“Sir, finishing this fight…”
The development woes of Halo 2 have been well documented over the years, Bungie has been very transparent about how much they had to cut from the final game. One of those things was the ending, intended to close out the series as a whole, which was replaced by that infamous cliffhanger.
Outside of a few hints and glimpses at specific details, we’ve never truly known what the original ending to Halo 2 was meant to be. Until now.
Lee Wilson was a storyboard artist for Bungie (he worked on Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and Destiny) and recently posted a huge drop of storyboards on ArtStation – including what appears to be scenes from the original ending of Halo 2.
As I began working on the Halo 2 boards, it was clear that the script was not quite ready for shooting boards. You’ll see by the sheer volume of boards, that they were going through many script revisions at Bungie. I probably ended up boarding the entire cinematic script two to three times. In light of this, I opted to present them in a quick, hybrid storyboard/comic panel style.
I emphasize the word ‘quick’ to hopefully forgive some of my embarrassingly poor figures. I drew these directly in pen to remove the temptation of erasing and redrawing them until they looked good to me. The purpose of these boards was simple communication, not to display on a wall.
Back then, the Arbiter was still called Dervish, and the updated Cortana was described to me as like a naked female hologram, which I clearly took literally.
I was still freelance at this point and working remotely. In fact, at one point, I did not receive payment from Microsoft for six months. Chasing up money was one of the many pitfalls of being freelance. My advice to younger freelancers out there – pay your estimated taxes and set some money aside for when a big company decides to claim the interest from your earnings. [Lee Wilson, ArtStation – Halo 2 storyboards (16/12/2020)]
It’s important to note that this doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s a bit of dot connecting here between what we know with what’s shown because there’s no dialogue – just action. But it’s by far the most extensive look we’ve had yet at this untold piece of Halo history.
The broad strokes of Halo 2’s story here are largely the same, though there are a few notable differences to established scenes that are worth mentioning.
QUARANTINE ZONE – THE FLOOD JUGGERNAUT
At the end of Quarantine Zone, you may recall the confrontation between the Arbiter, Miranda, and Johnson as they race to get the Index. This scene plays out very differently in the storyboards, as they appear to be in a completely different location to the Library, described only as a ‘thermal outtake platform,’ and the Master Chief is with them as well.
Arby ambushes the Chief, Miranda, and Johnson as they are attempting to repair a radio, leading to an ‘Arby vs Chief’ hand-to-hand fight. They’re interrupted by the arrival of a Phantom dropship, Tartarus and his Brutes deploying and circling the group (including the disarmed Arbiter), but whatever battle is about to ensue is interrupted by the arrival of another participant…
A massive ‘Flood Hulk’ (what might’ve ended up becoming the cut Flood Juggernaut) arrives and tears through the group, smashing through a ventilation shaft on the group which knocks Arby ‘n’ the Chief down into the darkness below.
While the storyboards don’t confirm this, it seems that this is what leads into the cut ‘Forerunner Tank’ level which would’ve introduced the Gravemind.
HIGH CHARITY – THE DEATH OF CORTANA(?)
This is where the story has some drastic differences from what we know.
The Prophets of Truth and Mercy are escaping to the Forerunner Keyship at the heart of High Charity, which is held in place by docking arms and looks like an ordinary tower (we later see that it reconfigures its shape, similar to what we see happen with a lot of Forerunner constructs in Halo 4).
Truth is ahead of Mercy and crosses the threshold of the main hatch first, where he’s met by a group of Honour Guard Brutes. He turns to Mercy and the Honour Guards level their weapons at the older Prophet, the hatch shutting him out on the bridge.
At this point, the Chief has caught up with them and levels his battle rifle at Mercy, and a boss fight ensues as Mercy is armed with an ‘energy sceptre.’
Following the boss fight, the Chief lifts Mercy up and prepares to throw him to his death, only for the gangway to start retracting as the Keyship starts its launch sequence – the two of them hanging on the edge of the ship’s entryway.
Naturally, the Chief drops Mercy to fall however many hundreds of feet to his death, and this is where the biggest change happens…
Cortana seemingly dies.
She’s at a data terminal situated at the end of one of the docking arms, just a little way off from where the Chief is hanging, and they’re about to be separated.
The Chief climbs up the hull of the ship towards her, leaps towards Cortana – we see their hands stretched out for each other…
And then the Keyship’s engines ignite, they’re pulled away from each other, and suddenly bolts of plasma from a group of Brutes destroy her terminal.
Cortana flickers and fades, and she is not seen again.
From there, the Chief boards the Keyship and it heads into slipspace to head for Earth – just as we see in the final game.
THE RETURN TO EARTH
The Great Journey occurs largely as it does in the game (earlier storyboards have a few variations and additional details), and we return to that [in]famous scene of the Chief declaring that he’s “finishing this fight” as the Keyship enters the Sol system.
From here, everything you’re about to read is brand new material.
A group of Covenant vessels converge around East Africa, while the Keyship hurtles down to Earth’s surface.
Instead of attempting to assassinate Truth, the Chief throws a grenade at a hatch and leaps out, tying in with the opening of Halo 3.
Some details and transitions are missing here, but when the Chief arrives on the surface of Earth he lands near the excavation zone of the Ark – which was (as Bungie has previously stated) originally the construct buried on Earth, not the extragalactic foundry of the Halos.
We see the Keyship fly overhead as a group of Marines are dug in, when suddenly the Chief crash lands behind them, emerging from the smoke (like the E3 2006 announcement teaser).
What ensues here looks a lot like the final battle of Mordor in The Return of the King, with the Chief leading a bunch of Marines into battle against a horde of Brutes in order to reach the Ark.
There’s even a “The Eagles are coming!” moment as a group of what appears to be Covenant capital ships arrive at the battle, only for them to open fire on the Brutes instead of the humans. This moment marks the arrival of Miranda, Johnson, 343 Guilty Spark, and the Arbiter, who pilot a Phantom down to join the Chief while the allied Sangheili vessels fire on the Ark (to no effect – like the UNSC strike we see on the Keyship in Halo 3).
Pillars begin to rise from the ground, covering the Ark in an energy shield. The Phantoms descend into a trench that goes below the Ark and we fade to some sort of gameplay section (possibly an actual trench run piloting a Phantom).
THE DEATH OF TRUTH
Within ‘The Ark of the Forerunners,’ we see the Prophet of Truth at a holo-display overlooking the immensity of this buried construct.
The Arbiter enters, joined by the Master Chief and 343 Guilty Spark, and Truth realises that they’re all working together.
Truth gestures to the holo-display, which shows the Halo rings primed and ready to fire, appearing to gloat about his victory and seemingly attempting to convince the Arbiter to rejoin him in this final hour.
But Thel removes his helmet and sends it across the floor, levelling his weapon against the Prophet where the scene fades to gameplay and a final boss fight occurs.
Truth is knocked out of his gravity throne and the Arbiter simply snaps his neck.
The Chief and Guilty Spark are at the holo-display where they see the five active Halos (Installation 04 was destroyed in Halo 1, and it seems that Installation 05 was actually shut down). The Chief turns to Guilty Spark and to Thel, who silently nods his approval, and then he deactivates the energy shield around the Ark.
Energy cannons are activated around each of the Ark’s pillars which all fire beams into the air, their flares travel up through the atmosphere and smash through much of the Covenant fleet before jumping into slipspace and arriving at each Halo ring to shut them down.
Interestingly, it’s Gamma Halo (Installation 03, which we see in Halo 4) that is most prominently shown here, which we see engulfed in light. Each of the rings on the holo-display shows they’re deactivated – the threat apparently over.
Naturally, the Ark then begins to fall apart, the entire structure collapsing on itself. Thel and Guilty Spark escape, but the Chief is ambushed by a group of Brutes for a final stretch of gameplay.
After this, the Chief escapes the Ark and emerges back outside, running into a white light as the scene fades out.
We also see the Arbiter’s escape separately.
As the Ark’s interior collapses, a falling pillar reveals a sarcophagus.
While searching through the dust cloud for the Monitor, Thel sees what is inside the sarcophagus: a human skeleton.
Guilty Spark appears (he survives the whole story!), and the Ark’s interior collapse seemingly cuts off their only means of escape.
This is resolved rather quickly, as Spark just instructs the Arbiter to grab onto him and he flies the two of them out of the shaft, the scene similarly fading to white.
THEY SHOWED THE CHIEF’S FACE!
We jump forward to a military ceremony (like at the start of the game) where Lord Hood affixes a medal to the Chief, who is wearing something nice! He’s in his dress blues, his face on display – but the camera is framed to hide it.
The big celebration from the end of A New Hope occurs here, Miranda and Johnson alongside him, and there’s a big fireworks display outside the orbital station.
As the Chief watches the show, Miranda and Johnson join him and there’s a weird suggestion of romance between the Chief and Miranda.
The storyboards describe Miranda giving the Chief “a knowing look,” which prompts Johnson to salute and depart, as she moves in closer to the Chief and the camera pulls back to them looking out at Earth together as the Sangheili fleet departs.
Thel is welcomed back to the fleet as a hero, contrasting with his trial at the start of the game, and is framed in a similarly romantic way with Rtas ‘Vadum – the Spec-Ops Commander.
Rtas places a hand on Arby’s shoulder and they stare out at Earth together as the fleet jumps into slipspace.
Whether this is the ending or not is unclear, as you may have noted that there’s absolutely no mention of the Flood in any of these levels.
The storyboards are unfortunately out of order on ArtStation, so it’s hard to say whether what follows is actually part of this original story or the game proper.
In essence, we see the post-credits scene of Halo 2, where the Gravemind speaks to Cortana.
This either indicates that Halo 2 was setting up a third game where Cortana is actually alive and the Flood are still a threat (but the Covenant is ended), or it’s just a storyboard for the ending of Halo 2 that we got when its story was a bit later in development.
And that’s it – that’s the original ending for Halo 2.
Just from looking at these storyboards, it’s clear that Halo 2 definitely wouldn’t have been able to deliver a lot of this high octane action. The technology just wasn’t there for the world-ending scale that’s on display here, especially with the likes of the The Return of the King-inspired battle on Earth.
There’s some good stuff in here. I like how much more brutal Truth’s death is here than it is in Halo 3, as well as how we see more of an ensemble story. The Chief, the Arbiter, Miranda, Johnson, and Guilty Spark become something of an oddball unit working together, which is certainly present in Halo 3 but not in quite the way it’s framed here.
The original intention of humans being Forerunners is here as well. That final moment where Thel sees the skeletal remains in the sarcophagus is certainly an interesting final twist of the knife in his faith. But it also reads as quite superfluous, a scene that is constructed (and certainly ends) rather clumsily just for this final, total confirmation rather than leaving it for the player to put the pieces together.
And the implied romance between the Chief and Miranda is a gut-wrenchingly hackneyed move, but I’m all in for Thel and Rtas getting the same framing (though I have no doubt we’d have years and years of “no homo” discourse around that).
It’s definitely odd that the Flood are completely out of the picture here, seemingly set up for a sequel that would’ve undoubtedly been a Star Trek III: The Search for Spock-inspired story set against the Flood returning to full strength.
Either that, or Cortana really did just die on High Charity without a second thought given to her!
Personally (and I’m sure this will be heresy to some), I much preferred the ending we got. This, in comparison, feels thoroughly derivative.
I’m not a huge fan of Halo 3’s story, but I think Bungie really trimmed out a lot of the most superfluous elements of what’s depicted here for Halo 2 and arrived at a place that enabled them to make a great sequel with truly revolutionary features. Even though it ends on a cliffhanger for the broader narrative, Halo 2 is quite undoubtedly the Arbiter’s personal story, one which works very well with a beginning, middle, and end to his arc.
For more on my thoughts on Halo 2’s cliffhanger ending, check this piece out: In Defence of Halo 2’s Cliffhanger
I want to give a huge thank you to Lee Wilson for posting these storyboards. We’ve been waiting for over fifteen years to see some of this stuff, and here it is at last!
With all this now known, what are your thoughts on this ending for Halo 2?