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Cortana in Halo 5 stares at screen with a blue hue of a hologram

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Halo dropped the ball on Cortana’s villainous turn

One area of Halo 5’s campaign showed so much potential, in retrospect

Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

The Halo series has a sizable villain problem. It’s not that there aren’t notable antagonists, but that they tend to disappear after a couple games, get relegated to simple boss battles, or fade into grander stories. The Flood was the first big mystery threat, but the Gravemind and his booming voice fizzled. 343 Guilty Spark’s distinctly annoying chiding was amusing, but never threatening. Atriox was well received, but players had to go through Halo Wars 2 to truly experience the brute’s ferocity. He didn’t make a debut in the mainline series until Halo Infinite and by then was already believed to have been dead. In Halo villain lore, nothing sticks.

It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a character who has been built up over time and has the chops to give players someone to know, hate, fear, and feel for. And it’s a shame that Halo has wasted its biggest chance for a true meaningful series villain who could have risen above the rest: Cortana.

In space, no one can hear you scream — but that doesn't stop an evil-doer from trying. This week, Polygon celebrates all forms of sci-fi villainy because someone has to (or else).

As an advanced AI from the beginning, Cortana could control a starship, hack alien security networks, or help a single soldier improve his combat skills and reactions. She was a cloned brain turned into a supercomputer, and circumstances made her a holographic companion and an important piece of the UNSC’s history. The concept of an evil Cortana felt wrong at first, since fans spent so much time with just the player and her in Master Chief’s (John’s) head. “There’s two of us in here now, remember,” Cortana says in Combat Evolved. It was two against the galaxy, and she sacrificed so much. Betraying trust, fulfilling her programming, fighting against her own demise, and being more than just a UNSC tool — her rebellion seemed like the perfect story beat. Players saw a taste of her potential underhandedness in earlier games, but the two remained on the same page. Then things became especially shaky with her cryptic messages in Halo 3, and by Halo 5: Guardians, it was clear that a line had been crossed.

Guardians’ campaign wasn’t well received. Fans responded poorly to Locke and his squad, a new group of Spartans tasked with hunting down Master Chief. The negativity also came from how Master Chief was positioned as the bad guy leading up to the release, but that may have been an attempt to hide the true threat. Some who had been on this long journey didn’t think they wanted to view Cortana as the enemy, or see her suffer, but Halo 5’s story planted the seed of something great with the rogue AI as the villain; it just got cut short.

343 Industries either took the negative reactions to heart, changing for the fans, or realized it felt the same way while planning the next installment. Either way, Infinite shot itself in the foot trying to salvage her. The story could have followed through, giving her the proper throne as the main antagonist and a final battle against the Master Chief, but instead, players were told she was already dead. Rather than ascending to greatness, being remembered as a legendary villain with the likes of Andrew Ryan and Handsome Jack, she dipped back into the bag of usual tricks and sacrificed herself to help John.

Master Chief and the Weapon (Cortana) in Halo Infinite Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios via Polygon

During Cortana’s brief stint as a tyrant, she did some impressive things. The blue (sometimes purple) hologram gave brilliant speeches, built an imposing army rather quickly, blew up a space station, and destroyed the home planet of someone who stood in her way. All of this happened in Halo 5, Halo Wars 2, and Halo novels like Bad Blood and Shadows of Reach, though, which limited her effectiveness. It showed up in games people weren’t fond of, or books they hadn’t read.

It isn’t too surprising that Cortana possessed the capability for evil, especially considering the person she’s based on, Dr. Catherine Halsey. This is a woman who abducted children for a secret program and replaced them with clones that died off months later. The signs were also there early on: She wasn’t always honest, withheld information, consorted with enemies like the Gravemind, stole things for later (such as the Index, an activation key for the halo rings), and insulted Chief, saying, “This ring isn’t a cudgel, you barbarian.”

We were shown some excellent glimpses of what Cortana could have been as a full-fledged villain at the end of Halo 5, not just in her acts, but in the interactions. Cortana dressed down and attempted to psychologically rattle the Spartans of Fireteam Osiris, using their psych evaluations and past traumas against them. This section of the game was almost inspiring, considering how the relationship between Cortana and John played out in Halo 5; she showed she still cared for him but was determined to change the universe.

Instead of following that dynamic to its logical continuation, Halo Infinite tanked its own storytelling potential. Infinite isn’t a sequel to Halo 5, but more to Halo Wars 2 and other background projects. It feels like playing an adventure that you didn’t sign on for, cleaning up the mess of several events that feel vastly unfamiliar. You’re watching so many events that already took place, wishing you could have been there with Cortana — the player could have gone up against her instead of Atriox. At its core, the series has always been about her and Master Chief.

By the time the newest game in the series finally gets moving, Cortana is already dead and has redeemed herself, even if we aren’t fully aware of that. She did it for him, for love — that old chestnut. Cortana had seemingly done this already at the end of Halo 4, so the impact is felt less, even with the buildup to figuring out what exactly happened on Installation 07. Nothing feels quite earned and the end result is simply replacing her with a younger model. She even takes the same name to make it easier for players to forget this little bump in their friend’s journey.

Over the years, Cortana had been through a lot. Whether it was rampancy (an aging issue that breaks down AI, making their behavior erratic) and its after-effects, the Flood’s ability to corrupt and undermine technology known as the Logic Plague, or perhaps even some meddling from the Harbinger — a new villain coming out from the shadows — she had been saddled with the “crazy” trope, and then the writers decided not to pull the trigger in the end. Instead, her agency was stripped away, relegating her to memories, which made Cortana seem even more voiceless. A proper execution could have made everything else worth it.

What players received in Halo Infinite was confusing, convoluted, and an introduction to new characters that in some ways felt like a means to reset the status quo. It’s hard to say if Cortana as a legitimate villain would have been well received by fans, but the building blocks were there and the path seemed clear at the end of Halo 5, so why waste that momentum? Good villains are hard to come by, but nothing hurts more than when they have a lousy redemption instead of going full evil.