Impressions: The Great Journey

They say every journey begins with a single step. That's true of the journey that Bungie began when it started the development of Halo; likewise the process of creating Halo 2 and... whatever game they're working on now. Assuming it's a game. Which may be a lot to assume, under the present circumstances.

It's just as true for the player and the Arbiter as they begin the last level of Halo 2, The Great Journey.

It's also an important step in Halo 2's narrative. The Arbiter, as a player-controlled character, is distinct from the Master Chief in one very important way: his knowledge and beliefs are not necessarily in sync with the player's.

In Halo 1, information was revealed to the player and to the Master Chief character more or less simultaneously; hence one of the reasons for keeping the existence of the Flood a secret prior to the game's release. In most cases, even if you were given a choice, the player would probably choose the same course of action that the Chief does, given the same information.

That isn't true of the Arbiter. Since his confrontation with the Heretic, he's heard things about the Great Journey that directly conflict with his most deeply-held beliefs, and those of his culture. We don't know what he actually believes at that point. We do know that the player already knows what Halo was designed to do, and once it's revealed that the Prophets are trying to activate the Halo rings, there's a strong suspicion that the Covenant don't know what they're in for. Still, there's no choice; you can't leave the Heretic alive and join forces with him, because he's only going to try and kill you, even though I would have liked to have tried that and see where the game went from there.

We can assume that the Arbiter doesn't give serious thoughts to these doubts until betrayed by Tartarus and captured by Gravemind; and then, most of the gameplay in Uprising is devoted to Brute-killing that's essentially unrelated to the main plot. Here, however, comes a major turning point. If the primary objection to the action of the Brutes is that they betrayed and supplanted the Elites as the vanguards of the Great Journey, which is the will of the prophets, does that mean that taking revenge on them should extend to thwarting Tartarus' attempt to carry out Truth's orders to activate Delta Halo?

That the Arbiter is alone for much of his journey also affects how the story is told. There are fewer opportunities for the use of dialogue to reveal information to the player, as is done with the Master Chief and Cortana, who are nearly always together. Through the game the Arbiter interacts with many characters: the Prohpets, Tartarus, the Heretic, 343 Guilty Spark, Gravemind, and even Sergeant Johnson. But many of these encounters, especially the latter ones, are quite short.

The Arbiter speaks to no one of Gravemind. Perhaps he doesn't fully believe what he's been told until the end. At the start of this level, the Arbiter tells Half-Jaw that he must get to the control room, but does not say why, and does not reveal what he was told about Halo and the Index, although the memory of Gravemind's words are played over this scene. Perhaps the Arbiter is unsure if he could trust the spec ops commander if he revealed everything. Or perhaps he doubts the information himself, and wants only to reach Tartarus for revenge, and "just in case".

It's also interesting that Half-Jaw refers to "breaking those doors" on the Control Room, even before we know that Tartarus has locked them. After all, the Control Room doors on Installation 4 weren't locked, and even Captain Keyes' men were able to bypass some doors locked down by the Covenant without resorting to demolition. Oh, well. Just an excuse to use a scarab gun again, most likely.

None of these questions are addressed until the end of the level. The Mission Objectives are also vague: when you near the end, it says you must reach the control room and "deal with Tartarus". However, first you've got to get there.

Shooting Brutes In A Barrel

If you've had enough success in the previous levels that you didn't just give up because shooters aren't your cup of tea, and you're playing on any difficulty lower than Legendary, then these first few steps are going to be pretty easy. The early portion of Great Journey is a vehicle-based version of shooting fish in a barrel unless you play on Legendary.

After determining that it's your goal to pursue Tartarus to the Control Room, Half-Jaw will tell you he knows how to break in. On Heroic or lower, he'll yield up his Wraith to you. In campaign mode, the Wraith's main cannon has such a high rate of fire that as long as you remember to compensate for the arc, there's really nothing in the level that's a threat to you. Waves of Brute-pioloted Ghosts will attack you. As long as you don't let them get too close, where the angle makes them harder to hit, you shouldn't have a problem. The first hit will send the Ghost flying and damage it, and a second will usually destroy it and kill the pilot.

In the meantime, you'll be supported by Elites driving a Spectre.

The real problem here comes on Legendary, where Half-Jaw keeps the Wraith, and you get to gun on the Spectre. The Spectre's gun is really quite powerful. Since there's little reason to use it on this level on Heroic or lower, and on Legendary all the enemy targets are much tougher, it doesn't feel that way. It's going to feel terribly ineffectual, and you'll probably have your hands full taking out the Ghosts, to say nothing of the Wraiths on the far side of the next area around the corner guarding the entrance and the Phantom taking potshots at you from above the cliffside. All of those enemies are easy marks when you're in the Wraith. A few shots will destroy the Phantom's guns and chase it off. And once you get the checkpoint that spawns the Wraiths, you can actually lob cannon blasts at them from a safe distance, almost around the corner out of view, and take them out before they ever see you or fire a shot.

The Usual Suspectres

None of those options are open to you in the Spectre. You can either do the gunning yourself or drive, and the AI isn't really up to the challenge of doing either itself against Legendary opponents. Half-Jaw in his Wraith is pretty helpful in clearing out the Ghosts, but after that you'll wish you could somehow control him, as he won't be doing much that's helpful and might very well be dangerous to you.

This part of the level on Legendary seems tailor-made for cooperative mode, where two players can share the duties controlling the Spectre. Alone, this can be a frustrating area to play: you don't get any of the big guns to play with, and you don't get much help.

As has been the case since the start of Uprising, you are constantly in view of your next goal without being able to go there immediately. Just as you can see the Control Room in the distance at the start of that level, you begin the Great Journey at the top of a cliff; below is the beach that leads towards the Control Room. However, there's an instant-kill barrier there, so there's no way to get down early. Even if you could, you need the Scarab to open the door, so it wouldn't be of much use if you could.

If you feel like it, on Heroic or lower, instead of taking the Wraith for the attack, push it off the cliff onto the beach, then pick it up later. It's sturdier than the Banshees that are lying around that area for your use, and will come in handy when the enemy brings in its own Wraiths.

Just around the corner from the start you'll see the Scarab. Again, though, you can't just get there; access is from a raised platform. You'll have to enter a subterranean complex which forms the bulk of the level to make your way to the Scarab. There's a good mix of interior environments here, and a lot of fun to be had. Elites and Hunters will fight on your side, against Brutes, Drones, and Jackals, including some snipers. If the level has a flaw it's that these are the three least interesting Covenant units to fight against. For whatever reason, the three most charismatic of the Covenant races: Elites, Grunts, and the near-silent Hunters, are also the ones that end up fighting on your side. Each of the races you're fighting against seems to have some critical balance issue that makes them simultaneously easier, harder, and less fun to fight against.

Brutes on this level are increasingly likely to have Brute Shots: powerful weapons that bank explosives around corners in a way that feels a lot like cheating, much like those annoying grunts that sometimes bank usually-harmless needler fire of a wall to harass you. Playing against Jackal snipers feels like going back to the days of memorizing Pac-Man levels; if you know where they are in advance, they're no problem. If you don't, they'll kill you in the split-second it takes you to find them, making most levels that include them on Legendary exercises in trial and error rather than tactical brilliance. Drones in some locations can also be overpowering; their speed and flying patterns make them difficult to hit when they travel in large groups, and their combined firepower is formidable. Looking upwards while trying to shoot, your lack of peripheral vision makes it difficult to simultaneously fight them and move or seek cover. Drones seem to have deliberately been nerfed with questionable behaviors in order to give them vulnerabilities for the player to exploit.

For example, eventually you will come to an exposed bridge guarded by jackals and drones. The first jackals can safely be taken out with a few well-placed grenades without exposing yourself to fire. As you cross the bridge, a Phantom will attack from the left. You can retreat and wait it out. At the far end of the bridge are a group of drones.

If they took to the air and attacked you from above and the sides, or hid underneath the bridge, you'd have little chance against them, and be forced to flee, either forwards or backwards. Instead, they remain under the bridge's canopy, sometimes resting against the walls in such a manner as to leave them exposed to fire from a beam rifle, two of which are conveniently stored next to where you enter the bridge.

As was recently pointed out to me in the HBO forum, one behavior of Elites was taken and given to Brutes, but in a way that had what I think is a negative effect. In Halo 1, Elites with full health and shields would stand in the open and fire against you, taking cover when they were hit or their shields dropped. When an Elite's health dropped precipitously low, they would eschew cover and charge at you, kamikaze-style.

Elites, being a bit slower and less tough than Brutes, were usually not a mortal danger when doing this. Such encounters often formed the final moments of Jaime Griesemer's famed "thiry seconds of fun", when after a tense game of offensive peek-a-boo from behind rocks with an Elite, you emerged from cover to find your foe bearing down on you. Frantically you reload your weapon and deliver the kill shot, and the Elite falls at your feet.

I can only speculate as to Bungie's motives for such behaviors. Perhaps they were just so proud of their death animations that they wanted to ensure that the player got to see some up close. It's certainly consistent with the characterization of the Elites as religious zealots, that once their death is inevitable they throw themselves against their opponent with complete disregard for their personal welfare.

Elites don't seem to do this in Halo 2. Brutes, though, do. However, they are so fast and tough that the final bits of the "thirty seconds of fun" don't play out the way they used to. Brutes seem to strangely get tougher when they berserk, and they also get faster and lope with an uneven gait that makes getting headshots difficult. Rather than being able to stand your ground and deliver a satisfying kill shot at close range, dealing with a berserking brute is best done from long range. At close range, it's more like fighting a bull: putting some shots into his body and then dodging a melee strike, then waiting for him to turn around and charge so you can do it again; lather, rinse, repeat. It seems like an example where the earlier, simpler behavior was more consistent with the story's basic premise, and more fun as well.

This portion of this level is what gives me concerns about what Arbiter levels in Halo 3 might be like, where all the cool enemies are on your side, and your opponents aren't as much fun to fight against.

For this level, at least, it is made up with interesting objectives. After crossing the bridge there's a brig you can rescue other Covenant soldiers from, including some Councilors: didn't the Arbiter say they were killed? No matter. Open the cells early if you want help defeating the Brutes, or wait until the end to do so if if you want to see them live. The captives include Councilor Elites and more Hunters.

With no Cortana to give you clues about what's going on, you don't even realize that you're on the trail of Tartarus, Commander Keyes, and Sergeant Johnson until you emerge onto the access platform for the Scarab.

It's also unclear exactly what they're doing there anyway. Tartarus left High Charity with three Phantoms and the Index on his way to the Control Room. Instead of going directly there, he apparently lands nearby, only to be ambushed by the Arbiter, who rescues Johnson. Tartarus retains Keyes, the Index, and apparently Guilty Spark, who isn't seen at this point but is in his possession in the Control Room when you make it there. So after taking the tactically prudent move of splitting up his three charges into separate vehicles when leaving High Charity, Tartarus makes the error of placing them all at the same place in the same time and losing one of his captives.

Also, despite the fact that only a few seconds have passed, you're unable to catch up with Tartarus' phantom en route to the control room. The Arbiter tells Johnson that Tartarus has "locked himself inside" but it's unclear how he knows this, or how Tartarus could have reached it so quickly.

Escorting the Scarab to the Control Room is the flipside of the level's opening sequence. If that was a chance to play with some big toys and engage in a little visceral blowing-stuff-up-just-for-fun, this is an exercise in masochism. There may be fans of Halo 2's banshee, or perhaps just support groups to help you recover afterwards. In any case, whereas the banshee in Halo 1 was a license to wreak havoc, and your only opponents were flight school dropouts, the situation in Halo 2 is different. The banshee can't hover in place any more, allowing you to rain down fuel rod death from above with impunity. Enemy banshees seem more accurate and definitely have higher rates of fire. The addition of the small plasma cannons on the Wraiths means it's not safe to approach them closely. The cannon of the Spectre, which probably seemed to you like a limp noodle gun in your own hands just a few minutes before, if you were playing on Legendary, is now a major pain in the ass as your enemies train its sights on you.

Take a breather after Johnson breaks open the Control Room doors and you'll see again Bungie's attention to detail. Look up from the platform, high to the left, and you'll see the ledge on which you first spawned in Uprising, as well as the ledge from which you emerged later in that level, before the long Ghost run. The door from which you emerged at the end of Uprising, and where you begin the Great Journey, is directly ahead, as the path of the Scarab towards the Control Room passed over the same territory you crossed at the start of the level to reach the Scarab.

Frustratingly, you can't reach any of the Uprising locations in your Banshee because of barriers. The use of such techniques, to make the game world feel real and persistent, seems to be a double-edged sword. If those locations were farther away, perhaps I wouldn't mind not being able to reach them. But here, they are tantalizingly close, and the restriction that stops the banshee from flying there seems cruelly-- well, arbitrary, no pun intended.

So, You Want To See The Boss

In 2005, Halo 2 was nominated for, and received, seven Gphoria awards, one of which was for the "best boss battle".

That award was not for the fight against Tartarus, for reasons that are likely to become all too clear after you played the end of this level. Incidentally, the award was for the battle against the Scarab, which the Wikipedia entry on Halo 2 notes was a cause for criticism of the award on the basis of the fact that the Scarab wasn't technically a boss. That I agree wholeheartedly with Gphoria voters is indicative of my view on boss battles in general. Destroying the scarab was a fun and meaningful encounter that provided much-needed drama to the end of that level. It was not arbitrary, frustrating, unpleasant or annoying. So I agree, it wasn't a boss battle.

Tartarus, on the other hand, is a boss battle. He can't be damaged except after his shield is dropped by Johnson's beam rifle. Why he has a shield when no other Brute has one? No idea. Why is his shield better than any Elite's shield, such that it is unvulnerable except to this one weapon? No idea. What's special about Johnson's weapon that it works against Tartarus' shield, where a supposedly identical beam rifle in your own hands is completely ineffectual? No idea. Why can't you take that rifle from Johnson and use it yourself once you've gotten tired of him taking shots at blank walls? No idea. How does Tartarus survive and where does he come from if you push him off the control room platform, off an edge that causes you to die? The same place that Barabbas came from during his boss battle in Oni: which is to say, we have no idea.

Just about everything wrong with the idea of a boss battle is embodied in this encounter: special weapons, special enemies, special rules. Everything you've learned about how to play Halo up until that moment goes right out the door, replaced by a mini-game where you have to repeat in lock-step a series of actions in order to reach your objective. The game that led up to this point was so good, that this way of ending it all just seems so wrong as to be sacriligious, whereas in any other game it would be par for the course.

Still, there's some fun to be had in the control room, mostly by doing things you aren't supposed to be doing. Using the sputnik skull on this level will let you get to some interesting places. You can ride the rotating rings and take potshots at Tartarus from there if you like. Getting those shots will take longer, but there's really no hurry, and you'll be safe from Tartarus' hammer there. If you don't enter the Control Room through the door, but instead fly a Banshee around the side of the building, there's a spot where you can trigger the cutscene without losing the banshee; run back out into the hallway and you'll find it's there.

You can also use the banshee to reach some of the other platforms around the room; but be careful, that's where the waves of Brutes that spawn periodically emerge.

Of course, the meat of this level is actually before all this action, in the cutscene where the Arbiter asks 343 Guilty Spark to tell everyone what Halo is. Whether or not he intended to do so before, it is now clear that the Arbiter means to stop Tartarus from activating the ring, a motive Johnson clearly can support, whether or not the Arbiter is too ugly to let live.




I had left comments off on this article before. They're on now, but in the meantime, Peptuck started a thread in the HBO forum:

Rampant for over six years.

Rampant for over se7en years.

Re: Shooting Brutes In A Barrel

There is a good, fun way to begin the level on legendary. Ignore the Spectre and make a run for it. As you approach the corner of the rock where the Brutes on Ghosts first appear, hit your invisibility. Then, jack one of the ghosts. Proceed further in to the first Brute Wraith, abandon your Ghost (preferably under some cover), go invisible again and jack the Wraith. Now, you may proceed with shooting Brutes in a barrel. :D

Re: "Tartarus left High Charity with three Phantoms"

No, he did not. In the cut-scene at the beginning of High Charity, the Master Chief sees 3 Phantoms take off. I always presumed that one contained Truth, one contained Johnson, some other marines, and the Brutes guarding them, and the other contained Tartarus, Keyes, and 343. The latter two went to the area of the Control Room. Tartarus went directly to the Control Room, and is seen over-flying the Arbiter in the cut-scene at the end of Uprising, and the other went over to the platform where the Scarab was parked, presumably to rendezvous with the other brutes from the ship parked in the distance. The first, containing Truth, can be seen breaking left in the cut-scene on High Charity and heading for the ship in the center of the city.

Re: the hated Boss Battle

Just one correction. If you (as the Arbiter) carry a beam rifle into the battle (and you can grab a full on from a crate on the Scarab platform or from the bridge that you crossed earlier), you can take down Tartarus's shield. The first time takes 4 or 5 shots, but after that, it only takes 3 shots. Once his shield is down, switch weapons and open up on him (I used to prefer the shotgun, but now often go for the brute plasma rifle). Obviously, your beam rifle will run out rather quickly, but you can get a few shots in on Tartarus before the Johnson starts opening up on him.

However, I agree. Boss Battling sucks. If Bungie wants to do something challenging like "boss battles" in Halo 3, how about megabattles instead (a la "the Rockslide Megabattle" or the "Spiral Path Megabattle" in Halo 1)? That would be fun, intense, and wouldn't break the rules and continuity of the game.

[edit]minor corrections, and it seems all of this has already been said over in the HBO thread

Thanks for the suggestion-- I honestly haven't tried that part of the level entirely on foot before, and sometimes I forget about the camo since I tend to replay the Chief levels more often than the Arbiter ones.

About the Phantoms-- I misspoke myself, I didn't mean to say that be brought all three with them, but that he left when they did; you're right, one of them Truth uses to go to the ship.

Still, my initial objection holds-- Tartarus bothers to split the humans up so all his eggs aren't in one basket, but then he's in the control room already and they aren't, leaving them vulnerable to attack by the Arbiter, with no seeming purpose to their going to the Scarab area at all.

Several HBO readers pointed out the bit about the beam rifle. I've played the level through several times now, trying all the difficulty levels, and my results so far have been mixed.

On Easy, at the start it seems that only one shot is required to drop the shield, but that the shield, once dropped, stays down for less time than when Johnson does it-- most times I didn't even have time to switch to another weapon and get off a shot before it winked back on.

As I played longer, it seemed to take more shots, until eventually I could shoot him four or five times and not seem to drop the shield at all. I'm not sure what that's about.

I'm also not entirely sure, but it seems to be true that the beam rifle, although it can drop his shields, cannot actually harm him-- either in your hands or Johnson's. At least, a beam rifle shot never produced the audio clip about "lucky shot, you won't land another" from Tartarus that usually accompanies the first damage you do to him.

Also, I've tried to duplicate Johnson's firing rhythm to no avail. Regardless of difficulty, he always seems to fire his beam rifle in three-shot bursts. If I try to fire mine in the same rhythm, the rifle overheats on the third shot.

I also agree-- a megabattle scenario would be far more interesting; but then again, those are unintended consequences of existing scenarios, and often involve framerate hits, so Bungie might not opt for that. Then again, with the 360, perhaps that won't be an issue.

Rampant for over six years.

Rampant for over se7en years.

[quote=narcogen]This portion of this level is what gives me concerns about what Arbiter levels in Halo 3 might be like, where all the cool enemies are on your side, and your opponents aren't as much fun to fight against.[/quote]

I think that a great story adds extra polish to a great game.

But the gameplay needs to be there in the first place.

The reduction of the enemy forces is in line with the story but it hurts gameplay.

It looks like gameplay will suffer as a consequence of the story.

[quote=][quote=narcogen]This portion of this level is what gives me concerns about what Arbiter levels in Halo 3 might be like, where all the cool enemies are on your side, and your opponents aren't as much fun to fight against.[/quote]

I think that a great story adds extra polish to a great game.

But the gameplay needs to be there in the first place.

The reduction of the enemy forces is in line with the story but it hurts gameplay.

It looks like gameplay will suffer as a consequence of the story.

Well, unless the story changes in such a way so that this isn't necessary-- certainly possible, since all we have are educated guesses about where Halo 3's plot will go at this point.

Assuming Halo 3 exists, of course.

Rampant for over se7en years.