So it’s at this point that I’ve only really begun to comprehend the scale of the task I’ve set myself. My analysis of the Prologue, a three minute scene out of a six-to-eight hour game, was 2500 words and I still have nine more levels to go through… If each post is roughly 2500 words long (some will be longer), then you can expect this to end up being a full-length dissertation of about 25,000 words.
What have I got myself committed to?!
Nevertheless, this is a project I fully intend to stick with over the coming months. So let’s move onto the first official mission of Halo 4, Dawn.
The level opens with the wreckage of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn adrift in the void of space. We’re told that the year is 2557, over 4 years since Halo 3’s ending where Lord Hood and Thel ‘Vadam (better known as the Arbiter) mark the end of the Human-Covenant war and lament the losses of the last three decades. But we always knew that John’s story wasn’t over, as Mendicant Bias directly spoke to John in the final Terminal of Halo 3 and said that he will be his instrument of atonement.
“You don’t know the contortions I had to go through to follow you here, Reclaimer. I know what you’re here for. What position do I take? Will I follow one betrayal with another? You’re going to say I’m making a habit of turning on my masters. But the one that destroyed me long ago, in the upper atmosphere of a world far distant from here, was an implement far cruder than I. My weakness was capacity – unintentional though it was! – to choose the Flood. A mistake my makers would not soon forgive. But I want something far different from you, Reclaimer. Atonement. And so here at the end of my life, I do once again betray a former master. The path ahead is fraught with peril. But I will do all I can to keep it stable – keep you safe. I’m not so foolish to think this will absolve me of my sins. One life hardly balances billions. But I would have my masters know that I have changed. And you shall be my example.”
I’ve extensively theorised about the role that Mendicant Bias has yet to play in the future of the Reclaimer Saga, which you can check out here, but it’s evidently no coincidence that John ended up at Requiem when the Dawn was sheared in half as it went through the slipspace portal. We’ve had other media explore what has gone on in the 4 years since that John and Cortana have been adrift, specifically in Halo Legends: Origins and Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. We see that Cortana is over 7 year years old (having been created by Doctor Halsey in 2549), and is now descending into rampancy. Rampancy is a big deal in Halo, even though Halo 4 is actually the first game to even mention it, in the novels and various other pieces of media we’ve frequently seen rampancy used as a device which has heavily influenced the relationships between characters – be it the story of Mendicant Bias betraying his creators to the Flood, or Sif and Mack’s tragic ‘romance’ during the battle of Harvest.
It was only a matter of time before John and Cortana faced this inevitable obstacle, and Dawn is the point where it all kicks off.
Just look at Cortana’s expression here… she has a moment of hesitation before she reactivates John’s cryo pod because she knows that she’s going to have to tell him that she’s descending into rampancy – that she’s dying and there’s nothing he can do about it. I really have to praise Mackenzie Mason for her absolutely stellar performance as Cortana’s motion and facial-capture actress in Halo 4, in almost all of the previous games (albeit Reach and Wars) the facial animations have always been a bit… off. That was obviously due to the limitations of technology back then, but Microsoft clearly gave 343 a blank cheque for Halo 4 and they absolutely pumped it into making sure the visual integrity of the game pushed the aged hardware of the Xbox 360 to its very limits.
Another thing of note is the line Cortana says when she reactivates his cryo pod:
“Wake up, Chief. I need you.”
This is an obvious allusion to John’s last line in Halo 3.
“Wake me when you need me.”
While the immediate reason why Cortana has awoken John is because the Dawn is being scanned by an unknown force, it really goes a bit beyond that. Cortana needs John because she’s dying, when she awakens him from cryo she grins and says that it’s all going to be “just like old times” which shows just how much Cortana is clinging to the past in order to keep herself sane. Even the tone of the level as a whole is hugely reminiscent of Halo CE’s opening mission, The Pillar of Autumn, as you’re woken up from cryo and have to repel Covenant forces boarding your ship while heading towards an ancient and mysterious Forerunner installation. This sets up a great contrast between the old and the new, as 343 obviously wants to start the game off by throwing players into familiar ground before introducing us to the more abstract and alien aspects of the story. Just as this sets up expectations for the player, this sets up a wall for Cortana to mask the gravity of what she’s having to face – she’s made herself think that this is the same story we’ve been through before, that they’ll find out whatever is going on, solve the problem, and find a way home. That’s what this level really sets up for the player, the story and the characters – but this illusion is completely shattered as the story goes on.
This mission is all about getting the player back into the boots of the Master Chief, putting you on familiar ground and setting up your expectations for the rest of the game. It has a very ‘back to basics’ feeling to it, as I said the level as a whole feels very much like Halo CE’s opening mission which was a very astute way of accomplishing this.
One thing that I would like to explain to you properly is why the Covenant are back, as this is one thing I have to say that the game does a poor job of explaining. In fact, in the whole campaign we only really get one line about it which people have issue with because the Covenant being back is quite an important thing. So for those who haven’t read the Kilo-5 Trilogy, here’s a er… ‘brief’ synopsis for you.In the wake of the Human-Covenant war’s end in 2553, Jul ‘Mdama, a radical, joins a terrorist organisation called the Servants of Abiding Truth. They are a fundamentalist group who follow the Sangheili’s pre-Covenant beliefs about the Forerunners, and their goal is to stage a coup against the Arbiter because they believe that he and his followers are infidels who have abandoned their belief in the Great Journey. They also believe that humanity will recover and expand across the galaxy, eventually seeking retribution against the Sangheili for the long and bloody war between their species.
Jul is captured by ONI during an arms deal between Avu Med ‘Telcam (leader of the Servants) and an ONI team assigned to supplying the Servants with weapons so the Elites can wage a war of attrition against one-another with neither side emerging victorious. Jul is transported to a Forerunner Shield World that humanity has taken over called Onyx, due to the sacrifice of a Spartan-II named Kurt who ensured his team made it inside the Micro Dyson Sphere, the installation was renamed Trevelyan. While in-captivity, Jul is experimented on by Irena Magnusson because ONI is looking for viable ways to wipe out the Sangheili, and he plots his escape. Magnussen allows Jul to walk around the Shield World and assigns him a Huragok named Prone to Drift to lead him around various Forerunner sites inside Trevelyan. As an added precaution, to make sure Jul doesn’t try to escape, an explosive harness is placed over him. Over time, Jul learns from Prone about a Forerunner called the Didact, an ancient warrior who waged a war against humanity 110,000 years ago and was sealed away at a planet called Requiem. Jul gradually grows to understand the Forerunner language, and eventually discovers a way to escape captivity when he stumbles upon a damaged portal system. Threatening to detonate the harness, he persuades Prone to take it off, and he takes a leap of faith into one of the damaged portals.Jul ends up on a distant colony world called Hesduros. It’s inhabited by a remnant of the Covenant who haven’t been seen since the early days of the war, they see Jul as their new prophet sent to them by the Forerunners. Jul is an atheist, but he’s a clever manipulator and tells them that he is on a holy mission to awaken a Forerunner named the Didact – a holy warrior who will come to save the Sangheili when he’s released by wiping out humanity. Jul is appointed as their leader, he manages to re-establish contact with Sanghelios and learns from his friend that his wife, Raia ‘Mdama, has been killed by humans during ‘Telcam’s insurrection, as the Arbiter requested Lord Hood to use the UNSC Infinity’s MAC gun on Sanghelios to wipe out a Brute uprising and the attack of the Servants of Abiding Truth.
Jul’s hatred towards humanity becomes personal, he gathers his army at Kelekos and discovers a portal to Requiem – reactivating it with his ability to read Forerunner glyphs, and setting out to awaken the Didact. Thus, the Covenant is reformed. They wait outside the planet for 3 years and when John turns up in the Dawn, the planet opens because it scans him and, as we know, humans are capable of interacting with Forerunner technology because of the Librarian’s imprint.That’s the basic background for the Covenant’s return, a more detailed and direct depiction of the events can be found in the first two books of Karen Traviss’ Kilo-5 Trilogy – Glasslands and The Thursday War. This is the part of the story where Dawn picks up, the Covenant are bearing down on Requiem looking for the Didact and John’s presence has opened up the planet for them – thus setting up one of the story’s central conflicts. Of course, as always, the Covenant are a MacGuffin – a device to further the plot up to the reveal of the true antagonistic force of the story. In Halo CE this was the Flood, in Halo 4’s it’s the Didact. Again, demonstrative of that ‘back to basics’ style at the start of the game to put the player back on the familiar path before yanking you off-course into this new world.Ultimately, the first mission of the game is all about setting up your expectations, laying the groundwork for the plot, and subtly hinting towards some of the themes of the game. There is, of course, Cortana’s rampancy which is central to the narrative, which we see a minor hint of towards the end of the level where she unwillingly distorts John’s visor but it’s passed off as something to deal with later because there’s a Covenant vessel heading straight for the Dawn.
One last point of note to make is going back to the game’s cover art, we see the maw of Requiem pulling in and totally shredding the Dawn and a Covenant vessel while John stares off into the distance. The things that we’re familiar with (the human-Covenant struggle) are show to be but a smaller part of this larger, more ominous and destructive story. This is also made clear in the game as John heads towards an escape pod (again, setting the player familiar goals) but finds himself getting pulled into Requiem’s gravity well and falling to the Shield World from orbit (subverting that expectation with shocking results).To conclude this piece, one might draw a comparison with what Sergeant Johnson told John at the start of Halo 3.
“One of these days, you’re gonna land on something as stubborn as you are. And I don’t do bits and pieces…”
If that line can’t be retroactively construed as some kind of foreshadowing for John’s fall to Requiem, his encounter with the Didact, and the emotional trauma he experiences due to Cortana’s deterioration, then I don’t know what can!