Monday, April 18, 2011

Chronological Halo, 5/52: Long Night of Solace

Previously on Chronological Halo: The UNSC counter-attack is launched against the Covenant landing zone! AA guns are taken down and the frigate Grafton demonstrates immeasurable firepower in the war effort! A Covenant Super Carrier decloaks and destroys the Grafton, and Noble Team can only look on in horror as the frigate falls to earth.

Mission Title: Long Night of Solace (Halo: Reach)
P.O.V. Character: Noble Six
Stage Number: 5/52

Noble Team has taken up refuge in a cave, and outside Scarab tanks stalk the dusty landscape. Auntie Dot reports that 60% of the entire UNSC fleet is en route to Reach, and will arrive in 48 hours, but Kat points out that 'they'll be backing up a graveyard.' That's just too long.

But Kat has an idea. There was an accident on a colony ship some years back, when the ship's slip-space drive malfunctioned and teleported half the ship to oblivion. She thinks the Covenant Super Carrier that destroyed the Grafton could be made to suffer the same fate. They'll need a way to get into orbit, and they'll need a slip-space drive, the most expensive equipment known to man. Where can they get their hands on these things?

Kat says she certainly doesn't know. Unless, that is, we use the 'non-existent' launch facility used in the 'non-existent' Sabre space program, and which their newest member, Noble Six (us!), was certainly never a test pilot.

Noble Team, unsurprised by our Mysterious Past(tm)
That's right, the parts of our file that were blanked out involved our time with the secret Sabre space program as a pilot. It would be a complete surprise to us if we didn't watch any of the E3 footage from before the release of the game, or read the instruction manual, or looked at the screenshots on the back of the case very closely.
Carter goes to send the plan to Holland, and before you know it we're storming the beach as close to the Sabre launch facility as we can land.

Inside the launch facility, it's a short run to where the Sabres are already prepped and ready for flight. Jorge will be coming with us, so we climb aboard, and the the Sabres blast off! After a short launch sequence with some gorgeous visuals for space-nerds, we approach the Anchor 9 space station orbiting Reach. Holland contacts us on the Comm and tells us he'll be coordinating Operation: Uppercut, which is the codename for Kat's hare-brained scheme.

Our first mission is to defend the Anchor 9 from waves of Banshees and Seraph fighters. Our Sabre's primary cannon is perfectly sufficient for dealing with the Banshees, but the Seraphs are a little more interesting. The ideal way to deal with them is to use the primary cannon to deplete their shields, and then to switch to the lock-on missiles for the killing blow.

Anchor 9's defensive systems come online, and just in time, too: multiple inbound Phantom gunboats appear and must be dealt with. Once they're destroyed, we bring our Sabre in to dock with the station. Jorge exits the Sabre and approaches a Pelican, on which has been loaded the frigate Savannah's slip-space drive. This is the drive that will serve as the make-shift bomb for Operation: Uppercut.

Command has identified a Corvette en route to the Super-carrier, and once we get the bomb onboard that'll be our delivery system. We disable the four engines with missiles and cannon fire, and bring our Sabre in for a landing on the topside landing pad. We exit the Sabre and drop in. Fun with low gravity! Jumps are super-high, grenades fly straight ahead as they're thrown, and the sound design is superb; it sounds like we're fighting underwater.

We need to clear out the Comm Center crew so they can't tell the Super-carrier what we're up to, and after that's taken care of we move to the hangar to clear a spot for Jorge to bring in the Pelican with the bomb. In the hangar we encounter a strange creature we haven't seen before. This is an Engineer, and it seems to be blanketing its fellow Covenant with a shield. Stay tuned to learn more about them, but it'll be awhile. For now just kill it.

An Engineer. More about these guys in... twenty-six levels. Patience!
Once Jorge is onboard with the Pelican carrying the bomb, he stays in the hangar to 'discourage the curious' and we go to the bridge to manually initiate the refueling sequence with the Super-carrier. On the way there, though, we pass a battery of guns mounted on the side of our Corvette and watch them deal the killing blow to the frigate Savannah. That was our ride out of here.

Once the refueling sequence is locked in and we return to the hangar, Jorge has good news and bad news for us:

Jorge: 'Well, I got good news and bad news. This bird took some fire and her thruster gimbal is toast. Which means the only way off this slag heap is gravity.'
Noble Six: 'And the good news?'
Jorge: 'That was the good news.'

The bad news is that the timer for the bomb is fried, and someone will need to trigger the bomb manually when the Corvette is close enough to the Super-carrier. That someone is Jorge, as he tells us that Reach has been good to him and he wants to return the favor. 'Don't deny me this,' he says, as he activates our Re-entry Pack and tosses us out of the hangar. As we fall back to the planet, we can only watch as the Corvette approaches the Super-carrier and a giant slip-space hole teleports half the Super-carrier to oblivion.

Immediately afterwards, Auntie Dot reports that slip-space ruptures are being detected everywhere. The Covenant Fleet of Particular Justice has arrived. Jorge's sacrifice was for nothing.

Unless you were living under a rock in the months leading up to the release of Halo: Reach, you probably already knew the big surprise of this level: space combat! It featured in videos at E3 that year and renewed anticipation for the game, but questions abounded. How would it work in co-op? Would it be available for Competitive Multiplayer? And while everyone was abuzz with refreshed excitement about the game, it actually tempered mine a little.

Firstly, I knew that it couldn't be that long a stretch of gameplay and that the amount they showed at E3 was probably a good chunk of it. And secondly, I was bummed that we were being shown what would have to be the last level of the game, and if not the last level, then close to it. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Footage of Gears of War 2 before its release revealed our COGs descending into a giant sinkhole and then deciding the only way to get where they needed to go would be to capture and ride a Brumak. I spent the entire game waiting to get to that point, and it turns out that it's the very last level of the game, and the Brumak rodeo is the final 10-minute stretch of gameplay before the credits. I was convinced the same thing had just happened to Halo: Reach.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when it turns out that the much-vaunted space combat section of Halo: Reach is only half-way through the game! And what a high point it is: gorgeous visuals as the Sabres launch into space, great controls (as you'd expect from such a vehicle-friendly series as Halo), and a smartly-limited playfield in which to do battle. In practice it's like the arena battles of Starfox 64, and works very well.

Here's a clever thing. Noble Six is supposed to be an expert at Sabre-flying, but as a player this is the first time we've seen space combat in a Halo game. How do we reconcile these two skill levels? First of all, Holland calls us up at the beginning of the sequence and says, 'These Sabres have been customized for orbital defense. Take some time to reacquaint yourself with them.' So Noble Six is an expert, but these Sabres are slightly different than the ones he's flown in the past. You get a good warmup to the controls, and it feels natural. Secondly, the aiming for these sequences deserve special mention. Your primary cannon highlights enemy targets, but the reticle appears in front of the target, adjusted for its current speed and direction; so as long as you keep that reticle in your sights, you'll be hitting the target. Your secondary weapon system consists of lock-on missiles; acquire a lock on the target, and then fire and forget. You'll feel like an expert by the time the preliminary enemy waves are taken care of.

The rest of the mission is relatively standard combat, with a few noteworthy story developments. First is the bombardment of Sword Base from Covenant ships, observed by Jorge on monitors from orbit. Auntie Dot registers his heightened heart rate and correctly deduces that he's concerned about Dr. Halsey, telling him that there's nothing he can do for her now. Our Spartan-II comes to the end of his road in this mission, staying behind to activate the bomb and destroy the Long Night of Solace. As is becoming a theme in Halo: Reach, though, the destruction of the Super-carrier is not the long-lasting victory the UNSC had hoped for, as the Covenant Fleet of Particular Justice arrives immediately following Jorge's sacrifice. Humanity can't catch a break. Carter will sum up Jorge's sacrifice beautifully well a few missions from now, but we'll talk about that when we get there.

This may be the defining mission of Halo: Reach. Not only does it have the shiny new space combat sequence, but it also has intense firefights on the beach before the launch facility and onboard the Covenant Corvette. It's also the mission where Noble Team suffers its first casualty, and where the tide turns against the UNSC. The conversation changes after this one. It's not about defeating the Covenant anymore. It's about surviving them.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

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