Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chronological Halo, 15/52: Assault on the Control Room

Previously on Chronological Halo: Master Chief and a team of marines stormed the beach of a small island thought to contain the Silent Cartographer, a map room that contained the location of Halo's control room. They dealt with Covenant forces on the island, secured the map room, and discovered a Pelican-accessible tunnel to use to reach the control room.

Mission Title: Assault on the Control Room (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 15/52

This mission is a very long one, with some great wide-open battlefields, but it also demonstrates one of Halo: Combat Evolved 's main level design problems. I'll point it out when it rears its ugly mug, but for a heads-up just keep your eyes peeled for the phrase 'Hex Room.'

Foehammer drops us off inside a Forerunner structure that is as close to the control room as she can get. We fight through the structure and emerge onto a bridge out in the open, surrounded by falling snow. Cortana muses about the weather; is the weather control system malfunctioning, or did the Forerunners want the ring to have inclement weather? There are panels in the floor of the bridge made of glass, and in a nice touch, if we step on them they shatter. The Master Chief's power armor is heavy!

As we cross the bridge, a Pelican flies overhead carrying Fire Team Zulu. They land beneath the bridge, and Cortana tells them to stay put. We'll try and make our way down to them. At the end of the bridge is a Sword-wielding Elite that always manages to get me killed. Again and again. This playthrough is no different. There are some more Swordies later on that maintain the time-honored tradition of forcing me to reload my checkpoints.

Beyond the bridge is a hexagonal room. It probably doesn't have exactly six sides, but 'Hex Room' is an easier way to refer to rooms like this than Dodecahedral Room or Septagonal Room or whatnot. The center of the room may or may not be accessible from the entrance. Instead, there are corridors that trace the walls of the Hex Room, such that when you first arrive you can go either left or right. You follow the side wall until you reach a hallway in the outer wall; that leads you out of the Hex Room and further into the level. You can tell if you're going the right way by following the lit-up arrows on the floor, and you can tell if you're going to the exit by looking for the brightly illuminated hallway. A Hex Room can have walls blocking either the left or right corridor, and also the center of the room can be impassable or not. The exit passage can also change location, but it's always in the outer wall.

Note the white arrow on the floor, showing the way to go. Also, the illumination tells us it's the exit
So what is it about Hex Rooms that merits such a long discussion? Let's find out by keeping score. We've seen (ONE) already. Afterwards there's an elevator down to another Hex Room (TWO). On the other side is a massive outdoor arena where a Wraith and multiple Shade turrets fire on a flipped-over Warthog and a number of marines. Ghosts jet around this snowy landscape, and after commandeering one I remember one limitation of Halo: Combat Evolved that I'll be pleased to evolve past in the subsequent games: we can't boost the Ghosts. That makes them a little less useful, especially for trying to run down Covenant forces, which is a favorite hobby of the Master Chief's.

We don't mourn long, though, because there's a functional Scorpion tank not far ahead. We drive the tank through a tunnel to another open space, down a Forerunner tunnel (using a couple control panels to open large doors to let the tank through), across an underground bridge spanning a vast chasm, up a sloping tunnel, through another open space past a tower in the cliff wall, to a snowy spiralling path... and then the end of the road. There are bars we can't take the tank through, so we have to hoof it the rest of the way.

There's another open space that we need to cross to get to a door in the cliff face. On the other side is a Hex Room (THREE). An elevator goes up at the end, to another Hex Room (FOUR). There's an outdoor bridge past it, like the one at the start of the mission. We can see a second bridge running parallel to ours. At the end of our bridge is an Invisible Elite, so watch out for him. After dealing with him, we come into another Hex Room (FIVE), followed by another Hex Room (SIX).

We come out onto the parallel bridge, just as Hunters appear on the first bridge and fire at us. At the end of the bridge is another Hex Room (SEVEN), followed by a long passage with Invisible Sword-wielding Elites. These guys cause me no end of trouble, since I've been at one health for most of the level. I eventually get by them successfully, and it's... another Hex Room (EIGHT), though this one has Hunters in it. The exit from this one leads to a parking space with a couple Banshees in it.

If you're quick, you can jump into one of the Banshees before the Elites fly them away, and this time I manage it. If you aren't able to, you need to pass through more Forerunner structures (and I'd wager a couple more Hex Rooms, at least) to get to the ground level, at which point you can climb up the large Forerunner temple. Since we have a Banshee, we just fly up there. A couple garage doors later and we're inside Halo's control room.

Cortana accesses the database and marvels at the incredible amount of knowledge, but we just want to learn if Halo really is a weapon and how we can use it against the Covenant. Cortana starts to get puzzled, learning that the Forerunners built Halo as a 'fortress world,' and that the Covenant found something horrible buried inside the ring.

And then she freaks out. She tells us that we have to stop Captain Keyes... the weapons cache isn't a weapons cache at all! But she only speaks in vague hints and riddles and doesn't come right out and tell us anything, which is frustrating.

This is a very, very long level, which makes Halo feel impressively big. We have to cover a lot of ground to get to the control room, but unfortunately this is where Halo begins to feel like Bungie may have gone a little overboard with the copy/paste function. Passing through eight (eight!) Hex Rooms which mostly look the same and differ only slightly in layout, sometimes one right after another, does not make for a feeling of excitement.

In a way it's puzzling, because other aspects of this mission are done so well: there are some pitched firefights in enormous locations here, and with a wide variety of vehicles (A Scorpion tank! Warthogs! Ghosts! A Banshee, if you're quick enough!). But by the end you're just sick of seeing the same Hex Room over and over again. And UNSC help you if you get turned around and lose track of which way you're supposed to be walking! You could walk through two Hex Rooms before you realize you've been going the wrong way.

That's why it's so important to realize that the floor arrows are pointing the way you need to go.

If this mission was just Hex Rooms one after the other, long and samey, it would only get one or two Spartan helmets. But it does have some of the best big battles in this stretch of Chronological Halo, as well as intriguing story developments at the end, so I think it deserves three. Barely.

Three Spartan helmets out of five.

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