"5 years.... 5 long years. That's how long it took us to get Harvest back from the Covenant." - Captain Cutter, UNSC Spirit of Fire.
It's also the same length of time since fans of Halo last stepped out to save humanity in the boots of one of the modern era of gaming's most recognisable icons: Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan 117. Known more familiarly as "The Chief", more intimately as John. Since then we've had 3 other games in the series visiting various places as various people within the Halo universe, including a very worthy attempt at a console RTS by the now sadly defunct Ensemble Studio. But no matter how nice it was to drop from orbit and prowl the streets of New Mombassa at night, or to witness the dying moments of the UNSC's stronghold of Reach, or to command armies of troops and vehicles as you battled the Covenant on a Forerunner shield world, nothing comes close to the same awe-inspiring feeling you get from saving the day as The Chief.
And so, before the big day - 6th of November just in case you didn't know - here is a short recap of the original trilogy and the Halo universe in general.
Halo begins with a human ship being pursued by a fleet from a religious Covenant of alien races bent on the destruction of humanity. The ship, The Pillar of Autumn, in its final moments. is put down rather unceremoniously onto a mysterious ring world - a world known to the Covenant as Halo. The Captain of the ship, one Jacob Keyes, tasks The Chief with one goal: Protect the ship's AI, Cortana. If Cortana is compromised the Covenant would learn everything about humanity: force deployment, weapons research, etc. As the survivors of the wreckage begin to explore Halo they discover the installation's AI, 343 Guilty Spark, who assumes that they are here to assist in dealing with the outbreak of Flood. With the aid of the AI, The Chief locates and takes The Index - the keys to the bomb so to speak - that can only be activated by Forerunners, or their descendants. After being reunited with Cortana they discover two terrifying secrets that the world holds.
Firstly, it is a prison/laboratory for a parasitic life form known only as The Flood. An organism so dangerous that even a single spore can lead to the assimilation of a whole planet or, to put it another way, the destruction of an entire civilisation. A few surviving specimens of The Flood were captured by the architects and builders of Halo: the Forerunners. The remainder having been destroyed at great cost. The Covenant believed that by activating Halo they will begin "The Great Journey", allowing them to follow their revered Forerunners.
Unfortunately, this is the second terrifying secret; Halo isn't a religious artefact, it is a weapon. An array of 7 Halo rings, designed to purge all life from the galaxy when fired. And Millennia ago, that was how the Forerunners stopped The Flood - they fired the Halo array destroying the infection, but sacrificed their civilisation in the process. The Chief and Cortana race to stop the Covenant from ignorantly firing the installation, fighting against Covenant troops, infected Flood soldiers, and now against 343 Guilty Spark who is committed to firing the Halo array to prevent the spread of infection from The Flood. Despite being beset on all sides they eventually succeed by detonating the reactors on the crippled Pillar of Autumn, escaping the blast and drifting in space.
After managing to get back to Earth (which is covered in the book First Strike) The Chief's "welcome home" party is rudely interrupted by the realisation of humanity's worst fears: the Covenant have found Earth and one of the three Covenant leaders, The Prophet of Regret, is at the head of the approaching fleet. Tasked with stopping the impending invasion, The Chief, Cortana, veteran soldier Sergeant Johnson and the combined might of the assembled UNSC fleet set to work, ultimately causing Regret to flee. In doing so, however, the city of New Mombassa is heavily damaged but remains occupied by the Covenant. (This incidentally, becomes the setting for Halo ODST - New Mombassa after Regret flees.)
Regret has fled to another Halo, Delta Halo, and The Chief, Cortana and a small UNSC vessel, In Amber Clad (captained by Miranda Keyes, daughter of Jacob Keyes), are all that's available to stop them. Unbeknownst to the humans, the Covenant have their own troubles. The commander in charge of the fleet that lost the battle of Halo in the first game has been branded a failure and a heretic, but has been given a life-line by the leaders of the Covenant. He's since become an Arbiter, an instrument of The Prophets, tasked with one duty, to quell the heresy within the Elites that is arising due to a schism within the Covenant.
Also of note, and something that was one of gaming best kept secrets was that you actually played half the game as the Arbiter. A move that split the Halo fan camp right in the middle. At the time I personally didn't like it, but with hindsight, I think it was a brilliant move.
At the root of the schism is a heretic Elite who has somehow seen the light regarding the Covenant, and the Halos. On top of this heresy is a power struggle for the role of the guardians of the Prophets, a role that has always been served by the Elites, but the tribal-like race of the Brutes covets that position, and lead by the enormous Tartarus, Clan Chief of the Brutes, intends to supplant the Elites.
Worse still, the internal security of Delta Halo has been compromised by The Flood, and they've reached sufficient size and power that a central being to their hivemind has formed: a Gravemind. A terrible mind with an agenda - consume all life in the galaxy. The Flood also managed to capture 343 Guilty Sparks counterpart, 2401 Penitent Tangent. The Prophet of Regret is captured by Gravemind, as is In Amber Clad, which is used to infiltrate the Prophet's mobile homeworld, High Charity. This would enable The Flood to finally break free from the chains of Halo and seek retribution against humans and Covenant alike. As this occurs The Arbiter learns the truth of the Halo array, that the Covenant has been built on a foundation of lies. The Arbiter and the Chief form an uneasy alliance, with The Chief racing to stop the defacto leader of the Covenant, The Prophet of Truth, and The Arbiter heading towards the firing mechanism for Delta Halo to stop Tartarus from forcing the recently captured Miranda Keyes to fire Delta Halo. Cortana is left behind as a fail-safe to destroy High Charity, prompting The Chief to promise that he'll come back for her... "Don't make a girl a promise if you know you can't keep it."
During the final moments, the second leader of the Covenant, The Prophet of Mercy, is abandoned by Truth to the ravaging Flood, and whilst The Arbiter succeeds in defeating Tartarus and saving Miranda, just, The Chief is unable to stop Truth, and the game ends on a massive cliff hanger with The Chief stowed away on the Forerunner ship that Truth has commandeered, and who is heading right back to Earth hunting for a Forerunner structure known as "The Ark". Even now I can, as can most Halo fans I imagine, remember the huge sinking feeling that occurred the moment the game ended right after The Chief responded to the question "Master Chief, you mind telling me what you're doing on that ship?!" with the immortal lines of "Sir, finishing this fight." (Cue credits, cue screams of "nooooo!")
And so starts Halo 3. Earth is now under serious threat of destruction. The schism in the Covenant has become wide spread, with the fearsome but honourable Elites being supplanted by the savage and more zealot like Brutes. After a regrouping of ground side forces a plan is composed by Lord Hood, the defacto leader of the UNSC, and Miranda Keyes to stop the Covenant from activating the Forerunner artefact found on the outskirts of New Mombassa. The mission fails though, and Truth opens up a slipspace portal, into which he retreats along with his fleet. Unfortunately The Flood have arrived on Earth too, and crash land in the nearby city of Voi, contaminating everything they touch. Elites forces, separated from the main Covenant and now allied with the UNSC help the Chief start to combat The Flood. The Elites also pick up a signal from the ship that The Flood used to invade Voi; Cortana. The Chief has also been picking up strange ghost images of Cortana since his arrival back on Earth. After battling their way through the ship The Chief and The Arbiter discover it's only a message from Cortana informing them that a much larger army of The Flood is on the way and that a solution to the whole problem lies on the other side of that slipspace portal.
With forces stretched very thin combating loyalist Covenant forces and The Flood, the only forces who can give chase are the Elites and a handful of human ships, led by Miranda Keyes being given command of Forward Unto Dawn, her previous ship In Amber Clad being left upon High Charity after being infected by The Flood. Also accompanying the rag tag group is 343 Guilty Spark, who was found floating in space after the destruction of "his installation" by a group of Elites, a group whom he told the truth to about the Halos, and thus started the Separatist movement. As suspected, the portal leads directly to The Ark, a gargantuan Forerunner installation, safely well outside of the galactic radius of The Milky Way. With the Loyalist Covenant fleet stationed around the Ark the Separatist Elites set to work destroying it whilst In Amber Clad deploys a ground assault force led by The Chief.
As they attempt to seize access to The Ark's control room one of the task forces led by Sergeant Johnson vanishes, and worse still The Flood arrive at The Ark onboard High Charity, deploying Flood infection pods everywhere. During their ascent to the control room the situation becomes so dire that The Chief and The Arbiter even ally themselves with The Flood in a desperate attempt to stop Truth from firing the rings. At the apex Miranda Keyes is killed in a face off with Truth and his Brute bodyguards, and as The Chief and The Arbiter arrive they find that Sergeant Johnson has been forced to activate The Ark. Before the rings can fire though The Chief manages to deactivate the system, and The Arbiter informs Truth the error of his ways, before executing him for his treachery. With the installation now no longer a threat, Gravemind breaks gamings shortest alliance, and attacks anew. Luckily, The Chief, The Arbiter and Sergeant Johnson manage to escape the Graveminds clutches in Johnson's Pelican dropship.
Following one of the ghost images of Cortana, they learn that The Ark is a multi-functioning installation, and one of those functions is as a foundry for Halos. Upon finding that The Ark is currently building a Halo to replace 343 Guilty Sparks installation The Chief decides that the best course of action is to activate it, destroying all life on The Ark, but leaving the rest of the galaxy intact. To do that he knows he needs The Index, which just so happens to be with Cortana, who pilfered The Index from 343 Guilty Spark in the first game. Heading towards High Charity, recently crash landed into The Ark by The Flood, The Chief witnesses and experiences flashbacks of the torture that The Gravemind has subjected Cortana to in an attempt to force her to release the information it desperately needs. Cortana is eventually rescued by The Chief, who kept his promise, but she is severely strained. Being a "smart" AI her lifespan is limited to just 7 years, coupled with the assault from The Gravemind and a complete copy of all of Halos records, Cortana is not in a very good way. But still, finally being united with her protector, she is able to aid The Chief, The Arbiter and Sergeant Johnson in forming an assault on the control room of the new Halo, whilst all other forces head back to Earth through the slipspace portal onboard the Separatists ships.
With The Gravemind being reformed onboard The Ark, a race against time ensues. Almost within reach of the control room, 343 Guilty Spark appears. Driven mad by the loss of "his installation", the original Halo, he refuses to let this newly built Halo be fired, knowing that in it's incomplete state it too would be destroyed. During the exchange, 343 Guilty Spark fires and mortally wounds Sergeant Johnson. As Johnson passes on, he asks The Chief to send him out "with a bang". Taking his fallen comrade's weapon, The Chief finally rids the universe of 343 Guilty Spark, and immediately sets Halo to firing mode. The super structure of the ring starts to collapse, and The Chief, The Arbiter and Cortana flee in a Warthog, heading for the one ship left behind; Forward Unto Dawn. They make it with a few moments to spare; Cortana is quickly uploaded into the nav computer and the ship jumps, just after the new Halo fires, obliterating all life on The Ark. Unfortunately, the ship is badly damaged, and is shorn in half. Only the fore section, with The Arbiter, makes it back to Earth.
Back on Earth a memorial is held by Lord Hood for all personnel lost in the Human-Covenant War, and although he cannot forgive the Elites for the damage they have inflicted upon humanity, he thanks The Arbiter for standing by The Chief until the end. Upon the memorial is a small marking of "117", The Chief's serial number, believed to have been lost with Forward Unto Dawn. "Were it so easy". After the credits role it is shown that the aft section of Forward Onto Dawn survived, adrift in the cold expanse of space. Entering a cryo tube, The Chief leaves Cortana powered on, saying "Wake me when you need me". The ship drifts for an unknown amount of time before arriving at a dark planet.... a planet which lights up at the approach of the stricken ship, lights showing the planet is covered in Forerunner technology... And now, Cortana needs The Chief. And now is the start of Halo 4... Wake up, John.