Impressions: The Arbiter

Once we've been treated to the first surprise, that the Master Chief, now aboard In Amber Clad, is following Regret's ship through slipspace as he flees Earth, Halo 2 immediately hits us with the second. At the end of the opening cutscene of The Arbiter, where Prophets Truth and Mercy give the disgraced Elite commander from Halo a temporary reprieve from his ordered execution by serving as The Arbiter; a special position occupied by hundreds, if not thousands, of Elites before him in times of crisis. The position even comes with a retro suit of armor.

The Arbiter then is taken aboard a Phantom commanded by the Special Ops commander to a Forerunner gas mining facility suspended high above the swirling maelstrom of the gas giant Threshold, just as a storm is about to hit. Your mission is to pursue an Elite called the Heretic who criticizes the Prophets and the Great Journey, as well as the conveniently differently-costumed Elites and Grunts that are following him.

The first question, of course, is how players are going to like it that they are no longer the Master Chief. The game has taken ample time in cutscenes up to now to try and get you to identify with the character of the Arbiter and portray him as a victim of politics and circumstance, wrongfully branded a heretic for being unable to stop the Master Chief from destroying Installation 04 (as if any of the Covenant could have prevented that).

Despite rumors to the contrary and hints in the Halo novels, playing as a Covenant Elite, whether in multiplayer or campaign, is exactly the same as playing the Master Chief, with one exception. In campaign mode, the Master Chief's headlamp is replaced by the Arbiter's active camoflauge, which adds at least the potential for some stealth play in this two-level set on the gas facility. (The next level, The Oracle, also takes place on this facility, and the open-air dogfight between Banshees, Phantoms and ground troops that caps off The Arbiter forms the division between the two levels.)

Any and all weapons you come across in the game, whether human or Covenant, may be used by either character, the same as vehicles, despite the noted prejudice against primitive human weapons by the Covenant in the novelizations.

So, does it work? I think the only answer is that when nothing else in the game is bothering you-- in other words, when things are going well, the environments and the gameplay are interesting-- the transition really is seamless. However, as soon as something goes wrong, or the game moves in a direction that the player doesn't like-- the Arbiter unfairly takes the blame for this (not unlike what happens to him within the plotline itself).

I think the impression most players have of the Arbiter is colored by their shock and dismay of Master Chief leaving Earth after only three levels. It is further compounded by the fact that many gamers weren't terribly fond of the Flood as enemies, with their suicidal rushes and overpowered melee attacks. In Halo 2, the Master Chief only has to fight Flood in one level: High Charity. The Arbiter has to contend with the parasite through three, however, and it's likely that players associate that unwelcome task with playing as the Arbiter.

The active camoflauge does let you move unseen; but the effect lasts such a short time that it is mostly useful for entering rooms unseen or moving from cover to cover without being noticed. Attacking with a weapon makes you visible, so it's only good for one strike; plus, the length of the effect is so short that there will be only a few locations where you can sneak up on an enemy completely undetected unless his back is turned. Not so much in this level, but definitely in the following, The Oracle, you may find yourself reaching for the flashlight in a dark room and be annoyed at instead finding yourself invisible, but still in the dark. This takes some getting used to.

Your mission throughout this whole level and the next is to track down the Heretic leader and kill him, but there are a few side actions; you'll open a hangar door so a Phantom can bring you reinforcements, and at the end, the Heretic will flee in a Banshee and you'll have to pursue. With support of a Phantom commanded by Tartarus the Brute, you'll fight off gold-encrusted Heretic Banshees and scour the outside of the installation for Heretic forces and their gun emplacements.

As always happens with scripted events and encounters, players are going to try like heck to run the scripts off the rails, frustrating designers when they do and finding themselves frustrated with the design when they can't.

Some players have already found a way to kill the Heretic before he gets into his Banshee. However, once he gets into it, he's effectively gotten away. None of the Banshees you encounter in the dogfight sequence is actually his, and you can't kill him in that portion of the game. Although structuring the levels as a chase set-piece is an interesting twist on the usual level design, which most of the time is just a journey from point A to point B, a minor twist on the "get key, open door, repeat" kind of gameplay that's been common since Doom-- except Halo and Halo 2 don't have keys. One can only wonder how Bungie might have made the chase feel more realistic, by putting a real deadline timer into the level, like the Maw had, or giving you a chance to catch the Heretic earlier than you do-- but in that case, the level would have been even shorter, and you wouldn't get to see all the detailed environments they created.

All in all, The Arbiter is a good introduction to the character and the minor extended ability (active camoflauge) that distinguishes him from the Chief. It ends with a nice outdoor part with vehicles, which is very open-ended and a lot of fun; you can either stick close to the Phantom with its massive guns, freelance around the facility shooting Grunts and plasma turrets, or just fly off in any direction and explore. If you want even more variation, try positioning your Banshee just over your escort Phantom when it isn't moving or turning too quickly, and exit-- you can view the entire firefight with a bird's eye view from the top of the Phantom as it carries you around. Attacking Banshees will most likely pass closely enough to attempt a highjacking if you want to get off.

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