Monday, May 23, 2011

Chronological Halo, 22/52: Cairo Station

Previously on Chronological Halo: The leader of the Fleet of Particular Justice, an Elite called Thel 'Vadamee, was put on trial by Covenant High Command for failing to prevent the destruction of Halo. Meanwhile, the Master Chief was on Cairo Station, part of Earth's Orbital Defense Grid, getting his gear upgraded. Also, Sergeant Johnson made it back safely! Don't ask how: it's classified.

Mission Title: Cairo Station (Halo 2)
P.O.V. Character: Master Chief
Stage Number: 22/52

There's an interesting dynamic to the cutscene that begins this level: two ceremonies are occuring simultaneously, one involving the UNSC leadership and the other involving the Covenant. In High Charity, Thel 'Vadamee is led out onto a walkway in front of a crowd screaming 'Heretic! Heretic!' He's being escorted by a pair of Brutes, large ape-like creatures that seem to be responsible for the physical law enforcement of Covenant society.

They're below the societal level of the Elites, normally, but Thel 'Vadamee has been disgraced by his failure to protect Halo. Tartarus, the leader of the Brutes, fixes Thel 'Vadamee's hands to floating handcuffs.

Tartarus: You've drawn quite a crowd.
Thel 'Vadamee: If they came to hear me beg, they will be disappointed.
Tartarus: Are you sure?

Energy beams lash out to the Elite's unprotected sides, and he shakes with pain. Meanwhile, back in Earth orbit, the UNSC ceremony is proceeding with 100% less torture. The Master Chief and Sergeant Major Johnson are receiving the Colonial Cross, awarded for 'singular acts of daring and devotion.' It is also awarded posthumously to Captain Keyes, and is presented to his daughter Miranda, a Commander for the UNSC.
Cortana detects whispers of some activity near IO, one of the moons of Jupiter, and dispatches probes to investigate.

Back on High Charity, Thel 'Vadamee has endured extensive torture but isn't out of the woods yet. Tartarus produces a red-hot brand and presses it cruely to the Elite's naked torso; he is being marked, to make an example to those who would fail the Covenant. He bellows with pain.

The UNSC ceremony is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of fifteen Covenant capital ships just outside the kill zone of Earth's defensive cluster! Lord Hood, the leader of the UNSC who has been conducting the medal ceremony, thinks there's something strange about this invasion.

Lord Hood: Something's not right... The fleet that destroyed Reach was fifty times this size.

As boarding craft approach the orbital stations to try and take the MAC guns offline and give the capital ships a straight shot at Earth, Master Chief and Johnson go to arm themselves and defend Cairo Station.

After we fight off the first wave of boarders and find ourselves in one of the hangars, through the viewport we can see boarding craft leaving Malta Station. Cheers of 'they did it! Malta fought them off! They're retreating!' evaporate as the Malta explodes in a blinding flash of light. Shortly afterward, the same thing happens with Athens station: boarding craft leave it, and it explodes.

Cortana: That explosion came from inside the Athens. Same as the Malta. The Covenant must have brought something with them. A bomb.
Lord Hood: Then they sure as hell brought one here. Chief, find it.

The next section is humorously titled 'Priority Shift,' and involves our search for the bomb. If you hang around and don't go looking for the bomb, Cortana gets increasingly agitated.

Cortana: Just a friendly reminder: Bomb.

A brief detour through the Armory results in us seeing Master Guns killed by the Covenant, and we run into Commander Miranda Keyes; she was almost on board her ship when she was cut off by Covenant Elites. We head out into the vacuum of space to reach a cargo elevator that will take us down to where Cortana thinks the bomb is. Vacuum isn't as cool as it was in 'Long Night of Solace' -- our jumping height is different, but grenades are unaffected. Oh well.

As we're taking the elevator down, one of the Covenant capital ships blows right by the Cairo and heads for Earth! At the bottom, we clear out the Elites guarding the bomb, and Cortana deactivates it. This gives rise to one of the Master Chief's more badass moments.

Master Chief: Permission to leave the station.
Lord Hood: For what purpose, Master Chief?
Master Chief: To give the Covenant back their bomb.

Oh yes. Yes indeed. We pull the lever that opens the hangar doors and grab onto the bomb as it's pulled out into space. We float with it through a hole in the side of a Covenant carrier, reactivate the bomb, and then push off with our legs. It detonates right in front of the carrier's fusion core and we soar through space, eventually coming to land on 'In Amber Clad,' Commander Miranda Keyes's ship. The ship heads toward Earth; we're taking the fight to the surface.

The first video reveal of Halo 2 was pretty incredible, despite the fact that a sequel was a foregone conclusion. It took the form of the Halo 2 Announcement Trailer, played in movie theaters and on TV, and showed up on the Game of the Year edition of Halo: Combat Evolved. It essentially showed the Master Chief's To-Do list, superimposed over shots of him moving through a station of some kind:

Explore Derelict Ring Habitat -- COMPLETE; Outwit Ancient A.I. Construct -- COMPLETE.

Meanwhile, we hear radio chatter from UNSC forces desperately calling for reinforcements, saying the fleet was destroyed and that 'Down here, it's the goddamn apocalypse!'

Stop Destruction of Human Race -- IN PROGRESS

The Master Chief pulls a lever, a hangar door opens, and he flies out into space to land on a Covenant carrier.

It was a pretty fantastic trailer and got people excited for the full-blown invasion of Earth by the Covenant. But when the game itself arrived, 'Cairo Station' already had a few troubling differences. Nothing major, yet, but enough differences from the Announcement Trailer to raise a few eyebrows.

First, the size of the Covenant fleet. Fifteen ships? That doesn't sound like very many. Reach was hosed, sure, but according to Lord Hood that was a fleet fifty times the size of this one. Second, none of the 'goddamn apocalypse' chatter is present in the actual game, and while giving the Covenant back their bomb is pretty awesome, it does seem like the full-scale war of the Announcement Trailer hasn't actually started yet. Maybe it'll happen in a level or two, when we get down to the surface. We'll see.

About giving the Covenant back their bomb, which I've already said is badass. It is. But there's a good question here: is it too badass? This is one of the first moments in Chronological Halo that really makes you question 'Did that really happen? That feels a little far-fetched.' Noble Six plummeting from orbit back to the surface of Reach even passes that test, because he's given a Re-entry Pack that is apparently designed just for that purpose. But Master Chief's trick with the bomb in 'Cairo Station' is just a little too credibility-stretching for me.

Despite my quibbles about the changes from the Announcement Trailer to the final game, Cairo Station begins with a neat back-and-forth cutscene between the UNSC and the Covenant, and ends with one of the Master Chief's most badass moments. It's a pretty solid 'battle on a human ship' level, of which there are only a handful in Chronological Halo.

Four Spartan helmets out of five.

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