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Without a doubt, my favorite level in Halo: Reach was Exodus. This may seem like an odd choice; not much in the level really sets it apart, gameplay-wise: there isn't the stealthy sniping of Nightfall, or the intense vehicular combat of Tip of the Spear, or the space combat of Long Night of Solace. Truth is, the real reason I like Exodus so much is its story value, and the way it profoundly embodies the heroism and sacrifice of the Fall of Reach. I know it's a tad long, but I still hope you take the time to read what I have to say. This is my first time writing something like this, but who knows? You might even learn something new.
Hope you guys enjoy it.
NEW ALEXANDRIA, EPOSZ, REACH, EPSILON ERIDANI SYSTEM
AUGUST 23, 2552 15:34 HOURS
Exodus opens immediately after the tragic events of Long Night of Solace: Jorge is dead; the full might of the Covenant fleet has arrived over Reach. From here on, we know what is to come. Reach will fall, bringing over 700 million dead. But all hope is not lost... not yet. Five members of Noble Team remain, and it remains to be seen what their ultimate roles will be.
The screen fades in, and we see Noble Six a distance away from what is presumably his reentry unit. He holds his arm as he staggers toward the camera.
A thin, trembling strings melody begins—a tremulous wave of cold and uncertainty. The music wavers, as if unsteady on its feet, much like Noble Six. Six stops in front of the camera and bends down to fiddle around with something, giving us a second to notice what's behind him. A mountain range looms, fragments of metal drawing streaks of red as they burn up in the smoky sky. Fires rage in small lines across the horizon.
Six straightens, and we see him cocking his magnum. He walks away from the camera, and as he does so, the score swells into a warmer, more resonant melody. All of a sudden, the scene seems stronger, though we can still see the smallest bit of a limp in Six's step.
Six stops, and we fully see the background for the first time. The crashed remains of the Covenant supercarrier are lodged in the faraway mountain range: a final testament to Jorge's sacrifice. Six stares at it for a moment, then walks off into the distance.
The screen darkens, and we get a second to listen to the swelling horns and cellos, as well as the snap of faraway weapons fire. When we see Six again, he is in the shadows of a small grove of trees. The cinematography is fantastic as the camera zooms up slowly behind Six, revealing the city of New Alexandria, a trio of Covenant corvettes hovering over it. As the last strains of the strings melody fade out, Six lets Jorge's dog tags dangle from his fingers.
We see the dawn over New Alexandria as an antiaircraft battery fires into the air. By this time, a new, more energetic electronic-sounding melody has replaced the mourning strings. Even before Noble Six comes jogging into view with magnum raised, we immediately know that it's time for business: the time for grieving over Jorge is over.
When I first played this, one of the things I noticed was how well the sound of distant machine gun fire conveyed the mood of the setting: an abandoned city, albeit a city with at least a few defenders.
- KILO DISPATCH: "This is Kilo Dispatch. All available teams advance to Traxus Tower. Evacuation will commence ASAP."
- KILO 40: "Copy, Dispatch. What's the status of the tower pad?"
- KILO DISPATCH: "Tower pad is green. Let's move these civilians before it changes."
- KILO 40: "Copy, Dispatch. Four zero out."
As soon as the cutscene ends, you immediately know what you're here to do. The UNSC's offensive war is over: you're here to assist an evacuation, a final sign that the battle is lost. No longer are you assaulting an objective, fighting a war on the enemy's territory. At this point, the UNSC has lost; its only objective is now to save as many lives as possible.
The magnum you start out with is enough to deal with the scattered Covenant forces you encounter early on, but soon a trooper on the radio informs you of approaching Covenant suicide squads. The Grunts are relatively easy to mop up, leaving you free to listen in on the radio chatter of the army troopers.
- KILO 40: "Kilo two six, this is Kilo four zero. Covenant corvette's raining hell on us. Final protective fire one, danger close, my command, over."
- KILO 26: "Copy, Kilo four zero. Firing FPF one. Shot."
- KILO 40: "Hold onto your helmets!"
The entire building shudders as the troopers fire off a shot. They fire another, and you're informed of the resuilts.
- KILO 40: "Damn, how do you stop that thing?"
After you fight through the building, you finally emerge to see some friendlies. They're civilians, and they're running from a Covenant dropship.
- FEMALE TROOPER: "A Spartan? Where the hell'd he come from?"
- MALE TROOPER: "Who cares? Spartan, assist!"
It seems that a Spartan is welcome anywhere. As you fight the first group of Brutes, civilians run and duck all around you. While this isn't the first Halo game to feature civilians, it's definitely the first time you've been so aware of them.
As you fight, the troopers yell things like, "Tango down!" I found this kind of interesting: it's the closest the soldiers in Halo have ever come to using modern-day code words. Another thing I noticed about this level was how casually they threw around military callsigns; like other FPS games, Halo: Reach seems to have caught on to the fact that military jargon is cool.
As you fight through the Traxus Tower atrium, you'll notice how real it looks. The graphical designers at Bungie have definitely improved the way they design the campaign; in contrast with the sparse concrete buildings of Halo 2's New Mombasa, the space looks like something you could actually find in a modern-day city.
The man on the radio informs you that you'll have to wait for the elevator, which can only mean one thing. Sure enough, a pair of Phantoms sets in, and your HUD informs you of the objective: Defend position. As the invigorating theme from the 2009 VGA Awards trailer kicks in, it feels like Halo at its best.
I couldn't help noticing the World Cuisine off in a corner. When I first saw the menu on the side of a building, the first thing I thought was, "What? Is this a McDonalds? In Halo?" I couldn't help laughing a bit; the "World Cuisine" serves hamburgers, fries, and fish: something you would find in any fast-food restaurant today.
- TROOPER: "Damn, Lieutenant. Glad you're on our side."
Some may have noticed that the troopers in Reach throw around comments like that a lot more than the Marines in other games do. We know from other Halo media that regular enlisted personnel tend to be awed and even frightened by Spartans. Why the lack of reverence with these Army troopers?
We can find an answer in the Bungie Weekly Update 01.29.10.
- As NOBLE tends to operate much more closely with non-augmented personnel than Blue, Red, et al ever did, NOBLE's CO decided that his team shouldn't have to worry about some Oscar Sierra light-switch they might run into in the field trying to start calling the shots or otherwise alter OP parameters mid-mission.
As the bolded section shows, Noble Team was designed to work much more closely with regular troopers, in contrast with the tight exclusiveness of other SPARTAN-II and SPARTAN-III groups. Therefore, we can infer the cause of the troopers' nonchalant attitude towards the Spartans.
As you're descending in the elevator, Kilo 40 informs you that the rooftop evac has failed; the corvette has moved into position to shoot down any transports taking off from Traxus Tower. He then tells you that a "group of ODST specialists" is working an alternate plan.
It's always nice to see the UNSC fighting on its home soil; like Halo 3's earlier levels, the tenacity and resourcefulness of the human race when presented with a challenge really shines through at moments like these.
What comes next is a rather scripted introduction to the Jetpack armor ability. A quartet of Jetpacks is in the room for the taking, and the "ODST specialists" turns out to be the Bullfrogs, a group specializing in the use of Jetpacks. Your job is to jump across a series of platforms to get to the executive landing pad in a wing on the other side of the complex.
You Jetpack across the gap and engage another group of Covenant. This encounter is interesting, because there are a ton of platforms and walkways strung out above you: with the Jetpack, it's easy to grab the higher ground and rain grenades and bullets down on the clustered groups of Brutes and Grunts.
At this point, you can take a slight detour and find Data Pad 6, kind of like the Terminals of Halo 3 and Sadie's Story of Halo 3: ODST. All you have to do is go until you're nearly at the door to progress to the next section. Turn left and Jetpack up to the small ledge above you; above that will be a small catwalk going across the ceiling. Jetpack up to the catwalk and grab the Data Pad that's on the body of a dead trooper.
There's something rather interesting about this setup: why are there no Elites in New Alexandria? We know that at this point, the Prophet of Truth hasn't made his power play with the Brutes just yet—so where are the Elites? They seemed to make up a majority of the initial advance force: is it possible that the occupation of the city was left to the Brutes so the Elites could focus on other activities? All we know is that in Exodus, and in New Alexandria after it, every enemy you fight is either a Brute, Grunt, or Jackal.
As soon as you reach the next waypoint, you're informed that the entrance to the building is in fact on the other side. This is a perfect example of the new, more realistic feel of Reach; instead of knowing where everything is, even the soldiers make mistakes and have to find their way around the city. It's a nice break that once again reminds you how much thought Bungie put into the game.
After you walk out onto the balcony of the New Alexandria Concourse building, there's another Data Pad close by. Instead of explaining this one to you, I'll link you to a nice video showing how to get it.
As soon as you walk out into the open, you're targeted by a Focus Rifle sniper. One thing I really liked about Reach's replacing the Beam Rifle with the Focus Rifle was the end of the "this is so stupid hard" era of Halo 2's "sniper alley" on Outskirts. Because the Jackals now only fire the Focus Rifle in short bursts, it means, especially on Legendary difficulty, that while snipers are still a threat, you won't get stuck in an impossible situation while being pinned down by instant-kill sniper fire. However, that doesn't mean that the Focus Rifle isn't scary. The audio team really did a great job making the Focus Rifle sound like the burning, crackling beam of death that it should be.
The encounter that follows has you fighting uphill, with Jackal cavalry on the lower level of the stairs and a sniper up top. If you can advance and use the energy shield emplacements as cover, however, your Jetpack will be very useful in gaining the higher ground and eliminating the sniper.
However, if you don't take him out fast enough, the Jackal will continue retreating up the three or four levels of stairs, and continue raining fire down on you. This terraced setup is interesting; while it provides you with a great opportunity to take advantage of your armor ability, it also makes it especially hard to eliminate dug-in Covenant sniper positions.
Once you get inside the building, you're greeted with another well thought-out encounter. In the center of the room are multiple Gravity Hammer- and Fuel Rod Cannon-wielding Brutes. Once you get to the upper balcony, you've got a good deal more cover, but it's still challenging to maneuver around and take out individual Brutes without being killed by the Fuel Rod Cannons.
Once you've cleared the inside, the outside is easy. You can pick up the weapons of the dead Brutes, and, using your Jetpack, avoid the fire from the Shades outside and eliminate them. The dispatch operator on the radio informs you that the evac birds are en route.
As soon as you're clear, a pair of Falcons drops in and allows you to jump in the gunner seat. As you fly away, the trooper in the seat next to you informs you of what's been going on.
- FEMALE TROOPER: "City's been under siege for the last five days. Thought we had it in hand... then those corvettes showed up, and our fleet scattered. Hell, we've all got orders to evacuate. Guess some of us just don't like leaving a job half-finished."
The Pelican transport settles down on the landing pad, and the soldiers and civilians scramble to get onboard. As you're sitting in the turret of the Falcon, there's not much you can do but listen as the various troopers talk over the radio.
- DELTA 15: "Delta one five to Dispatch. Banshee squadron on my tail. Taking fire!"
- EVAC DISPATCH: "Copy, Delta one five. Can you—"
- DELTA 15: "Mayday, port engine's hit, we're going in. I'm going to try to set her down."
As you fly by, you can aid various UNSC forces with your turret, but your real focus is on the larger evacuation that's taking place around you. With Delta 15 gone, you know that the civilians you worked so hard to protect throughout the level are now dead.
- FOX ACTUAL: "Fox Actual to UNSC frigate Stalwart Dawn. Request immediate airstrike on Covenant corvette over starport."
- STALWART DAWN: "Solid copy, Fox Actual. Longswords unavailable at this time, over."
- 6 ECHO 2: "This is civilian transport six Echo two, I need to go now, Sergeant Major."
- FOX ACTUAL: "Hold on, Echo two. Stalwart Dawn, I have multiple craft loaded with civilians, I have got to get them out of the city! I need air support, now!"
- STALWART DAWN: "As soon as something frees up, you'll be the first to—"
- FOX ACTUAL: "Not good enough!"
- 6 ECHO 2: "I've got six hundred soldiers onboard, Sergeant Major, I can't wait any longer!"
- FOX ACTUAL: "Negative, Echo two, I can't cover you. Do not take off."
- 6 ECHO 2: "Damn it!"
The music rises to a crescendo, and looking forward, you can see the starport across the river. One of the transports is slowly rising. As soon as I saw this, having heard the previous exchange over the radio, I knew what was about to happen.
The strings reach a deafening climax, and a plasma burst strikes the transport from above, blowing half of it into the bay. Astute observers will note that the plasma burst actually strikes the craft two frames after the explosion occurs.
The transport falls past your Falcon, almost within touching distance, and belching flames from its port engine, it lands in the water with a splash. When I watched the engines flickering and dying out, I was reminded strongly of the ending cutscene of Cairo Station from Halo 2 when the cruiser takes a pulse laser blast for the Master Chief. Here, we see another ship passing by the player, the light of its engines cruelly extinguished.
- FEMALE TROOPER: "Oh, my God."
- 6 ECHO 2: "Mayday, mayday!"
- FOX ACTUAL: "Six Echo two, can you maintain altitude?"
- 6 ECHO 2: "Negative! We're going down!"
- FEMALE TROOPER: "Son of a bitch. I can't watch this."
- EVAC DISPATCH: "Fox Actual, should we send search-and-rescue birds?"
- FOX ACTUAL: "Negative, Dispatch. No point."
The voice acting for this scene was incredible. The combination of the visuals, the voices of the characters, and the score, I couldn't help but feel the deaths of the six hundred aboard that transport as if they had died right before me.
The Falcon lands, and Fox Actual introduces himself as Sergeant Major Duvall. To me, this symbolized something important: rather than being a controller sitting somewhere in front of a computer screen, the operators on the radio were all on the field. Duvall had seen the transport go down right before his eyes; but whose fault was it? Was it Duvall's, for not getting air support fast enough? Was it the Stalwart Dawn's? Was it 6 Echo 2's, for taking off too soon? Ultimately, the failure of the UNSC to protect the transport just goes to show how outgunned and outmanned the UNSC are in the war.
- DUVALL: "Hey, Spartan. Sergeant Major Duvall. Awful day so far. Let's keep it from gettin' any worse, huh? Covies are all over my missile batteries, and I've got five thousand civilians waiting across the bay for passage up. I need you to arm those batteries, then fire the missiles from the central terminal. Understood? Corvette's been a pain in my ass for too damn long. Give it hell, Spartan."
Once again, you're galvanized into action. The Falcon lands, and you're let out on foot.
The final encounter of the level is fairly expansive, and you're free to go about it several different ways. Since I kept my Jetpack, I opted to just blow through the scattered Covenant forces. There's also a Wraith on the lower level raining mortars around you, but as long as you keep moving, the Wraiths shouldn't be much of a problem.
As you fight, the pilot of 7 Echo 3 keeps Duvall informed of the Covenant's progress. Duvall tries to keep the pilot calm, determined to keep him from making the same mistake as 6 Echo 2.
- 7 ECHO 3: "Sergeant Major, the Covies are almost through my door!"
- DUVALL: "Steady, Echo three. That corvette is still up there."
Once you've primed both batteries, all you have to do is punch through to the waypoint and activate the missile batteries from the central terminal. To do this, I just eliminated all the Brutes and Jackals from range with the DMR, then Jetpacked up to the terminal.
- 7 ECHO 3: "That's it! They've reached the landing bay!"
- DUVALL: "That's it. Now or never, Spartan."
You punch the control console, and the screen goes black.
- DUVALL: "Missile defense online. All evac transports, you are clear for takeoff. Repeat, you are clear for takeoff. Go now."
As the screen fades back in, six missiles streak toward the corvette from the ground. They look like fireflies as they spiral around and impact the corvette in the nose. Small fires start on the bow.
- PILOT: "Civilian transport away. You saved a lot of lives today, Spartan."
As the three transports fly off into the distance, Kat radioes Noble Six.
- KAT: "Do you copy? ...Repeat, this is Noble Two. Noble Six, Noble Five, do you copy?"
- NOBLE SIX: "This is Six. Go ahead, Noble Two."
- KAT: "We picked up your transponder about an hour ago but could not risk open comms. Covenant have this city sealed tight. We're getting hothing from Jorge."
- NOBLE SIX: "He didn't make it."
- KAT: "...Understood. What's the situation at starport exit?"
- NOBLE SIX: "The last transport is away."
- KAT: "Alright. We're bringing you to us.
Noble Six lights signal smoke, and turns away from the last fleeing transports. As he turns, the camera pans up to show the corvette plummeting into the city. It's a small victory... but once again, we're reminded of Jorge's death, and the tragedy to come. The continuing sound of gunfire in the city tells us that the battle is far from over.