Monday, May 16, 2011

Chronological Halo, 20/52: The Maw

Previously on Chronological Halo: Cortana's plan to overload the fusion core of the Pillar of Autumn and destroy the Halo ring required the override passcodes from Captain Keyes's neural implants. Keyes was imprisoned on the Truth and Reconciliation again, but now the ship was disabled by the Flood. When the Master Chief found him, Keyes had already been turned into a giant Flood mass. It was too late for him, but not for Cortana's plan: the Master Chief retrieved the neural implants and escaped the disabled cruiser.

Mission Title: The Maw (Halo: Combat Evolved)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 20/52

The captain's neural implants in hand, we pilot a Banshee to the crash site of the Pillar of Autumn. The ship is a wreck, and inside, Flood and Covenant and Sentinels do battle as we make our way to the bridge. Cortana uses the passcode from the implants to override the failsafes and begins the process of overriding the fusion core. The self destruct countdown begins...

... and is then deactivated by 343 Guilty Spark. He's flying around the Engineering Dept. of the Autumn, scanning the records in the ships database. He won't let us initiate the self-destruct sequence! He says he'll give us a painless death if we turn Cortana over to him (since she still has the Activation Index from the beginning of 'Two Betrayals'), but Cortana still controls access to the communications systems and shuts off his ability to pester us, so that's something.

Since Guilty Spark can shut off the self-destruct countdown even if we were to turn it on again, we'll need to set off an explosion in the fusion core by hand... grenade. We make our way through the ship to Engineering, a huge, multi-level room with exhaust manifolds located among the higher levels. By using certain control panels, we can retract the manifolds, and as they move away from the wall we need to toss a grenade or fire a rocket into the opening. There are four of these. Once we've triggered explosions in all four, Cortana directs us to a service lift at the top of the engine room.

We ride the elevator up as the Autumn shakes with explosions, and Cortana contacts Foehammer, directing her to come pick us up. She'll have to be quick, though: we only have six minutes to make it to the rendezvous point. Give thanks that we're not playing on Legendary, or we'd only have five! The only way we'll make it in time is to jump into a Warthog and drive along the service corridor that runs along the ship's outer hull while explosions rock the Autumn.

Eventually we make it to the rendezvous point and see Foehammer's Pelican on the way, but she's in trouble; she can't shake the Banshees on her tail, and her ship is on fire and listing. She doesn't make it, and we're stranded without an escape vehicle. Cortana calculates another escape vector: a Longsword fighter is still docked in one of the bays. If we can get to it, we can escape before the Autumn tears itself apart!

And now it's ON. The Halo theme kicks into high gear, and it's back into the Warthog for the final escape. The Autumn shudders and shakes as we drive to the docking bay, but it's too cluttered for the Warthog to make it all the way to the Longsword fighter; we have to run the rest of the way on foot. We make it to the Longsword, get it moving, and fly away as the Pillar of Autumn explodes!

When we're safely away from the blast, Cortana has us shut off the Longsword's overheating engines; we'll need them later. Looking out the side window, we see that Halo has been shattered into several large pieces. As we watch, one of the pieces smashes into another one from the far side of the ring. Halo has been destroyed.

Master Chief: Did anyone else make it?
Cortana: Scanning... just dust and echoes. We're all that's left. We did what we had to do. For Earth. An entire Covenant armada obliterated, and the Flood... we had no choice. Halo... it's finished.
Master Chief: I think we're just getting started.

And you know what? The Master Chief is right. We're not even halfway through Chronological Halo yet!

This is the last level of Halo: Combat Evolved, and it finishes the habit begun in 'Two Betrayals' of returning to previous levels but with slight variations, but this one doesn't feel as much like a rehash as the last few did. That might be because we were last onboard the Pillar of Autumn nine missions ago, and it's less fresh in our memory.
But the major reason is that while we're fighting in a familiar location, the usual firefights with the Covenant and the Flood and Sentinels go by fairly quickly in order to get us to setpieces that are entirely new: destroying the engines in the Autumn and the Warthog escape.

The Halo series has struggled to give us satisfying boss fights, and with one or two exceptions, generally hasn't been very successful at it. I'd classify the bombing of the engines in this mission as a boss fight, even though Guilty Spark can't directly harm you: you need mobility to get to the upper levels of the engine room without falling to your death, you need to push a button in order to reveal a weak point (which is only available for a short time), and you need precision to throw a grenade or fire a rocket at just the right place. And you need to do all that four times. Sounds like a boss fight to me!

The Warthog escape is just masterful, and I can't say enough about it! One of the reasons it works so well is that Bungie handles the pacing in a really smart way. You jump in the Warthog and the music is a rather sedate piece with drums; it keeps you moving, but it's not as frantic as I'd have expected, given that we're racing a five or six minute countdown. We see the distance marker to the rendezvous point, and as it ticks down we start to relax. 300, 200, 100, and we've made it! Sigh of relief.

And then Foehammer dies. It's surprising how affecting that is, considering that she's only ever been a voice over the radio; it still gets me, even though I've played this mission countless times over the years. Credit the voice work for making us care so much. Not only that, but it's now revealed that the distance countdown was a fakeout, and we have much farther to go!

Godspeed, Foehammer.
NOW the Halo theme kicks in, and you see why they saved it. The adrenaline dumps into your bloodstream, and this last stretch is killer. Whenever you see Covenant now, they're not even trying to fight; they're just running, trying to get off the Pillar of Autumn. It's subtle, but it's a great touch. I also love the bit when Cortana says:

Cortana: Chief, up ahead there's a gap in the trench! At top speed we should be able to clear it!

I don't know if it's possible to clear it, actually, but I do love the musical sting that plays when you fly majestically through the air (like an eagle piloting a blimp, apologies to GladOS), and then don't make it, falling instead way, way down and having to take an apparently longer route.

When Master Chief says 'It's just the beginning' at the end of this mission, he's not kidding. We're twenty missions in and we've escaped the Covenant invasion of Planet Reach and destroyed a Halo ring. What could possibly be next? How about some insight into the mind of the Covenant? Things are about to get a little more complicated, next time on Chronological Halo.

'The Maw' is thrilling, the perfect ending to Halo: Combat Evolved. This is how you end a Halo game.

Five Spartan helmets out of five.

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