“Your humans will find immortality as a new kind of weapon. They are now Prometheans – an honour I have granted them, though they do not deserve it.”
When 343 Industries inherited the mantle of the Halo franchise and decided to continue the story of the Master Chief and Cortana, the universe asked a question.
The answer arrived in the form of metal and madness, bearing the name ‘Promethean.’
However, something you may not know is that the origins of these beings allegedly stretches back to a time when it seemed that Peter Jackson might have a hand in the future of Halo…
It is that history – from the scarcely-known behind the scenes details of the Prometheans’ early conception through to today (and everything between) – that we are going to explore.
What do 343 consider their successes and flaws? And see what potential lies in the future of these entities with Halo Infinite on the horizon?I’ll bet that many of you may be surprised to learn that the idea of the Prometheans purportedly predates Halo 4 by several years, during a time when the franchise might have gone in quite a different direction.
For this, we have to look back at something that exists in the dark recesses of your memories.
A name you may not have heard for a very long time…
First, some context, courtesy of Steve Haske’s ‘The Complete, Untold History of Halo’ article from 2017.
(And second, a caveat, as these testimonies are reflections from individuals many years after the fact. Just something that’s useful to be peripherally aware of.)
Bungie was in the midst of developing Halo 3, during which time the studio faced a great many difficulties. Between studio politics, a leadership vacuum, and various other issues that arose in the wake of Halo 2’s traumatic development and intense crunch, people fell out and left.
For much of Halo 3’s development, Joe Staten was instead working on the broader ideas for what stories could be told in the Halo universe. This included Titan, the cancelled MMO project which went on to become Halo Wars from Ensemble Studios, as well as a couple of projects that Peter Jackson was interested in – namely, the Halo film and Halo: Chronicles.
Alex Garland’s script for the Halo movie is, in fact, available to read.
(It’s absolutely dire!)This came during the time that Bungie was negotiating their deal for independence from Microsoft. This deal was split into “three buckets,” as it was internally referred to, composed of Halo 3, Halo: Chronicles, and Halo 4.
Peter Jackson was looking to start up a game studio (WingNut Interactive), and Staten was involved in helping them and Weta Workshop create Halo: Chronicles.
Design veteran Paul Bertone also had some involvement in this and has recalled details of the game:It would seem that we also have some concept art for this idea from Isaac Hannaford, a piece I’m sure many readers are familiar with, which was later incorporated into the PREFECT-class MJOLNIR armour in Halo 4 as part of the Infinity Armour Pack DLC.
“Research on the Forerunner shield world of Onyx, now called Trevelyan, has cultivated numerous findings for the Office of Naval Intelligence. One of the most practical was the discovery of a native armour system, utilised by Forerunner Prefects late into their civilization’s history. The Watershed Division leveraged local Huragok to reverse-engineer the original designs, grafting the abandoned armor system into baseline Mjolnir standards for Spartan-IV use.” [Worthplaying – ‘Halo 4 (X360) Champions Bundle To Add New Maps, Mode, Skins, Armor, Bonus Upgrades’ (6/7/13)]
Bungie also did not make Halo 4. Instead, the other two “buckets” after Halo 3 were filled by Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
The extent to which Halo 4 was considered at Bungie varies depending on who you ask.
It’s useful to keep in mind that not everybody at a studio housing several hundred people knows everything about the plans of upper-management, but the philosophy towards Halo 4 as Bungie’s final game in the series is succinctly summarised by Brian Jarrard in this 2010 interview.
“Even before the idea to build a game based around Reach came about, a lot of other concepts were explored, up to and including a proper Halo 4, where Master Chief was going to wake up from cryo-sleep and we were going to tell that story. […] It just wasn’t as interesting to the team to just pick up where that left off and all the baggage that came with it.
[…] We don’t want to open up a whole bunch of doors that we’re not going to close. By the end of this, it’s all going to come to a nice, neat finish.” [Brian Jarrard, MTV – ‘Bungie Considered Halo 4, Starring Master Chief, Instead Of Reach Prequel’ (25/6/10)]
While things ultimately took a different path for the series, the origin for a number of the ideas we’ve seen come to fruition in the time that has followed – like the Prometheans – can be found in this critical era.
BELLY OF THE BEAST
Key to understanding and critiquing the Prometheans is getting some detailed insight into their creation – the goals and processes, the trials and successes and failings, culminating in what we see in the finished product.
Thankfully, there’s a wealth of official sources for this. We’ve got the ten minute ‘Return of the Forerunners’ ViDoc from 2012, comments from the previously referenced Vice article, and – most notably – an hour long panel from project lead designer Scott Warner specifically about the Prometheans in Halo 4.
343’s transparency on the development of Halo 4 after inheriting such an immense franchise and responsibility has undoubtedly been an invaluable perspective to have in the gaming industry, but it’s also a great educational resource for us to have as fans.
For this chapter, we will be diving deep into Warner’s GDC 2013 talk: ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’
The Prometheans are something of a keystone for Halo 4. They’re a part of all of the major marketing material for the game, appearing in trailers, getting shown off in the E3 2012 stage demo, and they’re even on the back of the game’s box.
They are, as Warner puts it, an important part of what 343 had to say about what was new that Halo 4 had to offer.
Due to the growing amount of ‘fatigue’ in the playerbase around fighting the Covenant as the primary foe, it became imperative that something new was brought to the table.
“We had a high-level creative vision for the game that involved wanting to explore the backstory the game had laid out for the Forerunners.” [Scott Warner, GDC 2013 – ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’ (4:50)]
Keen to stay true to the core design philosophy of Halo’s gameplay, the goal was to deliver “another thirty seconds of fun” with the Prometheans.
Warner emphasises that they wanted to stick to the foundations of the series rather than try to reinvent the wheel.Some core tenets were explored with regards to what is involved in crafting an enemy worthy of Halo.
Unique personalities and gameplay mechanics have been a staple of the series since the beginning. The player is able to very quickly parse a lot of visual information that informs them how they can tactically approach an encounter.
You know that you’ve got to change tactics when a Sangheili Zealot with an energy sword charges at you, compared to facing one with a plasma rifle.
You instantly recognise the silhouette of a Brute Chieftain and how that is different to facing, say, a Jump Pack Brute.
You know that a group of Grunts will scatter, panic, and attempt to flee when you kill the Elite leading them, but the Jackals are more likely to hold their ground.
As such, enemies support experimentation. The leader/minion dynamic to enemy ‘squads’ allows for some great emergent gameplay because the enemies are a sort of sandbox unto themselves, making encounters feel more interactive.
Similarly, Halo’s approach to difficulty doesn’t look to significantly change your understanding of the game, but speeds it up.
This all sounds “obvious,” but it’s important to remember that this was a learning process for a brand new team that was built on-the-fly across three and a half years.
There was no ‘How To Use’ manual left by Bungie to their engine and tools, no handy rulebook. We understand this meta as players because we can see the refined, finished product. But 343 had to ‘relearn’ those rules to apply them to something new.Many people think of Halo 4 as something of a ‘non-standard’ Halo game (not even necessarily in a negative way), as it does break from tradition in a number of areas.
What you may not know is that 343 is actually documented as having pushed back against a lot of the more ‘out there’ ideas that came from the likes of Ryan Payton (creative director on Halo 4, prior to Josh Holmes), and even Max Hoberman (president of Certain Affinity, formerly of Bungie).
There was much ado back in 2011 when Ryan Payton was announced to be departing 343 Industries and “creative differences” had been cited.
I remember the storm in the community as people absolutely ran away with the implications of one particular quote:
“The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don’t think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavor through.” [Ryan Payton, Kotaku – ‘Halo Creative Director Leaving Halo 4’ (6/9/11)]
Many people painted Payton as this champion for what is now simply and nebulously referred to as Classic Halo™, and that 343 weren’t playing ball with his direction because they wanted to do things differently.
In reality, it was the opposite way around.
Payton had fantastic ideas, some of which ended up being implemented in Halo 5 (the weapons-down missions are one such example), but it didn’t feel like quite the right time to use them.
I am fascinated by what this alternate Metal Gear-inspired Halo 4 might have looked like, but 343 was keen to build something closer to the traditional FPS experience that Halo was known to offer.
It’s important, I think, to challenge the commonly accepted narrative – the ‘received wisdom’ – in the community. This is one misconception that has festered for a long time.
Halo 4 did indeed diverge from some of the more traditional areas of the series, but it was not made as a middle-finger to those things, nor was it quite as reactionary to the popular gameplay evolution of the FPS genre (with titles like Call of Duty) as many thought – and still think.
Many of those ideas were outlined as hopes for the direction of the series as early as the beginning of Halo 3’s development, which Max Hoberman revealed on Twitter earlier this year.
Pardon the digression from the focus of the topic (the Prometheans – I know, I haven’t forgotten!), but it’s humbling to be reminded of how little of the bigger picture we actually see.
Hoberman’s vision for Halo 3 included the ability to go prone, loadouts (and even vehicle selection), being able to use weapons with the flag, increased narrative wrapping around multiplayer…
It’s absolutely fine, of course, to disagree with the direction that 343 has taken with the gameplay. I certainly have some of my own gripes with it.
But it seems quite evident that Bungie, had they continued the series, really wouldn’t have done much differently.
Voltron, the T-800 from 1984’s The Terminator, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Planescape’s Cranium Rats.
Much of the first three revolve around the idea of changing form in order to adapt to new situations.
“How could they adapt their form, both coming together as one, or adapt themselves to what the encounter was going [to be], how could they adapt themselves in terms of the environment?
[…] How do we put things together, and take them apart, and make the enemy itself […] a sandbox?” [Warner – ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’ (17:15)]
The Cranium Rats are representative of the idea that these units get smarter as they come together as one entity and less intelligent when they separate.
This philosophy extended to how the design of the environment and architecture of the Forerunners was influenced as well. At the start of the game, we are in more familiar territory as the structures are relatively inert, but as the game progresses they become much more active.
“How do you imply something strong, something vertical, something different? And how could we actually have a global, logical language out of that Forerunner philosophy?” [Nicolas Bouvier (‘Sparth’) – ‘Making Halo 4: Return of the Forerunners’ (2:06)]
Over the years, the Art Style™ discourse has similarly been watered down to the point where I feel there are just some very frustrating knee-jerk reactions to any design that’s even slightly divergent from Bungie’s games, without any consideration as to what the reasons behind it are.
It’s something I’ve been fascinated in investigating over the years, going full ‘xenoarchaeology mode’ as far back as some of my earlier articles.
For those who attended Halo: Outpost Discovery, or watched the panels (as I did) online, Greg Bear has actually given some insight into this.
“I kind of suggest things to [Sparth], to the Halo team, and say ‘Okay, y’know the Halo architecture looks kind of naked. Maybe it projected a more useful form around itself, back in the early days?’
So when you see the architecture on the rings, you see the architecture is the barebones version of what would’ve been there when you were alive and running the place – when the Forerunners were actually there.” [Greg Bear – Halo: Outpost Discovery (Chicago), ‘The Write Stuff’ (28:45)]
Requiem is unique as a setting in the Halo universe, as it was actually the oldest Forerunner location that we’d hitherto visited in the games – significantly predating the Halo array, built by the warrior-class of their society.
We’re seeing a unique culture within the enigmatic race we’re familiar with reflected in their design. This is not something from the final years of a gasping empire, this is a preserved relic of what they looked like at the height of their power.
Indeed, Paul Russel, one of the godfathers of Halo, who gave the series its name and had major influence in establishing the early Forerunner visual design, has said that there were times when Bungie broke those rules as well and had a delightfully succinct answer to him raising issue with that.
“Any time I’d bitch about a forerunner structure not following the rules I set, they’d say: ‘Forerunners had more than one architect.'” [Paul Russel – Twitter (18/11/18)]
It is far more interesting to me to look at the text for what it is, showing us a setting that is a bastion of an unknown time in Forerunner history, rather than framing it as a ‘Bungie vs 343’ argument that eschews any real context.
“But that’s lore!” I hear you say, not entirely unreasonably. “That just exists to justify the artistic change.”
We’ll get to that…
OUR FIRST GAME OF CHESS
There are, of course, the Knights; the Watchers were originally called Bishops; the Crawlers were known as Pawns.
Three other units – the Rook, King, and Queen – had to be cut, though Warner noted that they could return in the future. It is not yet clear whether the Soldiers or the Warden Eternal are based on those concepts.
While ideas for greater variation existed, the notion of a “conservative analog” to an Elite or Brute was always the high-level intention that 343 had for the central enemy.
“We knew that the primary thing that we wanted you to fight against was something you would understand. You knew how it operated, […] the primary place where it would be vulnerable (which is the head). And that would be the primary thing that you would fight against in the game because you know how to interact with that thing very fast.” [Warner – ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’ (20:50)]
Despite the high-level intention for what role the Knight would serve in a functional capacity, it is well documented that this character went through well over a dozen iterations of geometry.
One such example is shown in the image above, which we saw a glimpse of at the end of the Halo 4 concept art trailer at Halo Fest in 2011.
Warner, however, did not like this design and noted that he told senior art director Kenneth Scott that it too closely resembled the geth from Mass Effect (which, incidentally, Isaac Hannaford’s earlier concept did as well).
You’ve likely seen many different versions of the Knight’s appearance, it’s something a lot of people have strong feelings about.
Personally, I’m very partial to the more sphinx-like design of the head. The humanoid face is split apart and opens up to the disturbing skull underneath – the edifice fits a little more with the description of Warrior-Servant constructs in Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga.There’s a decent argument that it perhaps gives away the true nature of the Knights a little too easily and too soon, but I’m very fond of it!
Other concepts of the Knight emphasise the ‘soul’ trapped within it, while the earliest prototype models were entirely mechanical constructs and gave away nothing about them (because, at that point, their fiction hadn’t yet been established).
Even with all this visual and artistic variation, the basic premise of the Knight remained consistent: it’s humanoid, it’s relatable, and it drives the combat experience.
The earlier prototypes for the Knight (which were active around May 2010) are fascinating because it didn’t teleport, but rather transformed into a Metroid-esque ball form that could quickly move around the battlefield.
There was also a greater emphasis on dismemberment, instead of the shield-based damage model we’re typically used to seeing. Indeed, echoes of this can still be seen with the assassination animations for the Knights where the Chief tears off the hardlight blade arm and impales the Knight with it.
It was at this point that 343 started running into some major problems, as it took a very long time to get these characters into prototyping. They were experiencing issues with Maya, and there was no model for the Crawler; only two out of the six Prometheans planned for the game were actually available (the other being the Watcher).The Crawler began as something much more analogous to a Grunt. It was originally bipedal and 343 did not find its design to be something that was particularly unique or interesting.
The Watcher, however, came together very quickly. As a smaller Sentinel-like enemy, its prototype model was simply composed of three circles!
As we see in the game, it changes up encounters through special abilities rather than just shooting, building on the ideas that started with the Engineers in Halo 3: ODST.
“We wanted to have some notion of a support character, so like a necromancer from Diablo.” [Warner – ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’ (22:50)]
343’s solution to the problems they were facing with the Prometheans was threefold.
First, they reduced the scope of their ambition. The Rook, Queen, and King units were cut.
Then, they settled on the three units they would focus on, taking a realistic look at what could be built and polished – thus we got the Knights, Watchers, and Crawlers.
After that, of course, they brought on more engineers to put this plan into action.
Making use of Microsoft’s User Research also proved to be instrumental in the development of the Prometheans. Thanks to their feedback, the Watcher was significantly scaled back for Halo 4.
Originally, it had another three abilities: ‘focus fire,’ where a group of Watchers would flock together to attack the player; ‘physics impulse,’ where, upon death, they would blow the player back; and ‘junk attack,’ where they could launch bits of the environment at the player as projectiles.
Notably, some of these abilities, which Warner notes led the User Research team to nickname the Watcher “Little Fucker,” somewhat manifested in Halo 5 as the Warden Eternal’s abilities…With the design well on the way to being sorted, 343 then faced another major issue… the story of the Prometheans had not been fleshed out.
According to Warner, the franchise team was reluctant to impose a specific direction in terms of what they wanted to do at a high-level. They were keen to give the designers the freedom to see what they could come up with for the gameplay.
While it’s undoubtedly great to have a lot of freedom, the unfortunate consequence of this kind of approach is that there’s not really any context to the design decisions that are made and little sense of a cohesive direction.
Who are the Prometheans? Why are they here? What are they doing? Why am I fighting them?
Those questions were not satisfyingly answered for the first eight months of the project. Despite having clear goals for the design, there was no narrative to contextualise it.
I said we’d come back to this earlier, when I raised the oft-touted “Lore exists to explain the artistic change” argument. It’s something that goes both ways, and this really details how important it is for designers to have that sense of what the story is.
People often think that it’s the other way around with 343, that they put more into story as a priority than design…
As it turns out, the ‘popular community narrative’ is one that is divorced from any actual context and got it the wrong way around.
“We zoomed in a little bit to try to figure out who the Prometheans really were as a sort of Forerunner warrior-class. As we defined that a bit better, we were able to use that as a razor in terms of which features we would keep and cut.” [Warner – ‘The Design of New Enemies for Halo 4’ (35:50)]
As a result, the ‘ball form’ was cut, due to the Prometheans being developed to the point where it no longer made sense for them.
Another thing that ended up being scrapped was the idea of the Knights using cover. 343 instead focused on making them a towering presence on the battlefield, which helped to accentuate the role of the Watcher as a support unit.
Interestingly, the idea of the Knights having Composed souls came in about a-year-and-a-half into production. While they were always intended to be a construct that was somewhere between machine and man, embodying a soul, the specifics of what that meant for the Knights was a later development than one might have previously thought.
Warner noted that the team often internally thought of the Knights as being somewhat analogous to the Nazgûl from The Lord of the Rings.
Around this time, the Crawlers were in a good place. The bipedal design had been canned and the team began experimenting with “creepier,” more quadrupedal configurations.
Crawlers became a mixture of dog and insect – they had the animal pack mentality of the former and the chitinous appearance of the latter, along with the ability to use the environment to add some verticality to the gameplay, walking on walls and ceilings.
Functionally, they were something of a mix of a Grunt and the previously much-maligned Drone. They fit the role of cannon fodder well, but demonstrate some great versatility with ranged combat without the frustrations of being a fast-moving target.
INFINITE DEVIL MACHINES
Reflecting on the Prometheans after the final game launched and this new enemy faction was unleashed upon the world, Warner noted five main issues.
Early team communication was lacking.
The absence of a high-level vision and narrative context led to design tangents.
The Watcher (nicknamed “Little Fucker,” I feel the need to reiterate!) made encounters one-dimensional.
Damage tuning made Knights feel ‘bullet spongey.’
A lack of emotion.
Halo’s AI doesn’t stand out because it’s highly advanced beyond any other game, but because they’re expressive and full of character.
The Covenant communicates emotionally. You know when you’ve surprised them, you know when they’re scared, when they’re pushing forward, when they’ll break ranks because you’ve killed their leader…
As a result of that feedback, you can plan accordingly (and instantly) for how you’re going to proceed.
Comparatively, the Prometheans don’t really communicate their state very well (more on this later).
Once again, however, I feel the need to return to the fact that this was all built by a new team – a team that was built on-the-fly from a handful of people to over three hundred across three years – who were working with unfamiliar tools they had to learn how to use themselves.
They created something different, something totally unique from the Covenant and the Flood – and they were certainly more fun to fight than the latter had ever been.
Because, let’s be honest, Halo has always had enemies that players hate to fight.
The Flood are still largely despised across all instalments of the original trilogy; the dictionary definition for ‘bullet sponge’ quite undoubtedly has a picture of a Brute from Halo 2 next to it; Drones have always been annoying (Crawlers in Halo 4 actually remedy that issue); Sentinels were never particularly fun or interesting…That their design was flawed is obviously problematic and should be addressed and improved upon, but it says something that 343’s goal of sticking to more traditional Halo design philosophies was a successful endeavour in how they ended up replicating many of the same issues other enemies had been laden with in previous instalments.
I think that’s a source of frustration with the Prometheans – they’re just a bit too familiar. Their sandbox is cool, but functionally, outside of some dual-functionality, one can hardly distinguish them from the UNSC or Covenant.
But when things did eventually culminate for the Prometheans, I think the confluence of art, story, and design was really strong. What 343 accomplished with these new enemies in Halo 4 was not a failure by any stretch of the imagination.
Not only was it a meaningful success for a new team coming together, but this was a solid foundation that had a wealth of potential to be built upon in future instalments.
As Warner’s panel details, lessons were learned from this both in terms of production and from fan feedback.
Unfortunately, I do not think that those lessons actually carried over to Halo 5 very well.
At the end of Halo 4, the Didact succeeds in firing the Composer on Earth. While he is defeated, the result of this action is that seven million people – the inhabitants of New Phoenix – are Composed and sent back to Requiem. The consequence is that this reinforces their occupation of the Shield World in Spartan Ops.
We get some great characterisation for Gabriel Thorne, who became a Spartan-IV serving on the UNSC Infinity around the time of this tragic event. He lost his grandparents in the attack and feels immense guilt that he couldn’t save them, yet little is done with the idea that he might actually be fighting them.
Halo 5 has two instances where a ‘depressed’ Knight is shown: one is by Blue Team’s Prowler in the mission Unconfirmed, the other is in Exuberant Witness’s ‘zoo’ in Guardians.
This adds great potential for further exploration, but the word on 343’s intentions with the Knights in Halo 5 (and this is not explicitly qualified by the text, so take it with a grain of salt) is that they’re not actually driven by Composed souls.
To my mind, this idea fundamentally misses the point of what makes the Knights narratively interesting and throttles their capacity for greater, more meaningful expression and emotion.
Again, the need to emphasise this was one of 343’s five key takeaways from Halo 4.
Gameplay could also change to reflect this. Perhaps your HUD might recognise a Knight as friendly with a green reticle, making it harder to fight without aim assist; or maybe a ‘boss name’ might appear in certain encounters to identify certain Knights as individuals (like, say, Doctor Sandra Tillson).
Considering that Warzone makes this such a central part of its gameplay loop, I have always been quite surprised that the campaign didn’t leverage this feature as well.
One would imagine that pretty much everybody would have found this preferable to fighting the Warden Eternal half a dozen times.Halo 4 got creative with the ranks of the Promethean Knights, giving them four distinct classes which are each differentiated visually – in-keeping with the design language of the series.
It’s easy to tell a base Knight from a Lancer, the latter having two large fins at the top of its carapace and often using more ranged weapons.
The hardlight spines of a Battlewagon feel somewhat reminiscent of a Hunter and you know it’s equipped with a Scattershot; and the Commander has what might be described as ‘hardlight war paint’ on its head and body (and is often equipped with heavy weaponry).
These four variations of Promethean Knights are well differentiated both visually and in terms of how they function in gameplay.
It goes back to what Warner said about being able to instantly parse important information – how you can tell a Jump Pack Brute from a Chieftain with a glance.Halo 5, comparatively, only has two distinguishable appearances for its Knights…
In Warzone, this is given more variety by changing the colour of the armour and hardlight aspects of the Knights, but this only functionally translates in gameplay to how much more of a bullet sponge they are as bosses.
However, it’s absolutely worth noting that the Knight Commander in Halo 5 is very visually distinct. It looks fantastic, with those three large spines on the top of its carapace – I’ve no issue with the Commander’s visual evolution at all.
On a broader scale, though, this is definitely a ‘downgrade.’ One that isn’t quite made up for by the addition of Soldiers, who become the main focus of Promethean combat.
And then there’s the Warden Eternal…
Both of these new foes represent more of an extension of other problems that people had with the Prometheans in Halo 4, rather than any sort of fix.
Frustrations arise here due to how clear it is that lessons were learned from Halo 4, but were not implemented in Halo 5.Behaviour of the AI, too, feels a lot more limited with the Prometheans as a whole in Halo 5. The increased number of enemies makes them feel more ‘disposable,’ more like mobs rather than a unit you can interact with.
The technology is quite incredible, I think we’ve all dreamed of the kind of large-scale battles that Halo 5 made possible… but what I personally learned from this is that ‘more enemies’ was never what made Halo’s gameplay stand out among its peers.
It is, as Warner said in his panel, the level of interaction and emotion that the AI has which makes them effectively a ‘sandbox’ unto themselves.
‘Emotion’ would seem to come more from the comical appearance of the Soldiers and their dialogue, which feels so tonally dissonant with the nature of the Prometheans. Not only does having them be AIs rather than Composed people result in the absence of any intrigue, but making them ‘meme bots’ isn’t all that compelling a substitution.
Watchers were overly effective in Halo 4, the feedback from both fans and User Research agreeing that they make combat one-dimensional.
But in Halo 5, it feels like they went too far in the opposite direction to the point where one almost doesn’t give them a second thought (even though they have the additional healing ability).Crawlers are no longer able to walk on walls and ceilings, removing the verticality that was the key ingredient to making them succeed in Halo 4 after the long and painful process of trying to figure them out.
They’re also more ‘bullet spongey’ than ever, with the Warden Eternal (who, I noted earlier, seems to have abilities that greatly resemble what was originally cut from the Watcher in Halo 4 – focus fire, physics impulse, and junk attack) who – I think it is fair to say – is not particularly loved in the community.
Bringing back the dismemberment concept for the Knights was a fantastic idea. It’s incredibly satisfying when you manage to land that perfect headshot after breaking off a chunk of their armour, but the game perhaps leans a bit too much on this.
The only other direct way to kill a Knight is with heavy weapons or grenades, which imposes a certain limit on how you can interact with them. Hunters are similar, but that’s made up for by ‘the dance’ (we’ll come to that later) which makes fighting them feel like an interaction rather than just throwing everything you’ve got at them – and Halo 5 does the Hunters a similar disservice.
343 succeeded in expanding the capacity for interaction with the Prometheans in some ways, but severely curtailed it in many others.
In Halo 4, the Promethean Knights are beautifully integrated into the thematic framework of the narrative. Whatever issues there were in the early year-or-so of the game’s development… I cannot compliment enough how well they figured things out.
The Prometheans are, of course, Spartans.
Mass-produced supersoldiers, souls – humanity – trapped within armour, created through morally repugnant means in a desperate attempt to save their respective species.
Halo 4 opens with the image of the Spartan-IIs, as children, asleep within pods shaped like MJOLNIR helmets. It concludes, too, with the helmet coming off and giving us a glimpse of the man underneath – the soul within the armour.
That’s some incredible and loaded imagery, and it speaks to how well refined Halo 4 is in its sense of narrative function. Everything it has to say about Spartans is a cracked mirror parallel of what it shows of the Prometheans.
In the Prologue, Catherine Halsey says:
“Your mistake is seeing Spartans as military hardware. My Spartans are humanity’s next step. Our destiny as a species.”
And that’s… exactly what the Knights are.
People as military hardware. Soldiers as machines.Halo 5, however, tells a very different story – one that culminates in ultimately being about AIs rising up to escape their ‘enslavement’ at the hands of humanity…
I shan’t harp on about this any more than I already have over the years, if only because this article would end up being twice as long as it already is! You know how this goes.
But I will note that you would be quite sorely mistaken if you expected Halo 5 to engage with the fact that the army the Created use is composed (heh!) of… enslaved humans.
Worse, the Prometheans lose all sense of narrative function in Halo 5. They’re there to be enemies to fight and at no point does the story have anything else to do with them, which is disappointing.
They’re not a foil to anything or anyone, they have no thematic resonance with the rest of the story. They could be omitted from Halo 5 entirely and the only impact it would actually have is that some of the levels would have far fewer enemies to fight.
One of the major consequences of Halo 4 and Spartan Ops, with the Didact declaring “The Forerunners have returned,” is that there are seven million humans who are Composed when New Phoenix is fired upon. That should have been something momentous for Halo 5 to follow up on, but it hasn’t really amounted to anything.Before we delve too far down this cynical road, let us be fair to the narrative team. They’re absolutely as frustrated as we are that they couldn’t do more.
I think this is probably the most important thing we all need to keep in mind: nobody set out to tell a bad story, and anybody who’s literally ever had a conversation with a developer will hear about all the other awesome ideas that (for various reasons, many of which are out of their hands) they weren’t able to implement.
We ultimately may only be able to judge the final product that we end up with, but we can also spare a thought to the people working in the trenches. They have to make the best of the realities of production and deal with how we choose to engage with them, which is not always in good faith.
We all feel we have something important to say, but how we choose say these things matters.
On that, we can – and must – do better.
To my mind, Halo 4’s biggest problem with the Prometheans was that it didn’t mix ‘n’ match units enough. The Knights were always present, putting them at the centre of almost every encounter made them feel overused.
We never got a squad of Unggoy backed up by a flock of Watchers, or had their cannon fodder status reinforced by Crawlers; we never got a Sangheili leading a pack of Crawlers with a Watcher for protection – you can come up with just about any combination of Covenant and Promethean units and it could make for a really interesting encounter.
There are one or two moments in the campaign where we see Knights leading a group of Unggoy and Kig-Yar (when they first join forces in Infinity), but from that point onwards you typically fight Covenant and Prometheans separately from one-another.
Watchers could be balanced out by splitting them into two classes – offence and defence.
Offensive Watchers would be able to shoot, spawn Crawlers, and resurrect Knights; Defensive Watchers would be able to shield and heal enemies, as well as catch and toss back the player’s grenades.
Where the Knights and Crawlers have many of their nuances in gameplay largely split across ranks, the Watcher is an ‘all in one’ deal and I think splitting that up would do a lot to make encounters with them less one-dimensional.
The problem was significantly exacerbated in Halo 5 because the Covenant and Prometheans are no longer working together, so you lose that whole dynamic as you are typically faced with combat scenarios where you are fighting only Covenant or only Prometheans.
There are one-or-two more interesting scenarios. In Osiris, the first mission, you are able to help Kitun ‘Arach – the Sangheili General, who also appears in a number of audio logs – fight against Prometheans to the top of the hill, at which point he will become friendly. But the missions that follow don’t offer anything of similar variety and interest.None of this is to suggest that 343 didn’t experiment with these things, or that they weren’t aware of where things were going wrong. Warner’s panel makes it clear that they absolutely took that all on-board.
But the great tragedy of the Prometheans is that they got further away from fulfilling their potential after Halo 4 than they did to really coming into their own.
“We wanted to create something that could stand alone and be an enemy that is just as challenging, just as compelling, as the Covenant.” [Josh Holmes – ‘Making Halo 4: Return of the Forerunners’ (1:30)]
As divisive as they are, I personally think that 343 succeeded and the result is a net-positive.
For what they lack in emotion and communicating their state in combat, the animations they do have do a superb job characterising them.
There are a number of little scripted moments in the earlier missions of Halo 4 showing the Covenant getting slaughtered – Sangheili getting slaughtered by Knights, Unggoy getting torn by apart by Crawlers, and so on.
The Knight ‘birthing’ the Watcher from its back is one of my favourite animations in the series. It’s unsettling, disgusting, and undeniably alien – the way they shudder and screech as that orange fluid spills out of their back…
You instantly know what is happening and how you’ve got to change your approach on-the-fly.Another thing you can do with the Knights in Halo 4 is what I alluded to earlier – something I call ‘The Dance.’
Enemy AI in Halo often has a set of predictable behaviours that can be exploited. Similar to the Hunters, getting up close and personal with the Knights can be really satisfying when they go for a roundhouse melee swing and you’re able to duck under their attack to land a quick assassination.
Crawlers, too, enter a momentary state of being stunned after a quick burst from an assault rifle, making it easy to circle around the back of them and land a quick melee.
While they’re absolutely not fun to fight on Legendary (though, in my opinion, no Halo campaign has had a truly ‘fun’ Legendary mode since Halo 1), the Prometheans can be a blast to mess around with on the lower difficulties – something I’ve spent many hours doing in order to get some good screenshots and videos of them.
Speaking of which…
The most immediately recognisable name for many in the image below is undoubtedly the War Sphinx, something that appeared in the Forerunner Saga.
These were versatile combat vehicles that were considered ‘outdated’ by the time in which Bornstellar’s story begins, as they had been replaced by Seekers – less ornate and lacking the haughty face that characterises many Warrior-Servant designs.
As a fun little Easter egg, one of the artefacts one can view in the research lab aboard Ivanoff Station in the penultimate mission of Halo 4 is a War Sphinx’s ‘eye.’
I must admit that the concept art for the War Sphinx here doesn’t at all resemble what I had imagined from what was described in the Forerunner Saga, but it is just concept art.
The Boomerang tank-carrier and Socket Tank evidently didn’t make it too far before being scraped off the chopping board, but I very much like the idea of seeing more Forerunner vehicles. I hope that’s something we see revisited in the future.
Finally, the ‘Packmaster’ is shown going through a number of design iterations here, and it would seem that the end result was that this unit ultimately became the Soldier.More ‘recently,’ Halo Wars 2 released a story expansion known as Awakening the Nightmare in September 2017, about seven months after the game’s release.
We are familiar with this expansion for bringing the Flood back to the stage, at least within the confines of the ongoing conflicts on Installation 00 with the Banished, who are effectively locked in a stalemate with the UNSC Spirit of Fire.
‘Brute brothers’ Pavium and Voridus are dispatched on a salvage mission to the wreckage of High Charity, looking for any weapons, vehicles, and supplies they can find in order to aid their efforts against humanity.
As we know, they end up unleashing the Flood, but this was not always so…
When this expansion was pitched, one of the concept ideas instead had the Prometheans – including, it would seem, the Warden Eternal.
There’s not much more to be said on this, as there’s no real narrative attached to this that we know of. It was pitched, concepted, and ultimately canned for Halo Wars 2 to indulge in a much stronger idea.
(By the way, you should absolutely play Halo Wars 2!)
TO INFINITE, AND BEYOND…
I can appreciate, from this glimpse into the harsh reality of this game’s development, just how gruelling that process must’ve been.
“We have the Covenant from previous games, we have the UNSC, we have all these things to take from like, ‘Alright, we can make a new take on this,’ but we had zero information to some of this Forerunner stuff.” [Gabriel Garza – ‘Making Halo 4: Return of the Forerunners’ (9:20)]
With Halo Infinite less than a year away, I think there’s a good chance that we may see the Prometheans take a backseat.
After eight years, it is incredibly unfortunate not to see these characters reach their full potential…
But, if this is the case (and that’s a big if), then I hope the extended fiction will at least deal with the untapped nuances of the lore that makes them so fascinating.
Perhaps the games simply aren’t suited for the kind of stories 343 wants to tell with the Prometheans and they might be better served elsewhere.
Ideally, I don’t think anything should be off the table for what the games can and should handle, and I’ll definitely offer critique as to how I think that could be done, but at the end of the day that’s not my decision to make and there’s always a bigger picture.It’s not all doom and gloom though…
Halo has had plenty of major enemy types that have been prominent in anything from one to three titles before being phased out.
The Elites were our primary enemies in Halo 1 and 2, but the FPS titles of the series wouldn’t have us fight them again until Halo: Reach – Bungie’s last Halo game – in 2010.
Likewise, the Brutes have been absent as primary enemies since ODST, over ten years ago now (though they had occasional minor appearances in the latter half of Reach and, of course, took centre stage in Halo Wars 2).
We’ve not fought the Flood in a mainline game since 2007, with Frank O’Connor having stated in 2012 that if they were to bring the Flood back in the future they’d completely rebuild them (something we got a glimpse at in Halo Wars 2).
And how about the Yanme’e, Skirmishers, Huragok…
While it is lamentable to see the Prometheans’ potential not fully realised across Halo 4 and 5, it’s worth noting that this isn’t far off from being par for the course with the overarching ‘pattern’ of the series.I hope that this rumination has been helpful in some way. Perhaps you have a better understanding of the Prometheans, perhaps the additional context has changed your perception of them one way or another… or maybe you just learned a thing or two about some cool behind the scenes stuff that’s not widely known.
To bring this to a close, I really just want to acknowledge the countless hours that the artists, designers, programmers, engineers, testers, researches, writers (etc) all put into crafting something new and exciting for Halo with the Prometheans.
Their ambition, passion, and investment through one of the most difficult and uncertain periods of the franchise as they inherited this beast and faced challenges that nobody else in the gaming industry had faced in quite this way before is admirable.
To me, that they believed in this absolutely shines through the final product; Halo is genuinely a great deal richer for their work.
I think the Prometheans are one of the most fascinating parst of Halo’s history, from their conceptual existence in that liminal space of the franchise’s development during Bungie’s middling years, through to being painstakingly realised in Halo 4.
I’d love for them to be in Halo Infinite, there’s so much more to do with them, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if now is the time for the Prometheans to take a bit of a backseat to ‘solve’ some of the more immediately demanding problems of the universe.
With our one-way trip to Installation 07 growing increasingly imminent, answers will be coming soon enough…