A Love Letter to Halo Wars

Y’know, amidst all of the discussions we’ve had about both the present and future of Halo, along with the announcement of Halo Wars 2, I’ve been taken with the desire to look back on the original game in the first of (hopefully) many retrospective posts. As a note: I don’t have any planned structure of things to talk about and analyse, these infrequent rumination posts will pretty much just be me sitting down while listening to the soundtrack of the thing I’m talking about and spewing out thoughts about a given topic until I run out of things to say.

I decided to start off with Halo Wars because I have wanted to write something about this game for a long time – it’s a game that has a ridiculous amount of sentimental value to me, for both its story as well as its multiplayer, and I very recently replayed it so if there’s ever been a time to do this it’s now. Also, Halo Wars 2 is shaping up really well from what we’ve seen thus far – I am cautiously excited, but I’m loving what I’m seeing. I sincerely hope it all goes well, I’ve a wealth of faith in Kevin Grace’s writing.

Anyway, we’re burning sunshine with this intro, let’s just get right to the topic…wars10As I’m sure many of you may remember, Halo Wars was originally and unexpectedly announced way back in 2006, before Halo 3, the conclusion to Bungie’s Halo trilogy, had even come out. It was announced with a CG trailer that blew everyone away, showcasing a cinematic battle with the kind of scale you’d expect to see in a film – and, funnily enough, this was also around the time that talks were being had about Peter Jackson’s involvement in making one. Of course, we all know how that project ended up going sideways (and thankfully so, which I’m sure anybody who has read the script will agree with).


hms touch

Adaptation at its best, right? (Is an adaptational analysis of this script on the cards for the future? Am I that dry of ideas now?)

Back to-topic: I remember that period from 2006-2009 where I would pick up any gaming magazine that had Halo on the front cover, clawing for whatever new information I could get, any new tidbit of lore or slip of the tongue from an interview. I guess I haven’t changed all that much…

I do distinctly remember the day the demo came out as well, back at the start of February in 2009 – the month in which the game came out for those of us in the UK, which I took a lot of smug satisfaction with because it was the first time that the US and everyone else got it later, so I was among the first people in the playerbase who got to play Wars and the Mythic maps for Halo 3, and since I got the limited edition (which sits fondly within visual range of me right now on my shelf) I got to be one of the first to plunder Halo Wars: Genesis for lore information.

But, before that, we had the demo, which quickly ended up being the most downloaded thing on Xbox Live as it was done so over two million times in its first week. I mean, that really said something about the level of interest that people must have had in the game, right? I played the campaign missions a lot, mainly to rewatch the cutscenes over and over again, but it was the Skirmish mode that I just could not tear myself away from. We could only play as Regret and Cutter on the map Chasms, but I didn’t care that the selection was so limited because I picked up on the nuances of the gameplay straight away (the only RTS that I’d previously played extensively was Age of Mythology) and I just had so much fun trying out different strategies. I waited all afternoon for my incredibly slow internet (which was barely better than dial-up) to play ball and watched the download percentage crawl its way up to 100%.wars12I’ve actually found Halo Wars to be a really therapeutic game to play over the last 7 years. Just loading up a skirmish game and taking it at your own pace while Stephen Rippy’s beautifully soft and calming music plays over the match is just so relaxing. Unless, of course, you’re as much of an average RTS player as I am and foolishly choose to ramp the difficulty up to Legendary, in which case the only therapy you’re getting is the soul-crushing Mantle of acceptance that machines are better than you.

It’s interesting as well because because combat in Wars is actually… quite infrequent (unless in the aforementioned scenario). You spend most of your time building, managing resources, upgrading, taking over various parts of the map, etc. The combat is explosive and satisfying when it happens, but most of the time you’re doing other things which feels just as (if not more) engaging. That’s a rather “well, duh!” comment to make, but it’s the fact that this lends itself so well to a Halo game which is so interesting to me.

Halo had previously been about the furore of first person combat – the three shot burst of a battle rifle, the hum of an overcharged plasma pistol which sends your Banshee tumbling out of the sky, the layout of the dance floor where you duck and weave through a Hunter’s melee charges to hit the weak spot in its back.

There would have been no way of knowing back then just how well Halo could translate to a completely different visual perspective where those aren’t the things you’re doing, and I think Halo Wars stands as a testament to just how much potential the Halo franchise has to expand into different genres. Yet, at the same time, Halo was originally planned to be an RTS, and the reason it changed to being an FPS is because one of Bungie’s employee’s (I forget the gentleman’s name) was messing around with camera perspectives and hooked it up to a single unit. So there’s a sense of Halo coming back to its roots here in a way that not many franchises do.

It was an experiment in many ways, and it was evidently a successful one at that.wars23Of course, not everybody was as enthusiastic about Halo Wars as I was (and still am). Back in 2012, Tony Goodman (founder of Ensemble) said that Bungie “was not happy the Halo brand was being used for a different genre”, that it was called “‘the whoring out of our franchise'”. Of course, using the blanket term ‘Bungie’ isn’t really helpful because there is no individual ‘Bungie’, and the studio is not a hive mind.

I’m sure there were people there who were either indifferent or enthused about the project, the implication I get from this is that it was some of the higher-ups who were displeased. But, like… looking at some of the decisions that have been made by Bungie’s higher-ups in the past, well… who cares what those guys think?

I find it rather amusing because I ended up enjoying the narrative experience of Halo Wars a lot more than some of Bungie’s own games. I mean, we have it from Eric Nylund that the higher-ups wanted to ‘kill’ The Fall of Reach as well back when that was in its infancy which would have been an immense mistake. But I digress. At the time, we were coming hot off the heels of Halo 3, which I was largely disappointed by, and leading up to the Reach, which I was (and still largely am) also very much averse to.

In that particular period, I genuinely held Halo Wars to be in my top three favourites along with Halo 2 and ODST for its narrative.

Whatever issues and bad blood there was over this, at the end of the day I will argue that Ensemble did a fantastic job with this game and its existence is more than warranted. And I’m willing to be completely insufferable about that…

Ooh, that actually provides me with a neat little segway into backing that up! Let’s talk about the characters. Or, one of them in particular.wars14Before Halo Wars, the Sangheili in the games had basically been depicted in a very uniform, almost monolithic way.

They were the ‘noble alien warrior culture’ trope, it pervaded just about every aspect of their characterisation in some way. Now, I do tend to enjoy this trope, but Ripa came along and was the complete opposite of that.

From the moment he was introduced, turning to face the camera after he declares his lack of care for Re’gish Wamik’s life, seeing that face, those drooping mandibles… I knew instinctively that we were going to be dealing with a very different kind of Sangheili character.

I distinctly recall back when the game first came out that there was some criticism of the scene between Ripa and Regret where Ripa draws both of his Energy Swords in a rash declaration of taking all the Covenant’s ships to exterminate humanity. Criticism which ultimately missed the point because this was a considerably big bit of characterisation for Ripa.

Just three months before Halo Wars released, Tobias Buckell’s novel The Cole Protocol came out and introduced a lot of Sangheili-oriented lore. One of which was the notion that drawing a sword one does not intend to use (as a drawn blade “demands blood”) is not just social taboo, but a crime, especially in the presence of a Prophet. In this scene, as Ripa does this, it’s not just something that’s done without any background recognition, you can see that every single Honour Guard present visibly shifts uncomfortably. Ripa has no regard for these rules, for social tradition, for any of it, and he openly questions Regret on multiple occasions.wars29In the prequel graphic novel, we learn more about Ripa’s backstory – that he was part of the Ministry of Preservation, the Covenant’s own sort of gestapo. He was unleashed to quell dissent from rebellious Covenant groups, and he later staged a coup on his own clan and failed, so he was thrown into prison where he started riots and almost escaped.

He was such a different kind of Sangheili character to anything we’d had before, it was a brilliant subversion of the noble alien warrior culture trope and added a new dimension to the Sangheili.

Now we have Halo Wars 2 coming out with Atriox as the main antagonist – a Jiralhanae. Perhaps it’s a bit too early to say on account of Halo Wars 2, but based on what we’ve been shown and told thus far there’s something interesting to be said about Ripa and Atriox as antagonists. In Kevin Grace’s own words:

“I’ve always enjoyed that part of the Halo universe, and the Brutes, and [to] see what could happen if one of the Brutes… They’ve always been presented as pretty much ‘muscle’. And usually ‘dumb muscle’. And just the question of ‘what would a terrifyingly smart Brute, what would that do? What would he do?’ And so we get a chance to show you.”

So Atriox is likewise intended to be a subversion of the typical presentation of the Jiralhanae, particularly as they’ve been depicted in the games – the likes of Maccabeus, Castor, and Lydus have not truly graced our screens. But Atriox really seems to be being approached with the same kind of general perspective the writers had for Ripa in the original Halo Wars, which is excellent!wars20Halo Wars actually has a pretty decent crew of memorable characters, the least interesting of which is hiding in the back of the above image and was killed off in the end. This was a good move, since literally everybody else in the story was more interesting than him on about every possible level. Hell, Nolan North got to play two Halo characters in 2009 alone, the other of whom was Kojo Agu (better known as the aggressively straight Romeo), who was also a character that I found left much to be desired.

Cutter, on the other hand, fulfilled a similarly archetypal role, but received enough background characterisation in Genesis and other media that I really latched onto him. He’s more a Jacob Keyes than a Del Rio (and I would like to reiterate how much I liked Del Rio as something of a deconstruction of the archetypal captain role), and he’s somebody who you’re sort of naturally interested to know more about.

Ellen Anders is a similar treat, somebody who learned from the best, Catherine Halsey, and ended up hating the woman. She’s a scientist and fulfils a key role in providing exposition in the narrative, but quite honestly I think of her as more of an adventurer kind of character. Anders is somebody that I very much identify with in this story because she literally cannot be kept away from anything Forerunner, which is exactly what I’d be like if I were put in the Halo universe – so her trip to the Lesser Ark in Halo Wars 2 is gonna be a field day for her.

Lastly, Serina is… basically Cortana, but snarkier and with more dark humour. I hate to make that generalisation, I really hate generalisations, and I hate that it sounds like such an overbearingly bad thing to say, because she genuinely was a joy to watch in this game. What’s more, there is a fascinating tidbit of character information we learn about her in a combination of the Timeline (more on that), the game’s manual (remember when those were a thing?), and a bit of Genesis where she forges fake Valentine’s Day emails to the Spirit of Fire’s crew from loved ones because she knew that their mission was going to likely be a one-way trip. That is a really interesting display of character, I wish something more had been done with that. I really hope Serina isn’t just cast aside in Halo Wars 2 because there’s a wealth of potential for her character, but I truthfully can’t really think of a good way to employ that in the narrative without being an unbelievable cop-out.

Oh yeah, and there’s three Spartan-IIs there. They’re… present. I think one of them has about two lines in the cutscenes. Shame, that. Hope Halo Wars 2 does something a bit more interesting with them.

Moving on, let’s see… what else was Halo Wars a first for?

Oh yeah, giving us a Shield World!wars72The concept had been introduced to us in the sublime Ghosts of Onyx back in 2007, but I never thought it would see the light of day in an actual game – particularly given how Bungie was so against using stuff from the expanded universe beyond a few obscure references here and there.

It was a really great decision to feature a Shield World as one of the three major settings of the game, it was realised with incredible detail as the cinematics and the missions themselves explored and pit us against the actual mechanics of this immense construct.

The mission Cleansing stood out in particular here, as there was the environmental hazard of the cleansing ring designed to burn away Flood biomatter that had infested a vessel. It was one of those marriages between a story concept and something tangible in the game which would periodically change the way you play, as you’d have to scramble to get your troops into a secure building while the cleansing ring passed over the Spirit of Fire. Variables like these are things the FPS titles ought to consider implementing too, as I argued regarding how the Guardians in Halo 5 don’t really do anything except blast the occasional pulse which drops your shield in scripted segments where no enemies are around.

The idea of a ‘cleansing ring’ is interesting too, as it is effectively a scaled-down Halo ring – something which was featured in a slightly different form in Shadow of Intent at the end of last year. Lots of little things, little ideas, were present in Halo Wars that have, consciously or not, found their way into current fiction in some way.wsa4Another semi-related topic I feel I really have to talk about/bore you with is Forerunner architecture (also note the structure in the above image being shaped like a Reclaimer symbol – subtle, eh).

While much of the Forerunner stuff we see in Halo Wars is inert, when activated it is a great deal more animated than anything we’d previously seen before. We saw the genesis of more disconnected, floating pieces – like with the Spire of Healing and the Supply Elevators. Even the Apex’s docking towers seem like a forerunner (heh), or a precursor (okay I’ll stop) to the floating spires we saw in Requiem. The overall design of these Forerunner pieces and locations became a lot more circular and intricate as well, whereas the architecture in the original trilogy is more triangular, characterised by large fins and an overall kind of simplicity.

These are all visual traits which I have previously argued differentiates Builder architecture from Warrior-Servant architecture. The latter is characterised more by an accident of geometry, more organically intertwined with the environment as a reflection of the Warrior-Servant perspective of the peaceful one being at war without and within – finding order within chaos rather than imposing order on chaos, which, ironically, is more reflective of the Builder philosophy. This bit of philosophy actually comes from the Didact himself, being a tenet of the Mantle noted to be the ‘Fifth Permutation of the Didact’s Number’, so it makes sense that we would see this applied to the design language of the Shield Worlds.

This is, of course, verging on headcanon, right? I’ll take that, sure, we don’t know any of this for certain and certain design decisions that have been made (funnily enough, in Halo Wars 2) would seem to contradict this. But it has been acknowledged by the illustrious GrimBrotherOne in Canon Fodder that different Forerunner architectural styles are canonically a thing:

One might imagine several of these spires scattered across the surface of Installation 05, such as the ones seen in both Relic and Remnant, perhaps with various styles and construction methods to represent different wars, different sacrifices, different ages. Keen-eyed fans will certainly begin to pick out cool little details scattered across the artificial island once the UNSC designers and engineers have finished up their checklists and flipped the switch for inclusion in the War Games simulations. I imagine we’ll have plenty of regular readers that will be looking to play equal parts Spartan and xenoarcheologist once that happens.

I therefore take it upon myself to be that xenoarchaeologist, the one who makes these interpretations. The substance for it is absolutely there. The style of Forerunner architecture in Halo Wars is markedly different to the original trilogy and shares more in-common with what we see in Halo 4 within Requiem – another Shield World (the Shield World, you might say, since it was the very first).

So that’s another thing I like to credit Halo Wars with, that subtle enrichment of Forerunner lore which Halo 4 and the Forerunner Saga would expound upon.wars96How about those cutscenes, though?

Every Halo game, even the ones I’m not as keen on, has an intensely memorable suite of cutscenes. I tend to rank Reach as my least favourite of the series, but my goodness the opening of the mission New Alexandria was incredible.

All the others have them as well, to name a few – the twist with the Flood, Chief riding a bomb down to a Covenant ship from Cairo Station, the introduction of the Gravemind, Lord Hood’s failed assault on the Keyship, Alpha-Nine fighting the Jiralhanae Chieftain at the end of NMPD Headquarters, the Didact’s awakening, Osiris deploying to Kamchatka… I could go on all day.

Chances are, as you read those, the scenes started playing somewhere in the back of your mind because you’ve watched them a million times over.

Halo Wars has those kinds of scenes in spades. From the very opening of the game with that intense “five long years” montage of the campaign for Harvest, Cutter seeing the Spartan-IIs fighting on Arcadia through a viewscreen as the Halo theme plays, Ripa forcing Anders to activate the Dreadnought fleet and delivering his epic speech about how “the ancients have granted us the power to doom your race” (my personal favourite scene)…

And the ‘Monsters’ cutscene. Need I even say any more on that?

That was another first for the series. The first time we actually saw Spartans fighting in a cutscene, showing off how massively overpowered they are. Of course, criticism exists for this scene as well since the Sangheili are charging the Spartans with nothing but pikes, but how can you watch that scene and not say to yourself “okay, I’ll let the ‘rule of cool’ slide a little bit here because this is awesome”? It’ll be interesting as well to see them in Halo Wars 2 where Atriox alone has Red Team completely outmatched, I look forward to analysing the contrast there when the game actually comes out.wars67Overall, in spite of whatever issues ‘Bungie’ had with Halo Wars, just looking back at the developer diaries, the interviews with Graeme Devine, the sheer amount of fiction that is so wonderfully jam-packed into this game… it’s clear that this was a labour of love, there was real passion that went into the making of this title. This wasn’t an effort to go about “whoring out” the franchise, I personally felt (and still feel) like I got more value for the narrative and lore out of this than I did a lot of the other Halo games.

This brings me to the last thing I want to talk about, which is the Timeline feature.

In the campaign, there are Black Boxes you can obtain by completing various mission objectives which reward you with lore on the Timeline – accessible from the main menu. There are some absolute gems here, which I encourage you to go and read if you haven’t already, but I’ll quote some of my favourites:

Edict of the Office of the High Prophet of Tolerance

Hear now that 500 teams are to be formed to study the language of the Unclean. Each team to consist of the most clever and most educated Unggoy and Sangheili. These teams to speak only the Unclean language among themselves. The Unclean language to be taught to all military strike teams, that the foe shall be vulnerable.

Excerpt from The Punished Deeds, Vol. III

This new Arbiter did not fear death, but even he was afraid of what was inside the relics of the Ancients. Before he entered a relic, he would send in a squad of Unggoy to check for any signs of danger. If all was clear, they would live, but at the slightest sign of trouble, the Arbiter would detonate plasma bombs attached to the methane tanks.

Edict of the Office of the High Prophet of Regret

Let the Victory of Epsilon Indi be celebrated by fasting and prayer. Unggoy and Kig-Yar food rations to be eliminated for the next three work periods. Sangheili and Jiralhanae to spend two rest periods in public prayer. All attend the public monitors at the sounding of five bells to observe the execution of those who failed their duty at the Victory.

Excerpt from The Punished Deeds, Vol. III

The Shield World that Regret intended to activate was one of just a few that the Covenant had uncovered in the quest for the Halos. These treasure chests of technology enabled the Covenant to quickly gain access to advanced weaponry and space propulsion systems, allowing them to dominate the galaxy.

Edict of the Office of the High Prophet of Truth

It is known that there is a delay installing Luminaries upon newly constructed vessels of war. On each vessel still lacking a Luminary, 1 Unggoy worker out of every 64 is to be executed. To preserve discipline between the Sangheili overseers and Unggoy, choice of victim and execution is to be by Kig-Yar death squads. This is to continue daily until that vessel’s Luminary is installed.

How cool, brilliant, and downright terrifying are these? These are just a few of the entries, but they form such a vivid, horrifying picture of life in the Covenant.

We’re about how the Covenant learned to speak English, something which was also referenced in Ghosts of Onyx regarding Unggoy stationed at Joyous Exultation before Whitcomb’s NOVA bomb goes off.

We learn that even when victorious, the Prophets order the execution their own people for failing their “duty”. We’re told that the Shield World in this game is just one of several that the Covenant have found in their long history and it’s the reason for how they got such advanced technological capabilities, which also opens up a wealth of narrative potential for future stories – the likes of Broken Circle dealt with a similar kind of concept.

Oh, and Ripa… good god, Ripa was an awful person! The last one, the edict from Truth, is perhaps the most unsettling though, as he orders Kig-Yar death squads to just randomly execute Unggoy workers simply because their ships don’t have Luminaries. The Kig-Yar executioners got to choose their victims and would go on as a daily event until the ship received a Luminary…

It’s fascinating to look back on this lore, it’s a brilliant feature of the game which I hope is brought back in the future (and, Bungie, with the likes of Destiny’s Grimoire, I hope it’s actually included in the game).wars1122009 was a stellar year for Halo on all fronts, really. Halo 3 was still at the height of its popularity with the release of the Mythic Map Packs, we got ODST, we got Evolutions, Blood Line and Helljumper (both marvellous comics), we got the first half of Halo: Legends… it was probably the most content-heavy year we’d had at that point.

Halo Wars was the first to release that year and it started us off on a hell of a high note. I think Ensemble did a fantastic job on this game, I was absolutely gutted when they were closed down because, while I wasn’t intimately familiar with the RTS genre, they were responsible for two RTS titles that I will always enjoy and remember (Age of Mythology being the other one). Their work was a credit to this series.

Not too shabby for a “whoring out” job, right?

That about does it for the first of my ruminations, if you don’t mind I’m just going to hop into this cryo chamber and set the timer to wake me up in time for Mythos, then Fractures, then Tales From Slipspace, then Halo Wars 2…

8 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Halo Wars

  1. Halo wars would’ve had to have been one of my favourite Halo games. I loved how it didn’t focus so much around the Spartans and more around the less extraordinary people if I’m using the right words. To me it felt like a Doctor Who episode.
    The only criticism I have to say about this article was that Forge was actually an interesting character. He was also, in a way, a dishonoured soldier like the arbiter, but for different reasons. This actually made the Monsters a bit more meaningful, when Forge and Ripa are fighting each other.

    1. Ooh, I hadn’t considered the Doctor Who angle there, I can kind of see that.

      I really don’t find Forge to be interesting. He gets a few details in Genesis which flesh out a little bit of hi, but the whole notion of him being a dishonoured soldier “like the Arbiter” rings a little hollow for me considering that you really can’t compare the kind of things Forge has done (which extends to striking a superior officer) to what Ripa has done (been an agent of the Covenant’s secret police, staged a coup on his own clan, is working to exterminate humanity, etc). Forge, to me, is billed as the generic white dude soldier (with stubble) that we had no end of in 2009 and I take it as an interesting move that he is the one who’s killed off so that he can do a lot more to serve the more interesting characters in death than he does in life. That’s just my view of it.

      1. That’s true. And it would be really interesting if the characters opened up more about his death, because I could kind of see it at the end of the game.

  2. Seeing you’ve made a new blog post is one of the things I look forward to most, right alongside new Halo trailers and announcements and Canon Fodder. You’re doing great work with these. Love to read them.

  3. I hope to see the reactions of Red Team when they find out just how many S2s are gone now. Not only that but they also have been replaced by not one but TWO generations of Spartans.

  4. This was the first time I had ever seen the Halo script and hoooooly shit I am not impressed haha. All the characters seem just so out of place with how the behave. I remember being so upset when I found out this wasn’t going to be made but now I’m just so glad it wasn’t. Chief especially talks too much like a action hero, there’s far too many one liners, like there’s no real substance to these characters. Master Chief – “Plasma Grenades, we’re in business.” wtffffffff?! I feel like I’m watching something along the lines of the DOOM movie or like the Mummy or something haha… phew! Hopefully somewhere down the line we get a faithful film adaption, maybe not something based off of a game but an original piece instead.

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