In the wake of the release of Halo: Reach on PC, I decided to replay the title’s campaign with some interesting changes. The franchise being on PC means that ReShade can be used to alter various settings that change the way Reach looks, and I found a preset for it that made the game feel more moody and cinematic. On top of that, a friend of mine showed me how you can mess around with your NVIDIA Control Panel to force the game to use 16x Anisotropic Filtering, boosting the sharpness of the in-game textures. Together with the ReShade preset, I found a style for the game that I really love, and enjoying playing through Reach in this new light inspired me to write an analysis on my favorite level in the game: Exodus (supported, of course, with pretty screenshots).
While I’m not particularly a fan of Halo: Reach as a whole, Exodus is a level that is full of everything I think it gets right, which is how it deconstructs some common Halo tropes and uses effective imagery to craft a bleak, soul-crushing atmosphere.
Before analyzing Exodus, it’s important to remember the level before it, Long Night of Solace — in particular, how it ends.
Prior to the first steps we take in Exodus, we’re coming off of a jarring loss. Jorge gave his life in order to activate the “slipspace bomb” and destroy the Long Night of Solace, but it ultimately would end up being for naught. Despite the destruction of the Covenant’s massive warship, dozens more poured out of slipspace literally seconds afterwards, overwhelming the planet’s defenses and bolstering the Covenant’s invasion force. And we, Noble Six, are left helplessly falling through space as it begins to happen.
It’s a powerful moment in the story that solidifies the fact that for the first time, this is a fight in Halo that we can’t win. It’s also an effective stage-setter for the events of Exodus, which further reinforce the above and continue to subvert a Halo fan’s expectations of a power fantasy. We begin Exodus worried, saddened, and angered by the conclusion of Long Night of Solace, and that’s a feeling that doesn’t go away for the rest of the game.
I think it’s noteworthy that the first things we’re shown once Exodus begins are images of roaring flames and ultimate destruction. It foreshadows what’s to come in the level, and it represents the “turning point” at large with Halo: Reach. Two levels ago, in Tip of the Spear, we were charging toward Covenant lines head-on. Even following the destruction of the UNSC Graffton, the battle for Reach nevertheless looked winnable thanks to Kat’s clever thinking with the UNSC Savannah’s slipspace drive.
Once Jorge died and a stream of new Covenant vessels dropped out of slipspace, the battle for Reach stopped looking winnable. And it would never look winnable from here on out again.
Once we actually step foot into New Alexandria, the first thing we hear is the voice of Sergeant Stacker, a character known and loved by many Halo fans:
“This is Kilo Dispatch: all available teams, advance to Traxus Tower. Evacuation will commence ASAP.”
“Copy, Dispatch. What’s the status of the tower pad?”
“Tower pad is green. Let’s move these civilians before it changes.”
“Copy, Dispatch. Four-Zero out.”
— Kilo Dispatch and Sergeant Stacker
Sergeant Stacker was a soldier we worked with in the field since Halo: Combat Evolved, and as a result, his voice almost has a reassuring effect for players who experienced Halo from the “Master Chief power fantasy” constructed by the first three games in the series. In essence, Stacker being here subconsciously signals to the player that things will be fine, because when Stacker’s with us and we’re kicking ass on the field, things will always be fine. Right?
Wrong. But I’ll get to why in a bit.
Right after Stacker’s dialogue, we enter a building on our way to link up with UNSC forces, and as a large group of Unggoy pull out plasma grenades and attempt to kamikaze us, we hear troopers over the comms informing each other about reports of suicide squads making their way through the city, throwing themselves at any humans they can find.
This is a very significant departure from what we’re used to, regarding suicide Unggoy. In Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST, they choose to attempt to kamikaze the player as a last-ditch option. They only do it if you kill their Jiralhanae commander or kill too many of their brothers-in-arms.
Here, they’re doing it offensively. The Covenant is using suicide squads to flush out humans in hiding so that they can be slaughtered easier. While subtle, this is ultimately the first instance in the level where the brutality of the Covenant is highlighted. It signals to us just how far the Covenant is willing to go to exterminate us.
As we fend off the Unggoy, we hear Stacker over the comms again:
“Kilo 26, this is Kilo 40. Covenant corvette is raining hell on us! Final protective fire – 1, danger close, on my command, over!”
“Copy, Kilo 40. Firing FPF-1 at your command.”
“Fire FPF-1, over.”
“Firing FPF-1… Shot.”
“Hold on to your helmets!”
The ground shakes violently.
“Kilo 40: request FPF sit-rep.”
“Negative, 26! Corvette still coming!”
“Copy, 40. Firing FPF-2… Shot.”
The ground shakes violently again.
“Damn! How do you stop that thing?“
— Sergeant Stacker and Kilo 26
Here is where the reassuring, comforting voice of Stacker stops being so.
There’s something to be said of the fact that not one, but two volleys of mass driver fire at the Covenant corvette over New Alexandria were not effective. These weapons violently shake the ground due to their raw firepower, but they’re not even enough to deter the Covenant’s ship. It showcases the fact that we’re not weak, but that the Covenant are simply overwhelmingly powerful. It worries the player, and evidently, it terrifies Stacker. His voice cracks and he becomes audibly afraid of the corvette, which is something that was never the case in Halo: Combat Evolved through Halo: 3. It is here that that creeping feeling of helplessness sets in, just like it did following Jorge’s death; the feeling that no matter what we do, the Covenant will always power through it with more troops and more ships. After suggesting to us through the familiar voice of Stacker that we may have a chance after all, the game starts to make us confront the fact that this won’t be a fight we win.
Eventually, we manage to reach a large group of UNSC Army troopers attempting to save civilians from Covenant soldiers. But not just any type of soldier. The Covenant are attacking New Alexandria with Jiralhanae. And before we can even join in the fight, several of them are seen crushing people under their feet or smashing their faces in with their fists, reveling in the slaughter.
I think the choice to use the Jiralhanae for this level (as well as the one that follows it) was a clever, calculated one on Bungie’s part. If Halo: Reach shows us anything, it’s that ultimately, underneath all of the Great Journey talk and the holy motivations, the Covenant are monsters. And I don’t think there’s a better way to convey how monstrous the Covenant Empire was than to use their most brutal race for the level that shows them massacring us.
It’s an interesting deconstruction of how the Covenant were portrayed in the past. In Halo 2, the “human” side of the Empire was fleshed out, showing the audience the social, political, and religious motivations behind the Covenant’s actions. In Halo: Reach, though, all of that is stripped away, and it shows how at its most basic level, the Covenant are evil aliens that are killing countless innocent people. It’s a painfully effective portrayal of their brutality. Honestly, if the Great Schism didn’t happen and the Sangheili didn’t realize just how wrong they had been, it shows how the Covenant could have wiped us out for good, no matter how hard Master Chief fought to Finish the Fight™ in the conclusion of the franchise’s trilogy.
Speaking of “innocent people,” this is also the first part of the level in which we see live civilians. I think the way they are portrayed is the weakest aspect of Exodus; ultimately, Bungie really missed an opportunity to immerse the player in a civilian’s perspective. For the most part, these goofballs run around flailing their arms comically and say dumb voice lines, and as a result, they feel more like cattle you have to herd than real, believable people that you’re trying to save.
This is a perspective that I appreciate Halo 4 for capturing with Dr. Tilson. While the two situations in these two games are different in many ways, both feature a conflict in which the war between humanity and its enemy brings about destruction to what we hold dear. With Dr. Tilson, there’s a very real sense of loss and sadness brought about by her emotional attachment to her life’s work.
That just…doesn’t exist in Reach. None of the civilians comment on their homes being destroyed or their lives being ripped away from them, and the closest thing any of them say that can even be considered “emotional” is “I guess this is probably it for us.” It’s ultimately a very disappointing aspect of Exodus that I wish Bungie would have spent more time working on. I’m not asking for a Halo 4-style cutscene, here; I just would have liked some scripted dialogue in which the people you’re working to save respond like a real person would.
Soon after helping the Army troops, we get word that the Covenant now control the landing pad that we were originally going to escort the civilians to. As the Army diverts them away from further harm, Stacker suggests that we join the “Bullfrogs,” a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers looking to jetpack their way across New Alexandria’s rooftops and retake the landing pad.
Honestly, I don’t really have much to say about this part of Exodus. It’s a nice break from the overwhelmingly bleak tone that the level was slapping us in the face with previously, and it serves as a solid introductory segment of the game for the jetpack Armor Ability. More than anything else, it serves as an excellent framing device; from the rooftops, we get a clear view of the Covenant’s capacity for destruction.
Once we reach the landing pad and clear it of Jiralhanae, a Falcon lands and we’re told to hop aboard, as another detachment of Army troops needs help getting a pair of missile batteries online, which will hopefully be able to disable the Covenant corvette and allow civilian transport ships to escape. After getting on the aircraft and manning the gunner seat, we’re “treated” to a front-row seat for death and terror.
As we do our best to support the UNSC forces we fly by, a grave event unfolds over the radio:
“Fox Actual to UNSC frigate Stalwart Dawn: request immediate airstrike on Covenant corvette over starport.”
“Solid copy, Fox Actual. Longswords unavailable at this time, over.”
“This is civilian transport 6 Echo 2, I need to go now, Sergeant Major!”
“Hold on, Echo 2. Stalwart Dawn, I have multiple commercial craft loaded with civilians. I have got to get them out of this city. I need air support, now!”
“As soon something frees up, you’ll be the first to-“
“Not good enough!”
“I’ve got six hundred souls on board, Sergeant Major! I can’t wait any longer!”
“Negative, Echo 2, I can’t cover you! Do not take off!”
— Sergeant Major Duvall, the UNSC Stalwart Dawn, and 6 Echo 2
With so many Covenant forces assaulting the planet, the UNSC Stalwart Dawn is not able to provide the air support to destroy the corvette that the transports dearly need. As a result, 6 Echo 2 is forced to take off without cover of any kind, resulting in the vessel being shot down by the Covenant’s overhead corvette.
In an instant, 600 people are wiped out in the face of the Covenant’s overwhelming onslaught. This catastrophic loss acts as the climax of the level, fully completing the subversion of Halo’s “power fantasy” trope and highlighting that even when we and the UNSC did everything possible, the Covenant have the last laugh.
In the aftermath, we link up with Sergeant Major Duvall and get behind the wheel of a Warthog with the intent to clear out the Covenant guarding the deactivated missile batteries so that the other civilian ships don’t meet the same fate. I think offering the player a chance to drive around with a massive machine gun turret following the level’s depressing climax was a good way to let us loose some of our anger and put it to good use.
Eventually, we’re able to eliminate most of the Covenant forces in the area and re-activate the missile batteries, but reinforcements arrive and position themselves between us and the “big red button” to fire the missiles. As we desperately battle our way to it, things begin to get urgent:
“Sergeant Major! Covenant are banging on my bay door. I’ve got families and wounded onboard. I’ve got to get airborne!”
“Sergeant Major, the Covies are almost through my door!”
“That’s it! They’ve breached the landing bay!”
— 7 Echo 3’s increasingly-concerned pleas for the order to take off
Here, we’re met with the frantic worry that what happened already will happen again, unless we get to that control console. At this point in the level, the Covenant have fully flexed their muscles and shown us what they are capable of, and unlike the beginning of the level when Stacker’s familiar voice filled us with a sense of morale, we’re now on a race against the clock, motivated by an overwhelming sense of dread.
Thankfully, we’re able to reach the controls in time, and we activate the missiles, which then sail right into the underbelly of the corvette and knock it out of commission.
Because of our efforts, the rest of the civilian transports are able to escape, giving us a brief moment of relief. However, following this, it quickly becomes clear that this was not even close to a victory. The level leaves us with the knowledge that all we did was delay the inevitable loss so that we could save as many lives as possible. And, ultimately, that’s the core of what Halo: Reach is about.
Delaying defeat so that others can live to fight another day.