Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chronological Halo, 21/52: The Heretic/The Armory

Previously on Chronological Halo: The Master Chief set off a wildcat destabilization in the fusion core of the Pillar of Autumn, and barely made it off the ship before it exploded, taking the Halo ring with it. He sets course for home, confident that the trouble with the Covenant, and with Halo, is not over.

Mission Title: The Heretic/The Armory (Halo 2)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 21/52

This is technically two levels, but there are several cutscenes sandwiching a brief playable tutorial, so I'll be covering them as a single mission. 'The Heretic' is the opening cutscene of Halo 2, and 'The Armory' covers Master Chief's new upgrades and serves as a basic non-combat tutorial before the action starts.

It's about a month after the destruction of Halo and the Master Chief's escape from Installation 04. A giant Covenant structure has travelled through slip-space to the wreckage. This is High Charity, the Covenant holy city, and deep inside a trial is being conducted. Two Covenant religious leaders, called Prophets, are interrogating a lone Elite. A third Prophet is not physically in the Council Chamber, but is participating via hologram. The Elite is not named in the game itself, but the Internets tell me his name is Thel 'Vadamee. Who is he?

Thel 'Vadamee, whose life has been better.

Thel 'Vadamee: There was only one ship.
Prophet of Regret: One? Are you sure?
Thel 'Vadamee: Yes. They called it the Pillar of Autumn.
Prophet of Mercy: Why was it not destroyed, with the rest of their fleet?
Thel 'Vadamee: It fled, as we set fire to their planet.

A-ha! So Thel 'Vadamee is the Covenant commander in charge of the Fleet of Particular Justice, the fleet that destroyed Reach! And he's in biiiig trouble. The Prophets are not happy that he allowed the humans to set foot upon the 'Sacred Ring,' and more than that: he could not prevent Halo from being destroyed. He tries to tell them that he was too busy concentrating on the Flood, and there was nothing he could do.

Thel 'Vadamee: Noble Hierarchs, surely you understand that once the parasite attacked -
Prophet of Truth: You were right to focus your attention on the Flood. But this Demon, this 'Master Chief...'
Thel 'Vadamee: By the time I learned the Demon's intent, there was nothing I could do.

The Prophets do not agree. Thel 'Vadamee led his fleet with distinction, but his inability to safeguard Halo was an inexcusable failure, and though he vows to continue his campaign against the humans, the Council has other ideas.

Prophet of Truth: Soon the Great Journey shall begin. But when it does, the weight of your heresy will stay your feet. And you shall be left behind.

We don't know what the Great Journey is at this point, but it's clear that this is bad news for Thel 'Vadamee.

The screen fades to another location, and we're near Earth's moon, and a large space station, the Cairo. Inside, the Master Chief, cause of Thel 'Vadamee's current woes, is having his armor serviced. The Gunnery Sergeant isn't pleased at the state of it, and asks the Master Chief if he knows how expensive it is.

Master Chief: Tell that to the Covenant.

The Gunnery Sergeant then runs us through a simple tutorial, teaching us the controls and letting us choose if we want to invert our look axis, etc. He gets amusingly exasperated if we don't follow his instructions. Once the tutorial is finished, Sergeant Major Johnson enters the armory to escort us. He brings us up an elevator and onto a tram, talking about the history of the Orbital Defense Grid which protects Earth: three hundred platforms like the Cairo, each one with a MAC gun powerful enough to take out a Covenant capital ship. We exit the tram and walk into a crowd cheering our arrival.

This is our first glance behind the curtain at the Covenant leadership, and it's an intriguing one. We knew the Covenant had a religious slant from Cortana's eavesdropping on their battlenet, but it seems almost to be the basis of their society, centered around something called 'The Great Journey.' It's unclear what that might be, but those who endanger the Covenant are deemed heretics and unable to participate in the Great Journey, according to the Prophets.

The Prophet of Truth is ready for his close-up.

And here's something interesting: look how bad you feel for Thel 'Vadamee during his trial. This is the guy who was in charge of the Fleet of Particular Justice that decimated Reach, but here he cuts a sympathetic figure. Blame the voice casting once again; Thel 'Vadamee is played by Keith David, whose voice you may recognize from Every Videogame Ever, and he just has that sort of voice.

On the other side of the divide, the Master Chief gets an upgrade to his armor that is basically the same as what he had in Halo: Combat Evolved, but does away with a visible health meter requiring medpacks. It's strange to see Sergeant Johnson again (remember Cortana saying that all that remained of Installation 04 was 'dust and echoes?'), but the wink and nod factor is very high during the following exchange:

Gunnery Sergeant: So, Johnson, when you gonna tell me how you made it back in one piece?
Sergeant Johnson: Sorry, Guns, it's classified.

Johnson's history lesson as you ride the elevator and the tram, about how awesome the Orbital Defense Grid is and nothing could get by it, no matter what, is a little too obvious for my taste. You just know something's about to go down, you don't really need to put such a point on it.

No real gameplay in this level, but the glimpse into Covenant culture is intriguing and feels like a necessary next step for the series to continue without becoming too one-note.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

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