In Defense Of Halo 2’s Arbiter Campaign

Greetings, good people! Nice to take some time away from studying for finals endlessly and write something for you all to enjoy.

As many of you undoubtedly know, Frank O’Connor recently spoke in an interview with GamesTM Magazine about how 343 Industries has chosen to return to the Master Chief-only style of narrative and plans to focus on that in the future of the Halo series. Personally, I would argue that that is the wrong lesson to learn from Halo 5: Guardians. The issue with Halo 5 was not the lack of Chief; rather, it was the lack of quality writing in his replacements, Fireteam Osiris.

However, that’s not the main focus of this article, as I’m sure the title tells you. Halo has faced criticism for the lack of Chief before; specifically, Halo 2 received criticism for this as well, due to Bungie’s choice to split the Master Chief’s screen time with a new, bold character: The Arbiter. Following this article’s release to the public, I have noticed many Halo 2 criticisms resurfacing, saying that this was “a lesson Bungie learned already” and that 343 should not have made this mistake.

Personally, I strongly disagree with this sentiment. The only mistake 343 made was not writing Osiris strongly. The issue wasn’t that they were “non-Chief”, and that wasn’t an issue with Halo 2, either. I want to explain not only why the Arbiter campaign in Halo 2 was so groundbreaking for the Halo universe, but attempt to convince some of you who think that Halo should remain Chief-only to be more open-minded in regards to the potential future return of non-Chief protagonists.

Universe expansion. 

 

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The Arbiter campaign gave us an opportunity to see the Halo universe from the side of the Covenant, exploring their caste system, culture, and more.

To start, let’s take a look at how the Arbiter campaign “opened doors.” Halo 2 is the first instance in the series in which the Covenant truly are explored. Their culture, beliefs, motivations, caste structure, and everything between is at best shown in detail and at worst is given to us in bite-sized nuggets of information. When we see how the Prophets act as the Covenant’s governing voice, we wonder, “Who are the Prophets? What role do they play?” 

When we hear Rtas ‘Vadum thunder the Writ of Union for his Spec-Ops Elites to recite in the Phantom, we’re left to think, “What is that? When did they begin taking this oath, and why do they take it?”

Things like this are present all throughout Halo 2, and THAT, my friends, is an introduction to the Covenant and it’s species that is ripe for further expansion. Things like this are what opened the doors to several Covenant and Sangheili themed novels, animations, comics and other media, four of them shown above. One of the best things the Arbiter campaign does for Halo is that it acts as a “tip of the spear” for Covenant lore 2004-onward.

But, it’s more in-depth then that, of course. The benefits of the Arbiter campaign not only open the door for future content to be explored, it adds character and life to the Covenant as an enemy themselves within Halo 2.

Characterization of the Covenant.

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Throughout Halo 2, the Arbiter himself, as well as several other characters, the setting, and the plot all help to breathe life into the previously unexplored alien enemy from Halo: Combat Evolved.

Semi-related to the previous point, the way the Covenant and it’s races are characterized in Halo 2 gives us information on several things, including:

  • Motivations
  • Caste system & social culture
  • Religious beliefs & reasoning (which also explains their actions in Combat Evolved)
  • Covenant history
  • Attitude towards humanity
  • Attitude towards the Flood
  • Sangheili honor culture
  • Elite-Brute tensions
  • Inter-species relations (Hunters and Grunts siding with the Elites, Jackals and Drones siding with the Brutes)

What makes a lot of this so valuable in the narrative is that it sets the stage for the events in Halo 2 (and beyond). The assassination of Regret by the Master Chief wouldn’t have felt like the milestone it was if we hadn’t been shown how integral the High Prophets were to the Covenant’s way of life. The Great Schism’s chilling depiction of complete social breakdown within the Covenant would not have been as impactful or have made as much sense if we didn’t have an idea of how it’s society operated regularly in the first place, or if we didn’t know about the tensions between the Elites and the Brutes. And Truth’s manipulation of the Arbiter and Regret in order to spark the Schism wouldn’t have even been shown to the player if we had simply played through the game’s events from the Chief’s eyes.

But what it does past supporting the plot – that is where the impact is the biggest, for me anyway. As Halo 2 progresses, and you fight the Covenant as the Chief, they change from being unexplored enemies we know nothing about into being a well-characterized enemy faction that fights you with motivations that you’ve learned during your time with the Arbiter. Every Elite on the battlefield suddenly goes from being a mysterious enemy with no discernible drives to a noble and honorable warrior that fights you because he thinks it will help the Great Journey continue, or to defend his High Prophet, or because he wants to be the one to slay the evil demon and champion that glory. All of these reasons are perfectly within what an Elite would be motivated by (they’re even reflected in post-death dialogue from them) and we wouldn’t have even known this about them if we hadn’t had the in-depth view of them that the Arbiter campaign gave us. And to varying degrees, the same can be said for every other species in the Covenant.

A new perspective.

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For the entirety of Halo: Combat Evolved, we experienced the gameplay of Halo from the UNSC and Chief’s perspective. The Arbiter campaign gives us the opportunity to experience it from the perspective of the Covenant. 

 

The last topic I’d like to cover before tackling the Arbiter himself is the opportunity this campaign provides you with to experience a Halo game from the Covenant’s perspective.

Obviously this is very subjective, but for me I feel like this experience adds a lot to Halo 2, in that we see what it’s like to be one of the Covenant soldiers that we as the player have come to view as enemies. I’m personally always a big fan of perspective switches like this, and it’s clear that Bungie wanted us to play through these levels (as well as take note of the characterization I mentioned above) and see the Covenant as more then what Combat Evolved initially showed us.  There’s something that’s just so epic about fighting alongside Grunts, Elites, and Hunters that really makes the Arbiter campaign memorable for me, among everything else.

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“We shall cut into the heart of this infestation, retrieve the Icon, and burn any Flood that stand in our way!”

 

This gets even more interesting when we meet the Flood. I think it’s neat how where the UNSC were fearful and visibly terrified of the Flood in Combat Evolved, the Covenant are more headstrong and take an active and aggressive approach to them, in that they choose to do their best to quickly eradicate them before they can spread instead of running. Admittedly, Grunts and Jackals run from them in Combat Evolved, but that’s because they don’t have their Elite leaders with them. Halo 2 shows us that, with the proper leadership and resources, the Covenant are capable of effectively combating the Flood, and do so (albeit very cautiously) knowing what could happen if they don’t. I think this is a cool change of perspective about the Flood that the Arbiter campaign lets us get a close, firsthand look at, and this specifically is something that carries over from Halo 2 to Halo 3.

The man of the hour.

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Is Arbiter a good character? In my opinion, he’s the best written character in the original trilogy.

 

Now that I’ve gone through how the setting, atmosphere and perspectives offered by the Arbiter campaign all add to both Halo 2 and the universe beyond, I’m going to talk about what I think is the best part of this campaign overall – The Arbiter himself, Thel ‘Vadam.

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“What would you have your Arbiter do?”

What I love about Thel as a character is that essentially Halo 2 tells us the story of him first overcoming the shame he receives following his failure at Installation 04, and THEN overcoming the monumental challenge of disregarding his beliefs – the very beliefs that formed the core of the Covenant.

zap

brandy
What’s great about these scenes is that they show us how painfully and publicly Thel’s honor and achievements are being stripped away for something that, in the end, wasn’t even arguably his fault. In this moment we feel bad for him in a way, because he is essentially being put to death for circumstances that are outside of his control (such as the Flood). The fact that Thel overcomes this and then overcomes his conflict between faith and reality is a testament to his resilience and endurance.

We can tell that it’s hard for him, and at the beginning of the game, when confronted by Sesa ‘Refum on Threshold, he isn’t even willing to hear the opposing view. But over the course of the game, as the evidence contrary to what the Prophets have been preaching to the Elites for almost all of recorded history builds up, Arbiter slowly begins to put together the pieces. And Guilty Spark confirms what he ends up figuring out – that the Great Journey is a lie, and that Truth manipulated him and the rest of the Covenant without anyone even seeing it, right under their noses.

What makes him so great is that he develops to the point where he actually disregards his old beliefs. When he’s presented with indisputable proof that the Great Journey does NOT exist, he doesn’t stick fingers in his ears and pretend to not hear it. He’s a smart Elite, and, more importantly, he’s one with character, with honor. And, despite what any of the rest of the Covenant thinks of him or that stupid brand on his chest, he does what he knows is honorable by stopping Tartarus. 

You could stop it right there and Arbiter would already be a fantastic character, but he even goes as far as to say…

TMCC-Halo-2-Anniversary-Cinematic-Revelations
“Tartarus…the Prophets have betrayed us…

Yup. That’s right.

He even goes as far as to attempt to make Tartarus see the truth.

Because, let’s not forget, Truth manipulated the Brutes, too. He knew they were looking for an excuse to challenge the Elites, and so he orchestrated Regret’s death to give them one. Thel recognizes this, and extends what I interpret as a hand of truce to Tartarus in a last effort to make him understand, which Tartarus, unfortunately, does not take. In the end, though, all of this comes together to solidify Arbiter as a deep, well-written, and heroic character that brings honor to the concept of video game storytelling.

The lesson to be learned. 

locke n arby
Sadly, Locke and Osiris fail to achieve what Arbiter did in Halo 2. However, that does not mean 343 should disregard this idea of focusing on other protagonists completely.

Now that I’ve gone through why I think the Arbiter campaign is an amazing addition to the Halo experience (and maybe I’ve even convinced some of you!) I would like to tie it back together to the introduction of the article and explain how I think 343 should learn from Halo 2.

What Osiris fails to do in Halo 5 is give any of the characters development or conflict to overcome. Locke had potential to be initially anti-Chief, but they wrote him to like Chief from the get go, for example. What would have been so much more effective is if Locke initially held a very negative view of the Chief going AWOL, but over time he came to realize Chief’s intentions were good and then he would regard Chief in a more positive light. Because in the end that is what these characters need: development. You’re not going to pull off the “static character” better then original trilogy Chief. It’s foolish to try. What these off-characters need is dynamic elements that make them unique. And with Chief evolving into a more dynamic character himself, I think that makes having these off-characters even harder. However, if 343 can maybe find a way to take Locke and Osiris and give them this much-needed development – and to give the player things like a new perspective to view Halo in, even if it’s not on the same level as the Covenant in Halo 2 – then I’m confident that Halo can and will succeed in writing characters into it’s games that aren’t Chief.

Arbiter is proof that it can work – tremendously. It just requires quality characters, written well and written dynamically, with support from the setting and the plot.

Well, that about wraps it up! I hope that you enjoyed this, and I hope you think I built a strong case for Arbiter’s campaign. I also hope I convinced you that non-Chief characters in Halo’s future can work well if done right.

Oh, and here’s a little sneak peak at some future articles…

 

That’s all for now, my dudes. Thanks so much for reading, and remember to stay tuned for more cool stuff!

For now, though, I heard reports of Romulans on the edge of Starfleet space. I think it’s time we go investigate.

Mr. Crusher? Engage.

Love,

Lor

 

1 thought on “In Defense Of Halo 2’s Arbiter Campaign

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