It’s one of the first things you see when you start the first level of Halo: Combat Evolved – Installation 04, the eponymous Halo ringworld, was the first experience of a truly familiar yet alien environment for a generation of children, teenagers and even young adults across the world, and for that reason it has been solidified as an iconic piece of science fiction imagery that is the definitive alien setting for many Halo fans. It is for this reason that we will be exploring and appreciating the masterfully crafted environment of Installation 04, the definitive Halo Ring.
The genius of the Halo ring is its simplicity – on the exterior, the ring is a simple geometric circle made of polished metal and dotted with neatly arranged blue lights. But on the interior surface, the ring is a chaotic, beautiful landscape of oceans, islands, forests, deserts, snowy vistas and uncannily Earth-like cloud formations. When standing on the ring, the skybox is sliced in two with the familiar ring arcing up into the sky, giving you a perfectly view of any other part of the ring, wherever you are standing. This defining trait of the Halo games has become one of the most recognizable pieces of Halo’s identity that resonates even with those who have never played the game.
The Crash of the Bumblebee
Halo: Combat Evolved’s first level, The Pillar of Autumn, is designed to be in-keeping with first person shooter games of the era – the level is composed for corridors with occasional open rooms and some narrow passageways, but generally a formulaic level layout. This is done to introduce players to the game controls, the player’s abilities, the enemies and the weapon sandbox, but the true genius of this design choice does not fully become clear to the player until they reach the second level – simply titled Halo. Escaping their doomed frigate aboard a Bumblebee lifeboat, The Master Chief and Cortana crash-land on Installation 04, and as the player emerges from the crashed lifeboat and sees the iconic ringworld arcing into the sky, they know that the true Halo experience begins here.
The game’s designers, Bungie, clearly knew that the environment that they had created would be loved by their fans and so the level Halo gives the player plenty of time to explore the immediate area without interruption – Cortana even comments on the ring’s flora and fauna, and how her scans have detected thousands of different varieties of plants and animals on the ring. Throughout the level you walk among bubbling brooks, forests of deciduous trees, valleys, rockfalls and cliffsides. The entire level takes place on a beautiful mesa, and when at the edge the player can see an incredible view of the ocean far below. But the player is soon introduced to another defining aspect of Installation 04’s design – the simple, geometrically-designed metal structures that protrude, almost incongruously, from the natural environment around them. Stark, smooth metal bridges cross natural waterfall chasms, caves are expanded by cavernous metal hangars, and tall angular towers dot the landscape, each one occasionally firing a tranquil blue beam of light into the sky.
While exploring an innocuous-looking cave, the player also discovers yet another common feature of the ring – vast chasms that extend down impossibly far, crossed by glowing bridges of solid light, that extend so deep that where they lead is shrouded in thick fog. What makes the ring so fascinating is that everything seems to have been built with a purpose – but what that purpose is cannot be determined, it is left a complete mystery. The enigmatic identity that is forged for the ringworld within the first level in which the player sets foot upon it is one of the defining reasons why Halo became so popular as a franchise. The feeling of wonder and mystery that is invoked by the environment of Installation 04 is difficult to describe, not least because it is a treasure-trove of nostalgia for many Halo fans. But one thing is certain – the Halo ring makes an impactful first impression.
Under Cover of Night
The very next level gives the player a clear view of the ring’s environment at night, as the story takes Master Chief and Cortana to a desert mesa to attack a Covenant ship to rescue Jacob Keyes, Captain of the Pillar of Autumn. The most interesting thing about this level is that it gives you an idea of how day and night work on the ring – the night-time is a result of the sunlight being blocked by a nearby gas-giant, Threshold.
The nighttime view of the stars as well as the various planetary bodies visible in the sky near the ring is incredible, and although the opportunity to see it is brief as the level takes the player deep within the bowels of a Covenant ship, the developers still put the time into making the skybox look incredible for those who want to take the time to appreciate it.
It is worth noting that several other levels in the game also take place at night, such as Two Betrayals, which offers the player a unique night-time view of Basis, a moon of Threshold that also acts as a de-facto moon for the ring itself, casting eerie blue moonlight into an icy canyon, lighting up the snow and icicles with calming light.
The Silent Cartographer
A perfect example of a wonderfully intricate environment on Installation 04 is the Silent Cartographer island, the setting for the level aptly titled The Silent Cartographer. Cortana explains that the Cartographer is a map room installed by the ring’s builders to locate the various important structures and facilities dotted across the ring, including the Control Room. To get to the Cartographer, Master Chief and Cortana must navigate a sandy tropical island located far out into the ocean, and within this island are many of the metallic structures that are seen across the ring. One of these is the Cartographer room, the question is, which one?
This level is somewhat unique in that it offers the player a less linear layout of level design and instead presents a wide open environment that the player must explore to discover the various secrets needed to unlock the Cartographer. Along the way you battle various types of Covenant enemies but you also see some wonderful examples of the Installation 04 environment, from a secluded cove filled with trees and a wide metal ‘plaza’ of sorts to a vast underground facility hugging the wall next to a huge cavernous chasm beneath the ‘plaza’ that extends down into nothingness. The juxtaposition of the peaceful sunny island and the dark dangerous complex beneath is a perfect illustration of the duality of Installation 04.
The Winter Zone
Master Chief’s quest to prevent the Covenant from seizing Halo’s control room soon takes both him and Cortana to an icy valley which contains the all-important facility, and Cortana explains that the inclement weather appears to be deliberate – the environment systems of the ring were specifically tailored to cast certain areas into an eternal winter. This is great news for the player, as we get to experience the iconic environments of Installation 04 in a winter setting, complete with an everlasting torrent of perfectly-rendered snowflakes swirling in the sky.
By far one of the most memorable sections of this level takes place on a huge metal bridge crossing the icy valley, tethered to the valley walls with beams of blue light. The fast-paced combat scenarios complement the unique design of this area, as the multi-tiered bridge allows for several creative strategies that the player can use to sneak up on the enemy. The fields of ice that dot the plans of this terrain give the impression that this area was once a lush valley like the one visited earlier in the game, except this landscape was frozen almost in an instant, as if the trees, lakes and fields were suddenly encased in ice.
Another interesting element of this snowy environment is the indoor areas – traversing the various canyons in this level require the player to enter incongruous metal doors that lead to a honeycomb of metallic interior tunnels that seemingly go on for ever, connected to nearly identical rooms that each contain bizarre humming machinery and ornate items of worship. Overall the winter environments of Installation 04 are among its most dynamic locations, not least because of the still-active machinery buried within the ice.
Hidden Secrets of the Swamp
If the dank swamps of Installation 04 were not foreboding enough, they hide a terrifying secret that answers many of the questions posed by the environmental storytelling of the game up until its sixth level. Up until this point the player has traversed desert mesas, icy valleys, tropical islands and grassy canyons, and wherever they go they have been faced with strange metal structures, dark chasms crossed by bridges and underground facilities containing dozens of sealed doors. Now at last, within this deep swamp, the ringworld will finally yield some of its secrets.
As anyone who is familiar with Halo will know, the truth behind the Halo ring is a terrible one – the entire structure, as well as the six others like it scattered across the Galaxy, are designed to wipe out all sentient life in the Milky Way galaxy in order to prevent a malicious, parasitic life form known as ‘The Flood’ from consuming everything in the Galaxy. The Halo array is part of a vast network of gigantic facilities built to wipe the Galaxy clean of life and subsequently re-seed all its habitable worlds with new life once all traces of the Flood have been eradicated. But in a futile attempt to discover a cure, the ringworld’s makers – the Forerunners, kept some specimens of Flood preserved on the Halo, and unfortunately it is within the foreboding swamps that these specimens reside.
The swamp environment is perfectly crafted to give players subtle hints that something is not quite right – by the time the Master Chief arrives, having left Cortana in charge of Halo’s Control Room in the previous level, the Covenant have already unleashed the Flood by accident, and the remains of several squads of Covenant soldiers indicate that all is not as it seems in this level. But by far the eeriest thing about this level is the environment – the swamp itself is perfect in every details, from the light splashes of rain to the ominous ambient sounds that surround you, not to mention the various crashed Human and Covenant dropships you can find around the area. All around you movement is detectable just beyond your reach, and your motion tracker pings with confusing feedback as supposedly friendly shapes shamble around in the darkness.
The Final End
After the discovery of the Flood inside the sinister containment facility, the best place in the game to hear some of the creepiest ambient sounds, including the iconic ‘factory wind howl’ that sends chills down the spine of every Halo fan, the game rapidly descends into a frantic nightmare as the player tries desperately to stay one step ahead of the Flood and destroy the ringworld before the parasite finds a way to escape.
Even after the destruction of the Halo, however, many fans felt a sense of loss – the unfortunate events of the game force you to destroy a beautiful, ancient world in order to save the Galaxy – not to mention annihilating an entire Covenant armada with it. Thankfully, Halo 2 would give us the chance to visit yet another Halo ring, this one sporting a very different style of architecture and environments. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any Halo fan will forget their first experience stepping out of the lifeboat on Installation 04, and the happy memories that they made there.