Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chronological Halo, 10/52: Lone Wolf

Previously on Chronological Halo: Noble Team's final mission is accomplished, and Dr. Halsey's AI, Cortana, has been delivered to the Pillar of Autumn with the information from the Forerunner artifact intact. To ensure the Pillar of Autumn could escape Reach, however, Noble Six stayed behind to man the mass driver cannon, and he is now left behind on the planet.

Mission Title: Lone Wolf (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 10/52

The credits for Halo: Reach have rolled, and the Pillar of Autumn has escaped Reach with the fruits of Dr. Halsey's research. What could be left?

We are. Noble Six is left, alone, staring up at the sky as Covenant vehicles fly overhead. At some point we start walking, and as the final mission of Halo: Reach begins, we have arrived at a building we passed in the previous mission. If there's a final stand to be made, it'll be made here.

Let's just get down the hill for starters.
Our only objective is this: 'Survive.' This isn't a mission we can win, as Covenant forces approach our location slowly at first, but gradually they appear in greater numbers, eventually bringing unhijackable Wraith tanks to bear.

As we sustain damage, our HUD gradually disappears, and great cracks appear in our visor, obscuring our vision. Once we've endured a massive amount of damage, it's simply too much to bear, and we lose our helmet. In a cutscene from our helmet's point of view, we witness the final moments of Noble Six, assaulted by numerous Elites and staving many of them off, but finally succumbing to his enemies.

And then there's just our helmet, lying amid the wasteland, as we saw at the beginning of the game.

This is an unbelievable mission. We're not accustomed to unwinnable situations in videogames. Usually you fight to a certain point, and then you either achieve victory or are saved by the cavalry, usually in a cutscene. Here you are trying to last until a cutscene, but the cutscene isn't triggered by winning; it's triggered by losing. And we're not going to be saved by the cavalry, because there isn't any cavalry to arrive. Maybe Jun, the only other member of Noble Team whose fate is uncounted-for (and remains so, in the games; I hear it's explained in the Halo Expanded Universe that he died ensuring the safety of Dr. Halsey), but it's unlikely. And even if he did make it to our location in this mission, we'd just die together instead of alone. There are no ships remaining on this continent of Reach that can make it to orbit.

The name of this mission, 'Lone Wolf,' is itself a fantastic callback to the very beginning of Halo: Reach, as well.

Carter: I'm glad to have your skill set, but we're a team. That Lone Wolf stuff stays behind.

Here at the end, his team dead or gone, Noble Six is the lone wolf again.

After it's unavoidably all over, there's another cutscene: Noble Six's helmet lying where it fell, but now it's years later and the planet is clearly recovering. Grass is growing again, and there's a recently-landed human ship in the background. Halsey's voice provides narration, talking about Noble Six's sacrifice and what it meant in the grand scheme of things, in the long run.

As the concluding cutscene of a single game, this cutscene is necessary: you want to end on a positive note, get the audience out of the theater buzzing about the experience, instead of in a glum stupor. It's intended to make you feel better about the fact that the character you've been playing for the entire game was just killed by his enemies, after going through so much.

But for Chronological Halo, it's unnecessary. We're only 1/5 of the way through *this* game. This is the opening act, much like the pre-title scenes that always started The X-Files or C.S.I. -- you meet a character, and then that character dies in a horrible way and the rest of the episode is about solving the mystery of what happened to them. We don't need Dr. Halsey to tell us that things eventually get better for humanity because of Noble Six's sacrifice; we're going to see it in the next forty levels or so.

Next time we'll properly meet two of the most significant characters in Chronological Halo, and see the first real effect of playing these games in this sequence: when the Covenant do catch up to the Pillar of Autumn, they won't be 'just' alien invaders. We've seen what they did to Noble Team and to Planet Reach. The stakes are high. We'll already hate them.

On some level we all expected that Halo: Reach would end this way, but it takes a lot of guts to actually go and do it. It's executed brilliantly. The lack of music, the grim atmosphere of now-desolate Reach, the pace at which the Covenant appear and slowly start to overwhelm the player, the loss of the HUD and the damage to the visor -- it all adds up to an amazing experience.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

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