everything for The Created (though I suspect that’s mostly because fanservice). I’d love to hear what they are!

    1. I agree with you on this one davflamerock! I have a pit in my stomach and am worried for the franchise I love.

  3. Like I said, this level is where Jul should have died. Osiris confronts him and he’s got bodyguards and stuff like maybe zealots until Thel arrives and kills Jul with the Prophet’s Bane. That would be more of an epic finale for a character like him.

  4. You mentioned how you wish the skybox battle had a ‘turn of tide’ because of your effects as the player. We “kind of” have that. Upon destroying the final three shrike turrets, the Swords of Sanghelios fleet advances forward(to where their fleet is now the one above you, not the Covenant’s), while the Covenant’s fleet falls back(or is destroyed?) All I know is that by the end before going down to the lower section, the ships don’t seem to be fighting anything.

  5. I know you’ve put a huge amount of time and work into this analysis thus far, and there are three more levels to go. But to second davflamerock’s above, I’d be very interested to read your thought on why the narrative collapsed.

    I’d also be very interested to read any thought you may have on how 343i might recover the situation in Halo 6 and the EU.

    I think it is possible that 343i could, theoretically recover from this in a narrative sense, but that would almost certainly require the jinking of The Created plot in favour of something more in line with previous games and the EU. The danger with that is that Halo 5 may become something akin to “Master Chief woke up and it was all a dream”…

    1. All will be covered, be it in the next three missions, the afterword post, or as a separate topic after that. I’m taking a short break from this analysis (probably just about a week or so) because I just lack the mental strength to face these last three missions right now – not to mention that writing almost 77,000 words in under 2 months has caught up to me 😛

      1. That’s heading towards novel length in two months. I’m not surprised you feel you need a break before the final three missions.

      2. Jesus man that’s quite a humbling number. Love reading it but that’s a lot. Breaks are good 😛

      3. Yeah, I’m wondering how long this will end up being when it’s done because I initially projected that this would be about 60,000-70,000 words maximum before I started and… well, we’ve more than surpassed that, with three missions left.

        I replayed Genesis twice today and some motivation has returned to me because it was a damn good mission, I didn’t think I’d have all that much to say about it in the way of positivity but upon replaying it I’ve changed my opinion. The true shitshow begins with The Breaking, we still have this last bastion of quality to enjoy :’)

  6. Just discovered your analyses; you do fantastic work.

    One of the most frustrating things about Halo 5 for me (and frustrating about storytelling with 343 as a whole) is that they do an incredible job with world-building and small, special moments. This is great, and the ways they integrate subtle nods of the lore into the setting without directly drawing attention to it are spectacular (even though sometimes it’d be better if they did draw attention to it). What is frustrating about Halo 5 in particular is that none of this world-building is in service of the main plot that Halo 5 already struggles to sell. The downfall of this Covenant always rang hollow to me because it seems like a conflict built from convenience: that if the Covenant had set their final holdout anywhere else, Osiris wouldn’t be doing any of this.

    Now, I can understand why people like this, because it could be argued that no amount of effort would’ve salvaged the main plot of this game. Still, imagine if the Warden and Genesis got even half as much effort put into them as the Arbiter and Sanghelios.

    You also bring up an interesting point about Tanaka having a character arc. Halo 5 was the first Halo game since 2 that I did not purchase a special edition for at launch, so the Osiris dossiers went unnoticed to me on my initial playthroughs. Because of this, I didn’t see any progression to Tanaka, beyond the “any last words” callback; she didn’t seem any more or less talkative on Sanghelios than she did on Meridian or Kamchatka. While I knew some of her backstory surviving on a glassed world, I didn’t get a sense that it really affected her until Cortana brought it up in the last mission… and that dialogue is among some of the worst in the game.

    As for the level itself, it’s tightly focused and gives some good combat pieces. It actually reminded me a lot of the level design in the original Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2. Still, I preferred Swords of Sanghelios more.

  7. RE: Vale’s “What’s a Genesis?” line.

    There’s a quote from Brian Reed’s Twitter, now deleted, but I recall from memory it went: “Exuberant is always, well, exuberant. Tanaka eschews first person pronouns. Vale always has information or the right question. Locke is focused on the mission, Buck on the relationships of things.”

    Which is alright insight, but it gives an idea of just how one-note his writing of the characters was. So Vale becomes little more than a question robot who I can’t buy once stared down a vengeful AI and dared it to kill her to save the galaxy.

  8. The Sanghelios missions are a great vision of what could have been. Halo 5 could have built upon such a great story in 4 by continuing to build up it’s universe, have a few more missions really selling the end of the Covenant here on Sanhelios (with humanity helping, and having Jul’s death possibly be here if he did need to die) and still laying the seeds for an all out human civil war later with the Argent Moon stuff. These missions also have WONDERFUL music, Honor’s Song and Warrior World might be my two most favorite so far in the entire game though I find the entire OST well done.

    Also, you mention in the Osiris mission analysis that “It shows Holly charge through a god damned rock with all the ferocity of a startled honey badger.” Honey badger is my nickname for her now, as where you had Thel cut down the Warden I had Tanaka smash him to death after I gave my team the order to focus on him. Once I pressed the up button, I heard Tanaka yell something and BOOM Warden goes down with her standing over his exploding corpse. She’s one badass soldier and I initially didn’t care about her at all going into the game. Makes me wish we had a better overall story for the game to help really sell both teams more.

    Thanks again for the great analysis of both Halo 4 and 5!

Leave a Reply