As one of the primary Galactic powers with the Halo narrative, the Covenant is notable for the incredible destructive power of their warships and machines and the zealous religious fervor of its many followers. However, their general design aesthetic and architectural style seems utterly at odds with their status as a genocidal Empire. The Covenant’s use of flowing organic designs and strange metals with purple and pink hues in the design of their buildings and spaceships makes their war machine appear oddly beautiful, despite the horrific intentions of their warriors.
Comparing the Covenant with another fictitious faction of despots such as the Galactic Empire from Star Wars highlights the wholly unique aesthetic of the Halo universe – whereas the Galactic Empire have Star Destroyers made of dull grey metals in angular designs, tanks and weapons made from gunmetal grey materials and soldiers who wear dull drab grey or uniform white armour, everything that the Covenant designs, from the largest warship to the smallest sidearm, is a work of art built to look organic, sleek and graceful.
This is perfectly illustrated by the Covenant capital city – also known as the Holy City of High Charity – a gigantic, mushroom-shaped mobile base of operations for the Covenant that, despite having the destructive potential of an entire fleet, has as many hanging gardens and cathedrals as it does hangars and weapons. Noted as being substantially larger than both the Galactic Empire’s Death Stars combined, High Charity is a prominent construct in the Halo universe and is visited over the course of the games several times, particularly in Halo 2.
As a mobile base for the Covenant, High Charity is more than just a space station. It is a cultural epicenter of the various races that make up the Covenant – the city itself is contained within the vast hemisphere that tops the city, and inside over 7 billion citizens go about their lives as the genocidal designs of the Covenant are planned out high above them. The Covenant leadership of course occupy the highest towers in the city, whilst the lower castes toil away in the deeper levels of the city. Arguably the most defining feature of the Holy City, however, is the monolithic Forerunner Dreadnought that dominates the central ‘skyline’ of the city. A remnant of an even more ancient war machine, the Dreadnought is so advanced that it can power the entire city of High Charity with just a fraction of its maximum output.
Exploring High Charity
We first see High Charity in Halo 2’s opening cutscene, and it is seen several times throughout the game -it makes a particularly dramatic appearance along with its escort fleet during the climax of the level Regret, but it is not visited by the player until near the end of the game in the level Gravemind. This level, which is one of the longest in the entire series, is essentially a guided tour for the player through some of High Charity’s most important locations, and it gives Halo fans a first-hand look at the fracturing of the Covenant during the onset of the Great Schism, as Brute and Elite forces turn against each other and the Covenant fractures.
Amid this chaos, lovers of Halo’s design aesthetic come to this level to appreciate the strangely alien beauty of High Charity’s design. It is a testament to the effort that Bungie puts into their game design, that each and every setting – no matter how small or insignificant – has its own set of ambient sounds that adds to the authenticity of Halo’s environments, and High Charity is no exception. In indoor environments, when a firefight has ended and the last sounds of weapons fire have rung out, players are left with the constant, judgemental hum of High Charity’s systems as nearby consoles continue to call for the attention of their recently deceased operators. When the level opens up into one of High Charity’s vast, cavernous garden bridge areas, all that can be heard is the distant sounds of the city, the hum of power conduits and the occasional call of alien birds.
The Forerunner Dreadnought is the most striking feature when exploring High Charity’s ‘outdoor’ areas, as in both Classic and Anniversary graphics the Eiffel Tower-like structure dominates the center of the city. However, High Charity’s most appealing feature is the abundance of Hanging Gardens and other botanical environments that are scattered around the upper levels of the city. The juxtaposition of setting a brutal civil war in an environment of trees, waterfalls and koi ponds is striking, and when both sides have fought themselves to extinction, the player is left to wander among the empty gardens of the city.
The Fate of High Charity
All good things must come to an end, however, and in the standard Halo tradition of introducing us to beautiful ancient environments only to destroy them before our eyes continues with High Charity, as the city is not only ravaged by the civil war between the Elites and the Brutes, but the Flood take advantage of the chaos and manage to slip an infected ship in among the city’s defences which rapidly spread the virulent Flood infection throughout the city. Loyalist and rebel Covenant forces alike are consumed by the Parasite, which takes over all 7.7 billion of the station’s inhabitants within days.
By the time the player gets the chance to revisit High Charity in Halo 3, set merely a few months after the previous game, the Holy City is completely unrecognisable. The Flood have transformed the station into a horrendous hive with very few of its original features still remaining, and although some damaged remnants of purple metal can be seen, the majority of the structure is now held together with visceral Flood biomass.
The Halo 3 level Cortana, in which the player must enter the dreaded hive that High Charity has become in order to rescue Cortana, is noted as being one of the most hated levels in Halo history, not least because the only enemy is the Flood and the environments are monotonous and difficult to navigate. However, eagle-eyed players will note that there are still enough remnants off the original High Charity to tell us that we actually revisit a few places in Halo 3 that we visitied in Halo 2, including what remains of the Council Chamber and main Hanging Garden areas, and as also get to see the ruins of the once-great Mausoleum of the Arbiter, a cathedral of Covenant architecture reduced to a Flood-infested ruin.
The High Charity Experience
Whether players remember the strangely calm and relaxing city streets ravaged by Covenant civil war in Halo 2, or the Flood-infested catacombs of the ruined Holy City in Halo 3, fans can agree that High Charity is a truly unique place. Despite being all but destroyed in Halo 3, fans can always revisit High Charity in its prime in Halo 2.
Although it may seem a shame that High Charity is destroyed, ultimately its fall and the subsequent fracturing of the Covenant allows the Human race to not only survive the war against the xenophobic order but also ally with the Elites and eventually overthrow the despotic leadership of the Covenant and put an end to their reign of tyranny once and for all. So ultimately, the loss of the Holy City is a small price to pay for the survival of humanity.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but admire the gorgeous design aesthetic of the Covenant, and High Charity, for better or worse, was a prime example of this. Not only that, but High Charity represented quite possibly the greatest representation of Covenant design in the Halo series as a whole, as unfortunately, since Halo 2, the series has depicted the decline of the Covenant from a powerful interstellar religious empire that controlled the entire Orion Arm of the Galaxy to a disparate arrangement of military juntas and scavenger groups, but that’s a whole different story.
We hope you enjoyed this short piece celebrating the beauty and history of High Charity, one of Halo’s most iconic locations. If you would like to explore the halls and hanging gardens of High Charity for yourself, Halo 2 is being released on PC soon as part of the Master Chief Collection, a collation of all the original Halo games that is available on Steam now!