Impressions: Gravemind

Ever have one of those days?

That's what went through my mind when I started playing Gravemind.

Halo 2 has other tough spots; the second hangar bay in Cairo Station, sniper alley in Outskirts, and Nothing But Jackal in Delta Halo. When I first played Gravemind, however, was the first time I backed off my intention to complete the game the first time around, all the levels, at Heroic difficulty or better. After banging my head against the wall that is the opening room of Gravemind, I restarted on Normal so I could get past the level and finish the game in time to write something about it before people stopped caring.

Most of the time in Halo 2, you've got a choice of weapons with which to face your foes, or recourse to go back somewhere and get them, or at least a place to hide. The audience chamber of Gravemind has none of these things. The only exit to the room won't open until you clear all the enemies, so you can't speedrun it. There are no areas that aren't exposed to fire from some angle-- and that includes the upper seating areas that Brutes will lob Brute Shot grenades into. When you start the level, the only weapon you have is a single needler, and the only dropped weapon available to you... is another needler.

UPDATE: I guess Gravemind is popular again all of a sudden, so I'm lucky posting at this precise time; Ducain at High Impact Halo has just made good on a promise to jump to the top of the level, the high building at the beginning of the outdoor areas after the marine rescue.

Dual needlers are a good combination for bringing down Brutes-- but it takes awhile, and you're apt to waste a lot of precious ammunition as Brutes duck behind the columns in the center of the room. Incidentally, those provide great cover for deflecting needler rounds, but aren't so useful against brute shots.

If you hide at the end of the room near the elevator that the Prophets escaped on, you'll eventually be flanked by Brutes coming up that same elevator. If you hide at the opposite end, you'll eventually be flanked by Brutes who follow you down to that end of the room; and since the brute shot rounds ricochet, they can get you from either side of whatever bit of cover you've chosen.

You can hide in the passage between the two sides of bleachers at the top of the room, but the brute shot rounds will ricochet off the walls and roof there and still hit you, and eventually a Brute will spawn on the balcony across from you and shoot at you from there.

You can hide in one of the monster closets that periodically open and let in a few more Brutes and Grunts, but if you try and use it as a place to peek out and fire from cover, you'll find you're trapped in close counters and fodder for more Brute Shot rounds.

In short, the whole room is designed to maximize the effectiveness of the Brute Shot in the hands of your enemies and force you into a fight out in the open, which is really the last thing you want. And given that whatever enemies you do manage to take down will drop their weapons and grenades right out in the open, among their compatriots, the situation does not generally improve.

Repetition and luck were my salvation. Which enemies came out first, what they were armed with, and where they died determined what arms I could get my hands on, and if I was lucky, I got enough to keep the fight going and didn't get ambushed by an opening monster closet.

Once that room's done, the rest of the level is pretty much a cakewalk. You get to see the inside of a Covenant space that, unlike the cruiser Truth & Reconciliation in Halo 1, isn't solely designed for waging war. There are magnificant interior vistas, glowing energy bridges and walkways, and huge halls. However, it all seems pretty lifeless. The Halo 2 engine doesn't seem to be too keen on generating crowds-- those shown in the opening cinematics always seemed a bit sparse to me, and even here, where Covenant units are all fighting each other, you'll probably wonder where everyone is.

Incidentally, this level begins the fighting amongst the different Covenant species and thus the multi-sided battles that are the hallmarks of Bungie games. From Marathon to Myth to Halo, each of these Bungie games have featured levels where the player wanders into a battle between two or more sides and finds himself caught in the crossfire, as well as the object of attention for combatants from either side that find him a convenient target. Halo 1 culminated with battles between Covenant, Flood, and 343 Guilty Spark's Sentinels. Now, we see the Brutes and the Elites duking it out.

During the middle of the level, the forces will split along these lines: Brutes, Jackals, and Drones against Elites, Grunts, and Hunters. Early in the level you have to fight against Brutes and Grunts that are not fighting each other, but when Elites start appearing, the Grunts take their side. Makes sense that Grunts would just go with the flow and fight for whoever is giving the orders when there are no Elites around.

Elites start appearing after you rescue marines from cells that Cortana will point out to you. Unlike the two "rescue Keyes" scenarios in Halo 1, this isn't technically a rescue mission. Nobody calls a dropship to pick them up, and I've yet to have any of them survive until the end of the level. Usually, they only last until a few rooms after the lift right where you rescue them from; in that room there are two hunters, and the marines will foolishly try to engage them and end up getting mauled unless you knock over some barriers to prevent them.

The color scheme of Gravemind is the same purple-on-purple that you see in the Covenant ship levels from the first game, and harkens back to the purple color scheme in the Pfhor ship levels in Marathon (minus the flowing green slime). While it does get monotonous after a while, there are some nice areas to look at along the way. There's a sequence of rooms you might call the garden spot of Gravemind, consisting of a series of sunken pools with raised hills around them, a long, narrow formal garden with catwalks above you can grenade-hop to, and a large tree in a circular room that marks the center of the sequence, and then afterwards another formal garden and then another pool.

The pool areas are much larger than they appear, and seem designed to fool you into venturing down into the lower area, where doors will open from the sides and from the room exit and let in reinforcements to attack you. However, it is possible to skirt the edge of the room and snipe safely from the rim of the bowl the pool area sits in; from there you can see the entire area. In the first pool area, before the large tree room, you can get to the rim by jumping up on the hills to the right after you enter the room. In the second pool area, after the central tree, access to the edge is from the left.

Both the formal gardens and the areas with moving bridges (most of them, anyway) can actually be traversed without activating them if you grenade-jump to the catwalks above. This is easier in some places than others because of the presence of crates. If you're using the Sputnik skull, it's a snap in any case.

The next biggest fight in this level after the first room is quite near the end, in the Mausoleum of the Arbiter, which you'll recognize from the cutscene due to the empty pod that held the Arbiter's armor in the center and the flashing red lights on the caskets. A huge battle will ensue here between Brutes and Elites when you enter, and Cortana will warn you to sit this one out. It's not bad advice. Should you choose to enter the fray, it's possible to hide out for awhile under the Arbiter's armor pod; but eventually, you will be found. When you think you've cleared the room and are about to exit, a number of camoflauge Elites will enter, which will make it worthwhile to search the floor for a fuelrod gun beforehand.

Although there is a "side quest" of a sort in this level-- rescuing the marines-- Cortana keeps you focused on your main goal, which is to pursue the Prophet of Truth, who has the Index, which is why Gravemind transported you to High Charity in the first place. You'll start out only a few meters from him, holding the Index, but you'll spend the entire level chasing him only to have him get away at the end. It seems almost guaranteed by now that whatever a level says its primary objective is, your fate is to fail. At the last moment, Cortana points out that Johnson and Commander Keyes are also nearby, and they, too, slip away, taken by Tartarus in phantoms to go to the Control Room, along with the Index.

Whether you succeed in your objectives or not, they are always clear in Gravemind-- a stark contrast to the next level, Uprising.

The Flood won't make their appearance in a Halo 2 level where you play the Master Chief until High Charity, which covers some of the same territory as Gravemind as you fight your way back into the citadel after the Flood have attacked. However, on your first stroll through, things are still fairly orderly til the end, despite the civil war breaking out all around you.