The Story So Far...
This page was last updated on November 30, 2015.
(Written for a family member, to try to answer the question, "So why do you like Halo?")
What first got my attention was that the music for Halo won best video game music of 2010. Since I am a big fan of movie soundtrack music, I bought the CDs. Then a guy at work was deploying to Iraq and I bought his XBox, games, controllers, and books. I then bought Halo: Reach when it came out that fall. The novels are surprisingly good science fiction, which I've been reading since I was about 12 years old. The game graphics in the newer games are really good, and they have made a couple short live-action movies to expand on some of the characters.
While entertaining, science fiction and pop culture really should not be put under the examination of real-world tactics and technology. Being a critic of such things by comparing fantasy with real world is an easy trap to fall into. Whenever I read or watch any of the Halo stories or cutscenes, or web episodes, or watch any of the gameplay, I have to check my common sense at the door.
What Is Halo?
In the Halo games, the Halo is an artificial world in orbit around a large planet. This particular Halo is but one of seven spread across the galaxy, forming a network that many characters in the various books and games seek to control. (The seven Halos are strikingly similar to what was described in Larry Niven's science fiction classic story Ring World, written in 1970.)
In addition the the Halo itself, humans have discovered an alien technology known as slip-space, which uses worm holes to travel around the galaxy. Of course, the sanity of moving about the galaxy, and fighting a war using alien technology that you don't understand, is actually insanity. But it makes a good story.
In the first Halo game, by an emergency use of slip-space, a band of humans get dropped adjacent to one of seven Halos while escaping an alliance of warrior aliens known as the Covenant. While fighting for their survival on the planet Reach, the crew aboard the "Pillar of Autumn," the ship escapes Reach only to drop out of slip-space next to the Halo, soon discover that when all seven Halos are connected through some mysterious alien network, they form a weapon that when activated, destroys all organic life forms. The network has laid dormant for at least 10,000 years.
The Covenant knows of the Halo weapon but thinks (by way of a religious mandate) that the Halos are a way for them to destroy their rivals, the humans, leaving the Covenant to rightfully dominate the galaxy. The first three Halo games build on this premise, and follow the wars between the humans and the Covenant as they each move through their various internal and external politics and struggles.
Halo 3 ends with humans winning the war, but only after the Sangheili, a major faction in the Covenant, the one that is using the alien technology to best effect, realizes they have been duped by way of religion into fighting the humans.
The major character in the first three Halo games is a biologically enhanced super-soldier by the name of John-117, who holds the rank of Master Chief. He has several comrades, and they are known as Spartans. These super soldiers were actually intended to fight an insurgency among the outer worlds of the United Nations Space Command, or UNSC. Just as the Spartans were being deployed, the human worlds come under attack by the Covenant, in a war that would last for over 25 years. The premise of the story in Halo:Reach, a prequel released in 2010, followed Noble Team, a team of six Spartans deployed to the planet Reach to fight the insurgency. But instead, they encounter The Covenant. In the original Halo game, the ship Pillar of Autumn was escaping from the planet "Reach," and the dire results of the humans losing the entire planet to the Covenant. (John-117 is not part of Noble Team.)
John-117 was one of first Spartans, which were all "conscripted" as children and raised in an ultra-military training program that included a growing set of chemical and biological enhancements. The medical team developing the Spartans is led by Dr. Catherine Halsey, who realizes that John-117 is special in that he is embracing all that is intended in the Spartan program, physically and mentally. She develops an artificial intelligence by the name of Cortana, who is inserted into John-117's special suit of armor, providing him with all manner of needed digital enhancements and capabilities. Cortana embodies what is essentially the soul of Dr. Halsey, and she and John grow together to form a uniquely co-dependent relationship.
At the end of Halo 3, John-117 and Cortana are adrift in space on board the ship Forward Unto Dawn, at the end of an interrupted slip-space jump in which half of their ship is outside of the energy field, and gets left behind. The slip-space jump lands them at a set of unknown coordinates, far from human space. The game closes with John going into cyro-sleep, telling Cortana, "Wake me when you need me."
Jump forward four years, and the opening of Halo 4. What remains of Forward Unto Dawn, with John-117 and Cortana on board, is being pulled into the gravity well of the artificial planet Requiem. Cortana wakes John, and they escape just as their ship crashes into the planet's surface, along with almost uncounted number of Covenant ships. While exploring the planet, looking for an operational ship so they can return to human space, they discover a race of warriors known as Prometheans, which are the remnants of the fighting class of the ancient Forerunners.
As it turns out, it was the Forerunners who for over the 100,000 years had ruled the galaxy, developing all of the technology being used by the humans and the Covenant. The Forerunners had been wiped out 10,000 years before when the Halos had been activated. But the Halo event affected only organic life, and the remaining Prometheans were in-fact an unexplained combination of digital bodies, and the souls and memories of (as it turns out) ancient humans. The head bad guy, a Forerunner known as The Didact, who had built this army of digital warriors, had been banished from Forerunner society and placed in Requiem aboard a specially sealed enclosure that seemed to have protected him from the Halo event.
After the end of the Human-Covenant wars four years before, the Covenant had gone in search of other worlds to conquer, and had found Requiem, just before the half-ship Forward Unto Dawn came floating into the planet's orbit. All of this activity had somehow activated The Didact and he immediately set about gathering the weak-minded Covenant, and the remaining Prometheans, into his own personal invading force, with the intention of wiping out all humans for what they had done to the Forerunners all those years before.
Of course, our hero, John-117, and his Cortana AI are all that stands between The Didact and his domination of the galaxy, until what should arrive on scene, but the UNSC ship Infinity, a specialized super ship that had set out at the end of the Covenant wars to travel the galaxy in search of whatever remains of Forerunner technology. And who should be aboard the Infinity? Well, none other than Dr. Catherine Halsey, who 25 years later, is under arrest as a war criminal for what she did to the children who became the first generation of Spartans, including our hero John-117. But she is also the preeminent authority on Forerunner technology. Halo 4 ends with John-117 and Cortana, and the 5,000 crewmen of the Infinity defeating The Didact, and with John coming on board the Infinity and getting his first R&R in something like seven years. In a twist of the story, we learn that an artificial intelligence has a life span of seven years, and Cortana is no longer of any use to anybody. She uses the last of her abilities to save John after he detonates a nuclear device that destroys the Didact and his special enclosure.
Now that leaves us with what came next in the series, Halo: Infinity (also known as Halo 4: Spartan Ops). The Halo games have always excelled at cooperative gameplay, and a very popular subset is Spartan-against-Spartan in a series of "capture the flag" live fire training exercises. Spartan Ops is the latest of this cooperative gaming, and takes place six months after the defeat of The Didact by John-117. It allows cooperative game play that puts teams based on Infinity, together to accomplish campaigns against the Covenant and Prometheans who remain on the planet Requiem.
Each week, a new campaign was released on XBox Live, and a bit later, to Youtube, for the shoot 'em up crowd, along with animated cutscenes that weekly take us a bit further into the world of Spartan Ops, and the accompanying storyline that includes what Dr. Halsey knew, when she knew it, and what she knows now, as well as what her goals are. The story was quite interesting, what with the on-going politics of current operations on the planet, on board the Infinity, and back at UNSC headquarters, as well as the secret operations and mission of the Office of Naval Intelligence. (I kind of like Sarah Palmer, the bad-ass female Spartan IV who leads the main team in Spartan Ops. I think she is based on Agent Tex, the equally bad-ass female Spartan special agent in the Red vs. Blue series, which itself is a spin-off of the original Halo 1 and 2 games.)
Halo 5: Guardians was released on October 27th, and I had mine in hand that evening. Although I have not yet actually completed any game-play, and likely never will, the graphics and action is absolutely excellent. The music is only mediocre, and the story is pretty much nonexistent.
This is contrary to the entire marketing campaign leading up to the release of the Halo 5 game. The "Hunt the Truth" podcast was amazing and very well done. In twenty 20-minute episodes, we were told that Master Chief had been part of a mass killing and now society was split between viewing him either as a hero or as a villain. Spartan Locke is tasked with "taking him down," and the premise seemed to be that you’d play as both to see two sides of the story. We would have some story explaining Locke's relentless pursuit of the Master Chief.
The two variations of the teasers from March 2015 even showed Locke or the Master Chief as either the victor or the vanquished. On one version, Master Chief approaches Locke, with his assault rifle, then his hand gun drawn, as Locke lay gravely injured at the foot of a large statue of the Master Chief, amid the smoking ruins of numerous buildings: "This...is this what you wanted? Is this what you were looking for? Was everything you've compromised, everything you've done...worth it? Was it? You've completed your mission, Spartan Locke. Mine is just beginning."
In the other version, the roles are reversed, with Locke, also with his assault rifle and hand gun drawn, approaching the gravely injured Master Chief: "All hail the conquering hero. Let us remember him as a protector and not the one who gave us...This. As our savior, and not our betrayer! All hail the conquering hero; the one who was supposed to save us all! But now I must save us from you."
Trouble is, this conflict does not take place in the game. In fact, in the concluding campaigns of Halo 5, they and their two teams (Master Chief's Blue Team and Locke's Fire Team Osirus) work together to confront the renegade Cortana.
Turns out, Master Chief has simply refused an order to return to Infinity, and instead goes in pursuit of the not-dead Cortana, who has not only resurrected herself, but had somehow cured the dreaded seven-year rampancy that all AIs suffer from throughout the previous games. She has taken control of the all-powerful Guardians, which the Forerunners had used to police a range of solar systems. Cortana has decided that humans had thoroughly mucked up their responsibility in leading the galaxy to its full potential, and that the "Created", i.e. AIs, were the true bearers of what the Didact in Halo 4 called the Mantle of Responsibility.
It's been an interesting story line, but it has now gotten all muddled to allow the Spartan-on-Spartan game play that has taken over the Halo universe. The story is now pushed to the back burner, and fake conflict is now what Halo is all about.
Halo: Combat Evolved (Halo 1) -- Released November 2001
Halo 2 -- Released November 2004
Halo 3 -- Released September 2007
Halo Wars -- Released March 2009 -- Takes place 20 years prior to Halo: Combat Evolved during the initial encounters with the Covenant.
Halo 3: ODST -- Released September 2009 -- Takes place between Halo 2 and Halo 3. Follows the adventures of five Orbital Drop Shock Troopers in the Battle of New Mombasa, fighting the Covenant's invasion of Earth. Does not feature the Master Chief as the main playable character. One of the ODSTs, Buck, becomes a Spartan IV and returns in Halo 5.
Halo: Reach -- Released September 2010 -- Immediate prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved; fighting the Covenant in the battle of the planet Reach.
Halo 4 -- Released November 2012
Halo: Infinity -- Ten episodes, released November 2012 through February 2013.
Halo 5: Guardians -- Released October 2015