Since before I'd even managed to finish the fight on Heroic, let alone Legendary, people have been asking... "so, what do you think of Halo 3?"
Given the thousands of words I've hurled at Halo 2 over the years that seems like a rather broad question. When pressed, most people admit what they really want to know is what I think of the ending of Halo 3.
Even that can be broken down further. There's the way the game resolves its central conflicts going back to the first game, especially those conflicts that involve gameplay challenges, and then there's the denouement that the game gives us, the little epilogue.
My short answer is that Halo 3 handles both challenges with finesse and aplomb in a way that fits very well within the framework laid down by the previous two games, calling on the best elements of both, discarding some that didn't work so well, and modifying others.
So if Halo 3 does indeed, as Frankie said, allow you to finish all the fights going back to Halo 1, what are those fights?
Warning, there are spoilers here!
Finish This Particular Fight, Reclaimer
The first is the most obvious: the fight against the Covenant. Humanity didn't know where they came from or what they wanted, but the conglomeration of Prophet-led zealots made the eradication of humanity a stated goal. The Spartan program showed that humanity could compete militarily with the Covenant, but only on the ground. With that advantage eliminated-- as it was on Installation 04-- the Master Chief improvised his one-man guerilla war and won, destroying Halo in the process.
In Halo 2, we started to see the motivations and machinations within the Covenant, seeing the Arbiter first challenge, and then embrace the heresy that the Prophets' promised Great Journey was a lie. That revelation drove the Elites and Humans together for the final push against Truth and the rest of the Covenant.
Just when you think you've got Truth dead to rights on Earth, his Forerunner dreadnought turns out to be a Keyship that opens a portal leading away from Earth. It's only right then that the Arbiter accompanies you as you finish that fight; after all, his fight with Truth is a very personal one, and it's only fitting that when it comes time to silence the prophet it is the Arbiter's blade that does the work.
So that's one fight finished. Master Chief's original mission to kidnap a prophet was never fulfilled (prophet body count: three dead, three Flood infected) and this fight went from being the Chief's to being the Arbiter's, but finished is finished.
Halo 2 put in a boss battle against a Prophet that turned out to be a one-trick pony. Regret's chair fired a weapon that basically was a Hunter's gun but a different color, and you boarded him like a vehicle to bash him to death like a floating, geriatric Wraith pilot. That encounter's main value was its novelty. Once you've discovered how it works, most of the entertainment is gone from it. Playing it on higher difficulties just ups the tedium as you dodge an infinitely respawning honor guard, and on easier levels it becomes Press B to Win.
Halo 3 brings to a close the Arbiter's chapter of Halo's story, but it is the Chief we're concerned with. Since the Arbiter is the character most appropriate for getting rid of Truth, the player doesn't do this battle.
I Am A Monument To All Your Sins
The next fight Halo introduced us to, in the tunnels beneath a jungle on Installation 04, was the Flood. Ever growing, ever eating, with a parasitic nature that belied its intelligence, how was the Flood to be dealt with?
We know how the Forerunners dealt with it, if 343 Guilty Spark is to be believed. The ring installations were activated and all sentient life in the galaxy was exterminated to prevent the Flood from spreading further, even though, perhaps unwisely, samples were kept for study. Terminal messages in Halo 3 flesh out the story surrounding that firing, where a special AI built by the Forerunners to deal with Gravemind ends up betraying them, and the firing of the rings leaves another Forerunner AI to do battle against the traitor in a galaxy devoid of life.
How was the Flood to be dealt with? Were the offers of help made in Halo 2 and Halo 3 legitimate?
I spent a lot of time wondering about what Bungie might do with this part of the story, but eventually they surprised me by taking a very simple route. There is nothing more complicated about what Gravemind wants. He does indeed want to infect everything and everyone; he's a pure hegemonizing swarm. So after finishing one fight by not firing a Halo, we're left with only one option: to finish the second by firing one. After Halo 2 I openly wondered if this might be the case; whether it might not be ironic if we spent part of Halo 3 trying to do what we already spent two games (or, as it turns out, two games and two thirds) trying to stop.
With that done, and Gravemind believing himself safe and in control on the Ark, out of range of the Halo pulses, he shows his true color and betrays the Arbiter and the Master Chief. One might wonder why he even bothered with the ruse, but the cutscenes imply that having begun the activation by using Johnson as the required Reclaimer, undoing that also required a human, and so Gravemind needed the Master Chief's help.
Details are everything, though, and because this firing is to be a "tactical pulse" to eradicate the "local infestation", made from a location that is outside the galaxy, the only lives at risk are those actually in range of the Ark.
Some players might have been expecting a boss battle with Gravemind. Interestingly, the "Audrey II" form for Gravemind does not make another appearance, although we do see tentacles and hear his voice in many places. Still, the fight is with his minions, not with him directly. Since the Flood are a distributed organism, though, what's the difference?
Shaking The Light Bulb
343 Guilty Spark tried to do you in back in the first game for not agreeing to fire his installation, for absconding with his activation index, and for allowing Cortana, an unsanctioned warship AI, into 04's core. Now that you've agreed to set off Halo to control the Flood outbreak, he should be happy, yes?
Yes and no. Of course, his replacement ring isn't really ready, and so when Johnson wants to fire it immediately, Spark objects that this will destroy the ring and the Ark as well.
He's got a point. After all, it seems that it was the Ark itself that had the capability to generate replacement rings. Even if we believe the tactical pulse destroyed Gravemind and all the local Flood forms of all kinds, and that Shipmaster Half-Jaw's ship glassed all of the portions of Earth infected by the Flood, there are still Flood out there in the galaxy somewhere. Definitely there are Flood loose on Delta Halo (which, as far as we know, was never destroyed) and possibly on other installations as well.
What it comes down to, then, is that it didn't seem wise to wait two days for work to be completed before firing; possibly the Chief, the Arbiter, and Johnson would all have succumbed to Flood attack by that point. Perhaps Guilty Spark would have fallen as well, leaving no one to activate the installation. Spark, however, doesn't see it that way, and uses his newly-revealed abilities to toast the Sergeant to a crisp.
What follows is less a boss battle than it is fanservice; for every game reviewer who complained that beating Spark was too easy, there was a Halo fan grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of splazering the smug floating orb for all his taunting remarks about being invulnerable. That he can be harmed now is reasonably explained by your newfound access to the huge laser weapon.
Technically there are similarities to the Regret boss battle; once again you're fighting a floating opponent who attacks with a beam weapon. There are some twists, though. Spark doesn't have any support in the control room; for whatever reason, there are no Sentinels around, whereas Regret had a near-endless supply of honor guards. Spark could teleport around the room, but doesn't, which is refreshing. He does use a kind of "force push" power to try and push you over the edge, though. However, once you know he's doing this surviving long enough to get the laser is fairly easy, and even on Legendary his aim with that laser is inexplicably bad.
What this fight loses to the Regret battle in technical difficulty it gains in emotional satisfaction. We've seen how the revelation of the new installation has affected Spark since our arrival on the Ark. We were set up to see his "new" beam weapon abilities, as well as his willingness to harm individual Reclaimers, even if supposedly in pursuit of their own well-being.
The only questions are, was it really necessary for Johnson to set it off immediately? Was it really necessary for Spark to kill Johnson to stop him setting off the ring?
It might seem that, sealed safely inside the control room, the four of them might have waited out the two days until the installation was complete, thus preventing the firing from destroying it and the Ark as well. Certainly that is a valid priority, since once the Ark is destroyed, presumably no more replacement installations can be fabricated.
However, there is another factor to be considered. Presumably the portal that allows the humans and elites to retreat to Earth could have been used by the Flood to escape 04a's pulse. As the Chief and the Arbiter intend only a "local pulse" and not setting off the entire network, that would allow the Flood to escape once again. Since Gravemind has brought himself unwittingly to a place where only one ring's firing is necessary to destroy him, and such a firing will not affect Earth or any other inhabited planets, the opportunity must be taken before the Flood find a way to escape. Truth's forerunner ship is somewhere on the Ark, and possibly the Flood could use it to escape.
Now that we've looked at how the principal actions of the game's conclusion play out, next time we'll look at the consequences of those actions and the game's denouement.