Posted May 29th 2011, but replaced with this longer version on June 3rd after realizing I'd overlooked a later old draft which had almost 50% more material. Oops!
Back in February 2009, Rampancy's two-part Floodgate podcast by Narcogen and Blackstar led me to fire up the level again to remind myself about it. Struck by the atmospheric opening scene, I was moved to start writing and ultimately ended up with a commentary on my entire run, voicing opinion along the way. I wondered about doing similar pieces for other levels as well, but my attention moved elsewhere and the idea got sidelined. But here's the article at last if you fancy a humorous read. No pictures sorry - I still can't capture from that game - but if you're familiar with the level you should be able to imagine things.
Ok, so I fire things up on Heroic. Haven't played much H3 lately so I'm giving Legendary a miss. No skulls except IWHBYD - oh, and my usual Grunt Birthday Party skull, but there won't be any grunty fools having any birthday parties in this level.
Soon as I'm on the scene, I look around and try to remember which way to go to see distant Marines getting attacked by Flood. Surprisingly, I remember right! So I get my battle rifle zoomed, ready to help out. On a good day you can save your guys, but this time things don't go so well. I fire burst after burst and I think I take down a few nasties, but just as some stragglers close in, a big explosion goes off, and after that there ain't nothin' moving. Oops! I hope I didn't do that! Probably a Marine fumbling a frag - they're keen on that.
Standing on the edge of the rock, I notice a bright speck going across my sight. Is that a firefly? Maybe not - it's an ember perhaps? I look around with zoomed BR and start to really take in the sights and sounds. What an atmosphere! There are lots of little specks - some bright, some dark, and yes, I'm guessing they're just embers floating about. There are realistic fires burning all over the place, and off in the distance beyond a communication mast there's the impressively flaming wreckage of High Charity, from which a pall of ember-laden smoke rises. Turning around, just look at that incredible portal! It's like a big blue eyeball gazing down at you. It seems to be drawing in bluish material, heading up to it in beautiful streaks. Trees nearby blow lightly in the breeze and the yellow sun tries to shine through the smog low on the horizon. I love the range of muted colours in the sky, and the wispy cloud effects. This scene has got to be one of the most impressive and beautiful in the game.
But wait, here's ol' squid-face come to shake me out of my sightseeing. Hi Arby, how ya doin'? Taken any rockets to the face lately? No? Ok, I'll see if I can't fix that later. Meanwhile, let's go! I check out my weaponry as I advance. What have I got besides this battle rifle? Oh, a half-empty assault rifle, great. Dunno what the heck I was doing with that before; I feel sure I would've been carrying something more useful! I'm low on grenades too - only two frags left. Better watch out for ammo.
Down at the ramp there's a checkpoint, and the intercom clicks on. "All squads, report!" - "Multiple contacts, unknown hostiles" - "There, over there!… We're surrounded Sergeant!". More Marines in trouble. Oh dear, maybe I shouldn't have stood around gazing at the sky so long. Ah well, I'm sure they won't mind. And hey, did you see those Flood guys jump? How do they do that? Good fun to see if you can shoot a few down, but today I'm too slow on the draw.
Running along the alley now, there's stuff to pick up on the way. I add a few grenades to my load and swap the AR for an SMG, mainly because I like the feel and sound of the SMG better. I don't bother with the shotgun - I don't really like the H3 version much and I'd sooner keep the BR, even if it does run out of ammo too fast. Have you ever noticed a little Easter egg along this narrow alley? In one of the storage units there's a pamphlet on the floor. "MISSING" - Jason Jones. You can read the details if you switch to a binocular view. I don't give much for his chances if he's still out there. He'll be Flood fodder for sure.
Taking a right turn, Marines come into sight and then the place become alive with Flood. Er, is that the right term, 'alive'? Can I say that about these zombie freaks? Not sure - better check that one on Wikipedia. Anyway, no time for that now - Flood are dropping down all around and I get busy with the SMG and part with a few grenades for good measure. No serious trouble for me with my tin plating, but I'm afraid the Marines are all goners. I also accidentally deploy a bubble shield, which I didn't even notice I had. Oops! Truth is, I've been doing H1 lately and I don't think my brain has quite switched back to H3 controller mode yet! Never mind - I wasn't gonna want that bubble anyway.
Arby is impatient. "Quickly, let us find their ship! Make short work of this abomination!". What, no time for a tea break? Ok ok I'm coming. Or in Arby-speak, "Gadzooks and yea verily, let us rend these walking slime-buckets into very small pieces" (cue fox-hunting trumpet sound). But not before I top up my BR and swap my empty SMG for a full AR. Arby looks down at the green goo all around and mutters "Unworthy of my blades" for the umpteenth time. He just loves that line, the big galoot.
Into the factory
Into the factory, and an Aussie Marine is caught out by some nibbling spores. You can save this guy if you open fire on the spores fast enough, preferably with an AR or dual SMGs, but it's so long since I played this level that I forgot about that and I'm too slow off the mark. I do my best to help but he goes down. And then comes back up again, gurgling and looking a lot less companionable. Those little Flood guys sure work fast nowadays! Sorry sport, you're goin' back down again. A few bursts from the AR see to it, and then I move on.
Uh-oh; major Flood alert on the factory floor! And I bet they haven't registered with the union either. Can't have that. From up in the second high room I open fire with the BR and start thinning them out. But then Flood are coming into the room which takes me by surprise, and I whip out the AR as I spin round and move to tackle them. They're pretty soft, and Arby helps out with his carbine. We continue for a while, intermittently shooting down towards the factory floor and tackling unwelcome guests who come barging in. A spare AR in the first room lets me keep topped up with ammo. Eventually the coast looks clear and I move on down the stairs. But wait - the coast isn't quite as clear as I thought! A lone surviving Flood gurgles my way, but my AR takes him down.
I top up my BR from a spare by the sandbags - no Marine survivors - and pick up a few frags and spike grenades here and there. I consider swapping my AR for a spiker, but no, I'll stick with UNSC guns for now. Not sure the spiker is better anyway - but maybe I'll do a bit of dual wielding with it later.
After a few turns, more Flood come into view near a catwalk. Still distant, I open up with the BR. They're charging now and as they get close I switch to the AR. They're soon down, but now we've got Flood dropping in behind us. I backtrack to take care of them, keeping on the move to help minimize damage. A couple are after me and I drop a frag which takes one out. Not really needed - just the AR would've done - but it was fun. Ok they're all down, let's keep going.
Arby starts up with his dramatics again. "Cursed parasite! Rise up and I will kill you. Again and again!" Geez, he's such a drama queen that guy. Can he relax at all? I'm trying to picture him getting down 'n funky on the dance-floor, but it's impossible - and I'm not sure Elites can dance anyway. Grunts definitely - I'm sure they like a good drunken knees-up, the little hooligans. Needler in one hand and alco-nipple in the other as they stagger about - I can just picture it. But not Arby. If you stuck him on the dance-floor you can imagine the reaction. "Wretched sounds! I will smash your hi-fi! Again and again!" He's just like this all the time, I'm sure of it. Ok squid-face, calm down, I'm sure we can get you some more parasites to smite. That'll keep you happy, yes?
We advance, and I swap the AR for dual SMGs. Wa-hey! Those Flood guys are gonna be sorry now! Up the stairs and there's a flamethrower sitting on the catwalk. Very inviting, but I only just picked up these shiny SMGs! You can't expect me to swap now can you? Actually I'm not keen on heavy weapons anyway. I don't like the switch to third-person, nor the reduced mobility. I'm tempted to pick it up to give Arby a good toasting, but think better of it. Maybe next time.
I drop down a hole in the floor and have a little Cortana moment. Yeah, that's something else I'm not keen on! She yammers something or other but she's like that nowadays. I'm way too fixated on these dual SMGs to pay much attention. Let's just get on to the next round of carnage can we? Doesn't take long; there's a wodge of Flood waiting for us in a short winding corridor, but my SMGs sort 'em out. And then I start hearing a raving Marine. Sounds like he's had a bit of a run-in with the Flood himself! He gives Arby a good run for his money in the amateur dramatics department, going waaaay over the top. "I can see it crawling. Sliding around beneath their skin!" Nicely done soldier. Now stop blubbing and pick up a gun dammit. But he's on a roll and can't snap out of it, so I leave him behind.
Out of the factory
Stepping outdoors again, we're back at the place where a Scarab was destroyed in the last level, thought the scenery is rather different now. After a few steps I'm annoyed to suddenly lose control. 'Shadow of Intent' has arrived, and the game wants me to know about it. There's a short cutscene and we get our orders. "Hail humans and take heed. This is the carrier, Shadow of Intent. Clear this sector, while we deal with the Flood". Er, ok then. I was going to do that anyway you know. Elites are deposited and get a gooey welcome from the Flood. It can be nice to just stand back and watch them get wiped out, but today I'm feeling more charitable, and try to help out with my BR. Down among the Elites after we advance, Arby gets the lowdown from one of his buddies. "The single ship broke through our lion, and we gave chase." It broke through your lion? Heh, you need a bigger lion mate!
Onward we go. I pass up the opportunity of grabbing a plasma sword. I know it's effective, but I prefer gunplay and want to stick with the dual SMGs a little longer. A few seconds later they're hammering away again. Flood drop down and it's all hands to the deck. I end up peppering a few of Arby's buddies too, but never mind. When the immediate threat is over I swap to a BR and work on some more distant figures. But then more Flood drop in and it's back to the close stuff again - except I've only got one SMG this time. Still no trouble though. After that I swap for two full plasma rifles. From experience I know dual plasma rifles are lethal on Flood. They'll dice 'em up in no time.
We head up the ramp - it's just me and Arby now - and back indoors. Flood appear at medium range ahead and I fire short bursts with the plasma rifles, dealing with most of the threat. Arby keeps wandering into my line of fire, and complains three times. "Now is not the time", and so on. Yeah yeah, just keep out of my way then, ya big lunk! In general this really is an annoying weakness of his AI, and likewise of his buddies. They seem to take little or no account of your line of fire and they'll happily step in front. And then they'll do that "Now is not the time" business, as if the friendly fire was your fault. Arrrgh! Nope, I am not a fan of Elite 'assistance'.
Moving on, I take the high sidewalk to keep more distance from Arby. Suddenly the Flood are jumping down into his path, and I start dicing them from the flank. Arby whips out his fancy sword and does some dicing of his own. More Flood are up on the catwalk and I fire on them too. Some come down to try and get me and I take some down, but have to back off with a bleeping shield for a while. No real trouble though - the threat is soon over.
Up the catwalk and into the next area, and I hear a message from Commander Keyes. "Chief, the Elites are looking for something. We didn't believe them when they told us." Sergeant Johnson is on the airwaves too: "It's Cortana Chief - she's on that ship. Find her! Get her out!". Sure, anything for my ol' buddy Sarge from H1 days. Is he still knocking around? How many times did he die in that first campaign exactly? Best not to ask.
Back out into the open - the place where The Storm started - and two green Phantoms are swooping in overhead. The nearest deposits four Elites to help us out, and Flood attack. I stand back a while to let Arby & co have a workout, but then I've got gurglers running at me so I join the fray with dual plasma rifles. Not much of a threat here, but one Flood leaps at me and seems to explode in mid-air via plasma grenade. Did he get tagged by an Elite? Not sure, but I'm glad he wasn't too close when it went off. One of the Elites seems to be very much in the Arby mould, saying things like "Such deeds strengthen the blood!". Er, yeah, hope you're enjoying it fella. Like his merry compatriots he speaks with some of the corniest voice acting known to man, and there's no way I can take them seriously.
I spy a machine gun turret and think about having a go, but by the time I get there one of Arby's pals is cranking it up. He gets attacked and somehow the gun goes flying. Thanks a lot buddy! Oh well, maybe I'll have a go next time. Things go quiet for a while and I look around for weaponry and stuff. The Elites wait, but then get attacked by a distant Flood. Something new; it's one of those sniper Flood, seemingly firing needles from his body. He's got a whole load of them. I get ready to handle it with my battle rifle, but pause to watch a few needles zipping towards me in my zoomed sight. Nice! Ow - that one hurt. Ok, time to start firing. He's down in a few bursts - that was easier than expected. Another takes his place but he's soon down too.
I said 'sniper Flood' but actually some of these newfangled H3 Flood have the ability to transform. One moment your target is crab-like, then he has a bit of a fit and hey presto, he's ready to send a volley of sniper needles whizzing your way! They can also transform into big lumbering beasties that take a heck of a lot of damage to bring down. All rather impressively done, and it makes things interesting. Those sniper forms are the biggest threat, but if you can manage to score enough hits on them, it makes them curl up for protection, and then you can finish the job without any more needles flying your way.
With all threats gone, I take a while to admire the view. Seen from a distance at the start of the level, the crashed ship is now dead ahead, and the wreckage makes an impressive sight. The effects are gorgeous, especially the ember-laden smoke.
Time to move on though, and I pick up a couple of spikers just for a change. Once I start to lead the way, the Elites charge into battle. I stay on the high sidewalk and use the spikers on a few Flood. A nasty crab-like Flood takes me by surprise at close quarters - not sure where he came from - and I quickly move position. My shield ends up bleeping and I deploy a shield to keep me safe while I take stock of the situation. Crab guy runs off but there are other Flood to fire on. Soon I'm out of ammo though, and end up backtracking to get dual plasma rifles again. I get back into some action and take out a few more nasty crab-like Flood, but the Elites seem to've taken the brunt of the battle. At a cost though; only Arby is left. Darn, I was kinda hoping the Flood might take care of him too - but no such luck.
Infinite devils this way
Now I go down into a lower area, and Arby jumps down to follow. There's an ammo crate there but it's empty. I find new plasma rifles though. There's a gravity hammer too, but as usual I stick with guns. Surprisingly, no Flood leap out as I advance. Instead there's a slope with a handy HUD arrow at the top. Apparently that's where I'm meant to go. Arby's staying however: "I shall remain here. I will let nothing past". Yay! So long squid-face, it's been a blast.
I peer over the edge and it isn't too inviting! Looks like the rock is glowing red hot, and when I jump down and land the game puts up a caption which says "Infinite Devil Machine". Oh great - now it tells me! Well, can't get back out now - nothing for it but to advance. I go down a claustrophobic tunnel, but it's not all bad; I find two full plasma rifles to pick up. Just the ticket! But then my vision goes all wibbly-wobbly and Gravemind says hi. "Do not be afraid. I am peace. I am salvation." Yeah right! Pretty gooey salvation if you ask me. I'm having none of it. I get my normal vision back and advance.
Those wibbly-wobbly Gravemind effects are well done I have to admit. They made me a bit queasy to begin with, but the effect is impressive. But just like the Cortana moments, they take away my right to free movement and they get repetitive when you're playing the level again and again. I think a good way around that would've been to let you press a button to skip them before you started getting slowed down. Except, the skipping effect would be subtle. Instead of suddenly stopping, the interruption would fade out as if you were focusing your mind to block the attempted interruption. By giving you something to believe in like that, skipping wouldn't seem artificial and you could retain your immersion in the game. Ok you'd be losing the intended storyline development, but I'd find that much preferable to having to sit through the same scripted storyline developments again and again, especially when they're ones that take away your control so annoyingly.
A couple of plasma swords litter the way, and then I drop down through another hole. The music gets ominous and I go through a shallow pool of milky white liquid. Up on the walls ahead are several pulsating hemispherical growths, glistening and distinctly unappealing. I keep going, entering a small area open to the sky, and it's wibbly-wobbly time with Gravemind again. What's he saying now? "I am a timeless curse. Join your voice with mine and sing victory everlasting." I think I'll pass on that buddy. Does he want to say anything else? "Oh and by the way, the dental plan is excellent!" Actually no, I just made that last one up. Hey, did he say "timeless curse", or was it "timeless course"? Sounded like the former to me but I suppose the latter would make more sense; plus he's a bit full of himself so he's hardly going to describe himself as a curse is he? Not unless he's really into being evil and stuff, in which case he might be taking some pride in his job. "Cower from my big boomy voice, behold my vision-distorting wibbly-wobbly effect - that took a lot of work that did - and quake in your boots. Bwaaah-ha-ha-haaaa!"
Ok that's enough of that. Ahead is some sort of casket, and when I get close I hit RB to retrieve Cortana. Cutscene time! Cortana springs to holographic life and tries to give some sort of warning: "High Charity, the prophet's holy city is…", but the exchange is cut short. Then Guilty Spark turns up and gives the Chief a bit of grief, but MC eventually decides to trust him. He gets beamed up and the cutscene continues on the ship, where a whole lot of storyline yammering goes on. The upshot of which seems to be: let's trust what Cortana says, and go find a way to kill the Flood without firing anything too large and ring-like. Ok, suits me! Ron Perlman wears a funky naval suit and is not happy. The cutscene continues with an amusing bit where Johnson does some weapon collecting, getting funny looks from some Elites. I suspect they'd like to smite him. Again and again!
But the gameplay is over and the final section of that level now seems a glaring anticlimax. For starters, what was the point of that area with the empty ammo case and all the weapons lying around? I didn't meet any Flood there or just beyond, and I ended up feeling like I wasted my time thinking about what weaponry to pick up. Playing again later, I realize that actually there were Flood there, but they must have got triggered and killed by Arby and his friends while I was dawdling, which left me nothing to do. There was also a second landing party of Elites that got dropped further on, at the same time as the other lot. Don't think I ever noticed that before; I was always too busy focusing on things closer to hand.
As for events after I dropped down the hole, I guess I could've shot some of those pulsating blobs on the cave walls to let myself get attacked by a horde of miniature nibblers springing forth from within - as I know they do - but that wouldn't have been much challenge. Would that have been the so-called 'infinite devil machine' the game threatened? I guess so, but why would a new player shoot the blobs? I suppose some might shoot them to see what happens; but surely lots of others would just consider them part of the scenery and run past, thus getting no devils at all (let alone an infinite number of them, which is quite a lot more). That design seems poor to me. Surely it would've been better if those blobs were prone to spontaneously bursting as you near them or pass. Now that would give you something to deal with - and give new players a nasty surprise! I really think there should have been a whole lot of Flood defending the place, once I went down that hole. The emptiness of that whole final section just made it feel limp, which is a shame.
Combat wise, I found things strangely easy on Heroic. It's been a long time since I played it, but I wasn't expecting such a worry-free ride. Seemed way too easy to be honest, but perhaps that's because the Elites can be left to take care of so much. I'm not much of a one for dashing headlong into danger spots, and because of that, Arby and his buddies are likely to soak up quite a lot of the enemy's attacking, leaving less for me. I'll have to use Legendary next time - or see if I can boost enemy strength with some skulls. Does Thunderstorm affect Flood? Not sure. Because of all the Elite support you get, I'd say this level best suits a "charge into action" sort of approach. That's probably how to get the most fun our of it; going for the full in-your-face Flood mashing experience. My run had a bit too much of my normal "stand back and be safety conscious" approach, making things disappointing in places, especially near the end.
This level also feels unsatisfyingly short to me. It feels a lot shorter than The Storm, even though you're just going back through the same territory. I guess that's just due to the opposition being so much weaker. I think it's also worth mentioning that even on Heroic, you can pretty much run straight through the entire level! I did it later on just to check my suspicion. I only had to pause a couple of times to mow down a few Flood in my way; but other than that, I was able to just run past everything, no trouble. That's a bit too much of a design flaw if you ask me; things shouldn't be that easy on Heroic.
On the positive side, I'm glad there are plenty of SMGs about the place. Not enough Brute shots though! I find that the most enjoyable thing to use on the Flood, but I think I only saw one on that run. When there are so few, and when they're typically low on ammo, that's an impediment to bothering to pick one up at all, because you know you'll be out of ammo in a jiffy and have to switch to something else.
If I were to pick out anything as a highlight, I'd choose the gorgeous atmospheric visuals and sounds at the start. That really was a scene to remember.