I’ll level with you: up until about 6 weeks ago I had no interest in the Halo franchise. I bought an Xbox – the original one, made from pinball machines – not long after launch. I also bought its ‘killer app’ (as marketing execs and teenage mutant ninja turtles would be wont to say). My initial thoughts at the time were, ‘this looks great’ and also ‘this looks boring’. I held that belief for almost ten years, until curiosity got the better of me (and because a brand new trilogy was on its way). Turns out I loved Halo the second time through… but this article isn’t about the whys of gameplay, or the hows of instigating a new era of shooters. No, this is about the one thing that even my indifferent self of ten years was curious about. The story of Halo…
There is a fanatical group of alien races attacking humans in the distant future. They don’t like us; they see us as an affront to their religion. They are, ultimately, the Mujahideen and Knights Templar of the galaxy. This group is known as the Covenant. There is also the galactic super best friend club, the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) who, if you were wondering, are the good guys. So far, so simple.
But when Halo: Combat Evolved appeared over a decade ago, the story begins with a ship being blasted by the Covenant, and through exposition we learn that this ship is escaping a ravaged planet known as Reach. Okay? Fortunately for me, when I returned to the Halo franchise, I started with (arguably) one of the best entries in the series, Halo: Reach.
So let’s view Reach as the beginning of the saga, and ignore all the convoluted history that went before (which was most likely created by manatees picking out ‘idea balls’ in their tank). You’re a member of an elite squad of super soldiers, known as Spartans. You’ve got badass armour, you can fight entire squads of jihadi grunts without a scratch (if you’re playing on Easy setting, that is), and there’s not many of you left. Most have been wiped out in the ongoing conflict with the Covenant.
After deployment on Reach, it’s soon evident that a massive alien invasion is taking place. Reach is a ruthless game, and as you watch member after member of your squad fall, you wonder what hope there is.
The hope comes in the form of an A.I. construct, a computer programme with the kind of figure you’d see on the cover of Nuts magazine (you’d think a multi-trillion dollar space programme would have raised at least one issue of decorum). This is Cortana.
You escort Cortana to the docked UNSC ship, the Pillar of Autumn, delivering her safely. Unfortunately for you – the last surviving Spartan of your team – you become stranded on Reach as the Pillar of Autumn escapes. Left on the planet to fight an entire alien invasion, there isn’t much chance. You’re bad ass, but not that bad ass, and needless to say it is not a happy ending.
And so we move back to the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved. The ship I mentioned, the one being bombarded by the Covenant, is none other than the Pillar of Autumn. On board is a costume you’ve probably seen at various fancy dress parties, or plastered on billboards. This is the one remaining Spartan – the last of his kind – the Master Chief. With Cortana safely implanted in your head (sounds strange, but think USB stick in the back of a motorcycle helmet), Master Chief escapes the ship, crash landing on the Halo (the very same Halo of which the series is titled).
The Halo is a planet sized ring; a terraformed superstructure that is transcendently beautiful upon first viewing. This is where it all kicks off, as you fight your way through hordes of aliens. Several hours later you discover an infrastructure within the Halo – one of alien design, which looks gorgeous in the remake and rather grey in the original Xbox version. This infrastructure was created long ago by aliens known as the Forerunners (think Prometheus, but good). It contains the AIDS virus of space, a parasitic life form known as the Flood. The Forerunners had managed to quell the Flood many eons ago, but the Covenant manage to release this swarm (unintentionally, whilst fiddling with a switch somewhere).
After much trigger pulling (and I will admit, I find the Flood sections my least favourite part of the game) Master Chief and Cortana stumble upon the concierge of the Halo ring, a floating A.I. that resembles the Stephen Merchant voiced Wheatley of Portal 2. This is 343 Guilty Spark, and as caretaker of the installation it is his job to stop the Flood from spreading.
In a mutual agreement between the green clad Spartan and the floating eyeball, Master Chief comes close to triggering the Halo array, think of it like a crap Death Star… that is until Cortana points out the major flaw in this – that doing so will not only destroy the two of them, but also the entire galaxy. That was a close one, then.
After fighting off a disgruntled 343 Guilty Spark, along with a myriad of Flood, Covenant and an excellent (and series standard) warthog race against time, the two of you destroy the shipwrecked Pillar of Autumn’s engines – something powerful enough to irritate the gargantuan bowel of the Halo, blowing it to smithereens.
Not without Master Chief and Cortana escaping first, of course. Which leads nicely onto part two…
Part 2 is here!
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