I need the Cliff's Notes version of Halo 1 and 2.
February 25, 2009 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Summarize the stories of Halo 1 and 2 in as few words as possible, while still being fairly comprehensive. Please.

I just bought Halo 3 and am about to start (yeah, I know, I'm late. Hate "new game prices"). I have no intention of playing through 1 and 2, but would like to be as up-to-speed on the story as possible, in order to get the most enjoyment out of it.

I've tried the Wikipedia entries, but they're just too exhaustive with clans and factions and craft types and minutiae. If asked, I could summarize Half-Life or Bioshock in about five good, solid, readable paragraphs - can some kind Halo player do the same for Halo 1 and 2?

Also, the Halo novels - worthwhile? Should I maybe read one or two of them before playing 3? Or are they dreck?
posted by jbickers to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm in the same boat as you, but the Master Chief Wikipedia article covers the plot of the games and books pretty concisely.
posted by Nomiconic at 4:22 PM on February 25, 2009

According to a former coworker, a huge fan of the games and of [what is in my view fairly mediocre] science fiction, the novels are awful.

In my limited experience, Halo does not seem to be a game that people play for the story. I wonder if your time wouldn't be better spent practicing your Warthog-driving or something.
posted by box at 4:22 PM on February 25, 2009

I've only played through number 1 - don't have an X box and fear Longhorn (or whatever they're calling it now.)

Humanity is getting its ass kicked by the Covenant. Dare not let them find Earth. Pillar of Autumn (cruiser class ship) is running like hell trying not to get captured. Comes out of a blind jump near a giant ring world esque artifact. Abandon ship is called, the computer system wiped and the commander is going to try and, uh, land on the ringworld after everyone else is off. You are an enhanced super soldier in cryosleep. You get thawed out, handed the ships AI and are told that capture is not an option. Have fun. Oh, and here's a pistol, no bullets.

Escape the ship. Land on the ring. Run through assorted countryside and 500 rooms, all more or less alike, and shoot a bunch of covenant troops. It seems they've almost lost interest in you and are all but humping the ring world's leg, getting into control chambers, and generally going crazy.

And then you meet the flood. They're half way between a zombie virus and the head crabs from Halflife. They make things out of the covenant troops and people. Things that, of course, try to kill you.

Run around, kill things, run around.

Then you meet some sort of ancient robotic attendant who addresses you as the redeemer and wants you to press the jolly red candylike button. The ship's AI stops you and the last minute and Duh duh duh! clues you in that the ring structure is a device designed to kill off the flood by killing off it's food supply - which is pretty much all multi-cellular life in the galaxy, and you were just about to switch it on. Dumbass!

Run around, kill things, run around.

Run around, kill things, run around. Did I mention 500 identical rooms?

Get back to your ship, locate what's left of the captain. Recover his personal transponder. Run around, kill things, run around. Rig the ship to self destruct. Flee on a long range fighter. Ship explodes, goodby covenant pursuit, flood and big kill everyone device.

Then you answer pay phones and get to listen to a pretty cool radio drama.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:33 PM on February 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

I would consider playing Halo 1 and 2 - I think their as much fun, or more fun, than Halo 3.
posted by pombe at 4:50 PM on February 25, 2009

The above summary on Halo is pretty good. The Wikipedia summary on Halo 2's plot is longer, but only slightly too long:


343 Guilty Spark is the "ancient robotic attendant" mentioned from Halo 1.
posted by talldean at 5:36 PM on February 25, 2009

Here's a really basic summary. If I wanted to I could write a whole essay on this but really, this is all you need to know for Halo 3.

Starting from the beginning.

The United Nations starts a space program, and for some reason it's quickly militarized (mostly for the convenience of the story I guess). At some point, a group of ships go way out into space and while they're out there they run into the Covenant, a group of different sentient alien species tied together by a common religious doctrine. The Covenant wipes the floor with the humans and I think one ship manages to get away and warn the rest of humanity. It's determined that the Covenant has declared a holy war on humanity for some godforesaken reason that isn't really revealed until Halo 3.

So a war begins, and it's clear the aliens are way better at this than the humans, who don't have the tech or the skill to outfight the covenant. We're losing. So a program is started, called the spartan program, which creates a bunch of super soldiers from birth--cyborgs basically. And they're really hardcore and prove incredibly useful at turning the tide, but we just can't make enough of them quickly enough and eventually all but one remain.

That one remaining spartan is the main character of the series, whom you are playing. You start Halo 1 on a ship that has blindly sped off into space to escape some bad alien guys, and once you slow down you realize you've just stumbled upon a mammoth ring floating in space (Halo). As you guys are looking at it from afar a group of covenant ships catches up to you and it's quickly apparent that you guys are screwed, so you and a bunch of marines abandon your ship and land on the ring while Captain Keys, the ships captain, takes the ship and crash lands it somewhere else on the ring.

You (your rank btw is Master Chief, so I'll be calling you MC from this point forward) are carrying a very important AI named Cortana and your main objective is to keep her out of the hands of the bad guys because she has all kinds of human military secrets that it would be bad for the covenant to get a hold of.

OK, long story made way shorter, you and cortana go all over the ring doing various things that all involve killing tons of aliens and it's eventually discovered that Halo is a weapon, capable of knocking out all sentient life in the galaxy--human and alien. The aliens are deluded though, and are convinced that setting it off will start some sort of holy journey (this really isn't revealed until Halo 2 but for now just keep that in mind). A new group of aliens called the flood, who have been trapped on the ring for ages, are set loose and quickly devastate everybody, both human and alien. You and cortana eventually manage to make it to the crashed ship (btw captain keys has been killed at this point) and set off it's nuclear engines, which destroys the ring completely as you speed away in a fighter.

This is where Halo 2 starts. You get back to earth just in time to see that the covenant has discovered where it is and is attacking cities in Africa. You fight the covenant on earth for a while with captain Keys' daughter and cortana and some other characters, all the while trying to figure out why the aliens are so stuck on that one location in Africa. One of their ships opens up some kind of warp hole or something (I know, sorry) over Mombasa and you and a group of humans follow it through the hole in your own ship right before it closes. As it turns out, the hole the aliens open leads to another halo ring (there's a bunch of them) and you fight the covenant on that ring for a while before you go on to another place called High Charity, which is this giant space city that the covenant use as their version of the Vatican. You fight some dudes there for a while. All the while the flood has spead across the galaxy and you have to fight them from time to time. They suck, and if something isn't done they'll take out everybody, because they're some kind of indestructible parasite I guess.

Halo 2's story is told from 2 perspectives: the covenant and the humans. There's a whole ton of alien politics that governs the plot of this game that I can't even scratch the surface of, but basically the game ends with one of the covenant's more powerful races, the Elites, seceding from the covenant and joining the humans. The MC follows a ship leaving high Charity back to earth in an attempt to catch one of the covenant leaders, leaving cortana behind in the process.

Oh, but right before you leave something happens that puts all the Halo rings on standby to fire and wipe out all life, with the trigger switch on this thing called "The Ark."

Halo 3 picks up with you needing to recover cortana and stop the covenant from reaching the ark and setting off the rings.

I know this looks like way too much info but unfortunately I've left tooons of the plot out just because it would make this post unbearably long. You're best bet is to just suck it up and pour over all of the wiki info you've found. One of Halo's greatest flaws is its extraordinarily convoluted and ridiculous story line.

...so, I hope this helps, and I'm sorry if I just added to the confusion.
posted by pandemic at 5:43 PM on February 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just so you have YET ANOTHER block of text to wade through...

Halo 1 involves Master Chief (with his AI sidekick Cortana) busting ass through Halo, the ringworld, trying to prevent the Covenant (a group of disparate alien races who have formed a theocracy) from discovering the location of Earth. Turns out the ringworld is a giant device of destruction built by the Forerunners eons ago just in case there was a reemergence of the Flood, a zombie-like parasite that kills and then reanimates its host. Of course the Flood is back, and the ancient robotic attendant (a hovering metal ball) tries to convince you to activate Halo to destroy the Flood. Turns out Halo doesn't kill the Flood -- it kills the hosts of the Flood, meaning, y'know, life. You destroy Halo instead.

So one of the races that belongs to the Covenant are called Elites. They wield swords. They're mean but graceful, and the Elite who bungled everything in Halo 1 and got worked by Master Chief is basically excommunicated at the beginning of Halo 2. Also, the Covenant have found Earth, they attack in Africa, and Master Chief tries to repel the invasion. It doesn't go so well, but Master Chief follows an escaping Covenant ship and they end up on another Halo. In the mean-time the excommunicated Elite has started something of a rebellion. The Elites' position in the Covenant is taken over by the Brutes. By the end of Halo 2, Master Chief is working with the excommunicated Elite (his name is the Arbiter) to take out the Brutes and destroy this second Halo. No surprise -- the Flood show up again. But they've got a very large friend -- Gravemind. He's a crazy collective intelligence-type guy. He's a much larger version of the Borg queen. You leave Cortana behind, which concerns you, because being in the presence of the Gravemind might just turn her into a rampant AI. That's bad news. Gravemind escapes to a Covenant ship before Halo 2 go boom. Also, turns out the Halo rings are the keys to the religion of the Covenant. They believe that by activating them, they'll fulfill their religion and start a revelations/second coming kind of thing. The Halo rings are all set to fire at the end of Halo 2, and you jump back to Earth to figure out how to stop them.
posted by incessant at 6:22 PM on February 25, 2009

And that's why I didn't enjoy Halo 2 as much. Halo 1 had a plot I could follow; Halo 2 had a plot that I couldn't follow which was mostly delivered in mumbly cutscenes.

Plus the dual wielding really messed up the balance of the weapons.

(Have yet to play Halo 3 -- is it closer to 1 or 2 in feel?)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:09 PM on February 25, 2009

A few months back I watched a retrospective video of the series. I could've sworn it was done by GameTrailers, but it's not there/never existed.

Either way, I found that Yahoo made a video of the storyline for Halo 1 and 2. You can watch them here.

After all, reading is for losers! (or something)
posted by carpyful at 8:12 PM on February 25, 2009

I'm a big Halo fan but I play multi-player almost exclusively, so I have only a basic understanding of the storyline. Perhaps that will be good for putting together a bird's eye view.

Humanity is fighting a war against "The Covenant", a race of aliens who want to eliminate us. Master Chief is a super soldier. Cortana is his AI sidekick who can transfer around between his suit and other computer systems.

Halo 1 - Master Chief fights against The Covenant. His ship crashes on a ring-shaped world which is "Halo". Covenant releases The Flood, a race of parasites that attack everything. An annoying robot called 343 Guilty Spark tries to set off Halo, which turns out to be a weapon built by an ancient race that will starve The Flood by eliminating all life forms.

Halo 2 - The Covenant are upset because Master Chief destroyed Halo. They believe activating Halo will fulfill their religious beliefs. Master Chief teams up with a disgraced Covenant commander "The Arbiter" and "Gravemind" a leader of The Flood to stop The Covenant from activating a new Halo. Gravemind is using them to spread The Flood. You go back and forth playing as both Master Chief and The Arbiter.
posted by tomorama at 8:41 PM on February 25, 2009

Plus the dual wielding really messed up the balance of the weapons.

(Have yet to play Halo 3 -- is it closer to 1 or 2 in feel?)

I agree about the dual-wielding. You can still do it in Halo 3, but they managed to engineer the gameplay advantages in a way that discourages doing so. It's very well done.

I've played all 3 games and liked them all (I have fond memories of 8-person dual-TV Halo all-nighters in college). Halo 3 is a lot of fun. I bought it the day it was released and still play it frequently. I can say whether it's closer to 1 or 2 as it's been years since I played Halo 1. It's not worlds different than Halo 2, and I will say that I played Halo 1 for a few minutes recently and the controls and gameplay felt a little strange.
posted by tomorama at 8:45 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am very lucky I'm married, because after I make this statement, I'll negate any possibility of ever being able to seduce a woman who isn't legally obligated to be seduced by me.

Covenant releases The Flood

This is incorrect. The Flood parasite/virus/whathaveyou is in a containment room and the room is accidentally breached during a firefight. Master Chief arrives hours after the breach. The Flood are also enemies of the Covenant.

Tomorama's description of Halo 2 is actually pretty good.
posted by incessant at 8:53 PM on February 25, 2009

Thanks, all - very helpful. I actually tried Halo 1 recently and found it kinda clunky - sounds like I might want to give 2 a try, sounds interesting.
posted by jbickers at 4:38 AM on February 26, 2009

I'm a little late here, and probably redundant, but I'll take a crack at it since I've always enjoyed the Halo backstory -- and I like a challenge. I managed it down to six paragraphs, plus a blurb about two characters you should know along with extra info on the books. Forgive the abbreviated headline style, I found it easiest to convey the info concisely that way.


By the 2160s, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) becomes the de-facto human government after defeating rebel factions in the Solar System. Humanity discovers faster-than-light travel, colonizes dozens of worlds. In response to anti-colonial guerrilla movements, UNSC commissions genetically-enhanced cyborg supersoldiers -- Spartans. They're brutally effective. In 2525, an alien religious hegemony of species called the Covenant encounters humanity, declares holy war. They're tech-superior, defeating UNSC fleets and smelting planets into glass, killing billions. A desperate UNSC plots to send a Spartan strike team to kidnap the Covenant leadership, force a truce. The day before the plan, the Covenant annihilates the UNSC military stronghold at Reach, razing the planet and killing the Spartans. The last Spartan -- Master Chief -- is on a ship that jumps randomly away to lead the enemy away from Earth.


The ship arrives at the ringworld Halo and crash-lands. The Chief and AI aide Cortana find Halo's control room, learn that Halo was built by the ancient Forerunner race. Cortana freaks out, rushes Chief to stop a human breach of a distant facility. The facility is containment for a virulent, zombiefying parasite called the Flood. The Flood escapes, infests Halo. Chief meets 343 Guilty Spark, a Forerunner AI. Spark has Chief obtain the Index, the key to activating Halo and stopping the Flood. They go to the control room, Cortana interferes. Explains she's learned that Halo stops the Flood by killing their food source -- all sentient life. That's why the Forerunner went missing! Chief rescues Cortana, eludes Covenant, Spark, and Flood, sabotages the crashed human ship, blowing it and Halo to pieces while escaping on a fighter. Everyone else dies, unfortunately.


Chief's at a medal ceremony above Earth when the Covenant attack. He follows one ship to the surface -- it has the Covenant's Prophet of Regret on board. Regret parks above the East African city of New Mombasa, looking for something. When Chief breaks the Covenant occupation force, it flees, and he narrowly pursues aboard a human ship. They arrive at another Halo. Chief pursues Regret to a Forerunner temple, kills him. Emerges to see a huge Covenant fleet arrive in space. One moves against him, blasting him into the water, killing him (?)

In parallel to the above: The Covenant commander from the first Halo faces tribunal for his failure; he loses his honors, is branded a heretic, tortured. Tossed before the three Covenant Prophets (Truth, Mercy, Regret), they make him an Arbiter, a traditional Covenant warrior tasked with suicide missions. They send him to fight heretics, then to the second Halo to retrieve its Index. They believe activating Halo starts "The Great Journey" -- transcendence to godhood, like the Forerunner. After finding the Index, Arbiter is stopped by Tartarus, leader of the species (the Brutes) that rivals the Arbiter's species (the Elites). Tartarus says the Prophets, wary after Regret's murder by the Chief, have lost confidence in Elites as protectors and want them replaced by Brutes. They've ordered an Elite genocide; Tartarus starts by shoving Arbiter into a bottomless pit.

Chief and Arbiter awake in the tentacled clutches of Gravemind, the plantlike hive-mind of the Flood. Gravemind implores them to stop the Prophets from activating Halo to spare them all from annihilation. Arbiter gets sent near Halo's control room to stop the Brutes from activating Halo. He meets other Elites, learns of genocide, foments anti-Covenant revolution. Elites join with humans, stop the Brutes mid-activation. Halo doesn't fire, but sends a signal that puts other Halos on standby. They can be activated from the Ark, implied to be on Earth.

Chief gets sent to High Charity, the Covenant spacestation/capital city that's orbiting Halo. A Flood-infected human ship from Halo crashes into the city, infecting it. The Prophet of Mercy is attacked by a Flood spore, Truth leaves him to die and flees the scene. Cortana says he's going to a Forerunner ship docked at the city center. She sends Chief to stop him, and stays behind herself. If it looks like the Flood might escape the area, she'll self-destruct the crashed human ship, blowing up High Charity and Halo and killing everything nearby. Chief follows Truth, stows on his ship, travels to Earth in the midst of Covenant invasion. What is he doing on that ship? a haggard general asks. "Sir, finishing this fight." MASSIVE CLIFFHANGER! (Well, not for you...)

Loose ends: Two characters you see in Halo 3 play an important role in the first games, just not plot-wise. The first, Sgt. Johnson, is the wise-cracking black sergeant with a cigar. He's the flavor in Halos 1 and 2, the dude with the best lines and the badass attitude. The other, Miranda Keyes, is the daughter of the captain from the first Halo. She appeared in Halo 2 as the commander of the human forces the Chief fights with from New Mombasa until the end of the game. Both these characters play big roles in Halo 3.

As for books, you only need to read them if you want to explore the backstory more deeply. Here's a rundown:

Fall of Reach: Overview of the Chief's early life, from conscription at age six through brutal training and his first missions against rebel and Covenant forces. Written by Eric Nylund. Well-written and enjoyable, lots of insightful background material. Also, some cryptic in-mission dialogue towards the end of Halo 3 will make much more sense having read this book.

The Flood: Basically a novelization of the first Halo game. Written by William C. Dietz. I found it insufferable, very plodding and poorly written. Not much redeeming value.

First Strike: Back to Eric Nylund -- a big improvement. Bridges the gap between the first and second games, explaining how the Chief made it back to Earth. Not vital, but adds a nice, well-paced adventure to the storyline. Lots of mysterious Forerunner spookiness, if you'd like to know more about that.

Ghosts of Onyx: Another Nylund novel. Bridges Halo 2 and 3. Tells the story of other Spartans (!) and ties up the fates of some secondary characters from past books.

Contact Harvest: Written by Joseph Staten, Bungie employee and primary author of Halo's storyline. By far the best of the bunch. Tells the story of humanity's first encounter with the Covenant, and how and why the war started. Goldmines of background info. Lots of info on Sgt. Johnson, the main character. Has a denouement so odd it's almost laugh-out-loud, but the very tail-end closer packs an emotional wallop.

The Cole Protocol: By Tobias Buckell. I don't know anything about this one, sorry -- haven't gotten around to reading it yet.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:39 AM on February 26, 2009

Covenant releases The Flood

This is incorrect. The Flood parasite/virus/whathaveyou is in a containment room and the room is accidentally breached during a firefight. Master Chief arrives hours after the breach. The Flood are also enemies of the Covenant.

Gotcha. I thought how I put it implied that The Flood is everyone's enemy ("they attack everything"), but I guess that wasn't clear.
posted by tomorama at 12:13 PM on February 26, 2009

Um, even more late here than my last answer, but you might find some of the key cutscenes from the games helpful, too. The series has been praised for its cinematic quality -- I believed Bungie even hired a Hollywood cinematographer for Halo 3. Here are the most important scenes, with video courtesy of the Cutscene Library from fansite Halo.Bungie.Org.

Halo 1

The Pillar of Autumn (4:01) - Halo 1 intro. Introduction of Captain Keyes, Cortana, Sgt. Johnson. Waking the Master Chief.

Briefing (2:27) - Sets up Master Chief's relationship with Cortana. Keyes briefs the Chief on his mission.

The Control Room (2:01) - Chief and Cortana find Halo's control room. Inside the computer, Cortana makes a shocking discovery and dispatches Chief in a rush.

The Flood (5:16) - Deep inside a Forerunner facility, Chief first encounters the Flood by watching a dead marine's helmet camera.

Two Betrayals (3:53) - Cortana stops Spark from activating Halo, reveals Halo's purpose.

Halo 2

The Heretic (3:09) - Halo 2 intro. Introduces the (future) Arbiter and the Covenant Prophets during a military tribunal.

Home Field Advantage (3:36) - Introduction of Miranda Keyes; the Arbiter is tortured; the Covenant arrive at Earth.

A Whisper in the Storm (5:40) - The Arbiter is, well, made into the Arbiter. He gets briefed by the Prophets.

Uncomfortable Silence (3:41) - Covenant political intrigue; Arbiter gets a new mission.

That Old, Familiar Feeling (2:11) - Johnson and Keyes are captured; the Brutes betray the Arbiter.

Gravemind (4:39) - The Gravemind rescues Chief and Arbiter, gives them new missions.

Cross Purposes (1:14) - Truth's intent is revealed; Chief and Cortana part ways.

The Ark (2:15) - Final cutscene. Humans and Elites stop the Brutes from activating Halo. Master Chief returns to Earth.

That second-to-last cutscene reminded me of a vital bit of info -- 343 Guilty Spark refers to humans as "reclaimers", and they appear to be the only ones able to access Halo's controls.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:40 PM on March 3, 2009

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