This will no doubt be one of my most controversial opinions to date regarding an aspect of the Halo universe. Not that the Warden Eternal is a badly executed character on multiple levels. Hell no, the fact he is more likely to be called Sir Friendzone by a large part of the community shows you the level of respect this character has. Hyperbole aside as well, I feel the notion of saying that the Warden is objectively bad will ruffle some feathers because of how much we have latched on to the idea of subjectivity. I’m perfectly fine with differing opinions and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all of that jazz. But if any one tells me that the Warden Eternal isn’t bad, then I take it the same way that people tell me the Twilight books are good literature or that Sonic 06 is a good videogame: you’re lying.
Okay, no need to be that extreme, but I do feel that the Warden exemplifies many of the problems that Halo 5 is said to have on a miniature scale ranging from narrative, design, and gameplay. I don’t intend this to be another “Halo 5 sucks!” post since we already have plenty of these. But with Halo 6 still being a long way off and information scant, it still seems like the window for feedback that can help the series moving forward is still open. Let’s be honest, if the Warden Eternal is to exist as a continuous presence then he will need significant improvement. As such, I wish to focus on three areas of concern that I have alluded to above: narrative, design, and gameplay. I may have some miscellaneous musings towards the end, but the bulk will be focused on the three areas.
So this will likely be the area I actually have credibility on since I’m not exactly an expert on gameplay or visual design, but I’ll make my case when we come to it. For now, let’s explore how the Warden Eternal presents several problems for the narrative, both in Halo 5 and the larger Halo universe. There are those who speculate that perhaps he had some relationship to the Warden from Halo: Cryptum, an ancient monitor who presided over the trial of the Master Builder at the Forerunner capital of Maethrillian. Besides the name, however, we never see the Warden again and it is never mentioned as being given millions of bodies scattered across the galaxy and tasked with protecting the Domain.
Even this title raises several questions considering the Domain was thought destroyed until a small group of Forerunners led by the Iso-Didact went back to Maethrillian to attempt to repair the Domain. There they encountered a Precursor artificial intelligence named Abaddon who attempted to hold these surviving Forerunners responsible for the Domain’s seeming destruction. It was stopped when one of the Forerunners, Growth-through-Trial-and-Change, was able to start the restoration process for the Domain which utilized her mind as a “mind map” for the rebooting Domain. I know that sounds convoluted, but just know that the Domain was “revived” at the end of the day. Again, some speculate that the Warden may be Abaddon or perhaps even Growth, but the Warden at least pre-dates Growth judging by the presence of his bodies across the galaxy with the Guardians. As for Abaddon, its existence was a closely guarded secret and no indication that it was implanted in Forerunner machines is indicated. Personally, I think the repentant High Councilor Splendid Dust, the very reason the surviving Forerunners would learn of Abaddon and the chance at fixing the Domain, being composed and becoming the Warden Eternal makes more sense than his ultimate fate as 000 Tragic Solitude on the Ark. Sorry, I know this is just stuff only hardcore fans of the expanded universe care about, but my point is that there is nary a sight or hint of the Warden Eternal in the expanded universe. This is problematic when you look back at the plot threads laid out by 343 in the expanded universe before Halo 5 and see how intricate they can be. The Warden Eternal just seemingly shows up with the implication that he’s been around for a while yet it’s a facade.
Now, maybe an argument can be made that he’s a new character, so he should be judged by how he is portrayed in Halo 5. Fair enough, but Halo 5 gives us little to work with. He shows up on Meridian, talks smack to Osiris, “dies”, reappears later to talk smack to Blue Team, comes back to fight several more times, says he thinks Cortana is the real inheritor of the Mantle, and then gets mopey before fading from the game after his final confrontation with Blue Team. The whole part about him serving Cortana becomes an even bigger mess when you then read Dominion Splinter from the Tales from Slipspace comic anthology and see that he doesn’t agree with Cortana, but that she effectively forces him into compliance. So we have a disparity between stories that eliminates one of the concrete things we know about him, his allegiance to Cortana. I know there are spots in Halo 5 where it looks like the Warden Eternal is resistant to Cortana’s commands, but how much of this is genuine and how much of this might be an act? That’s a popular head-canon with some people, this idea that the Warden and Cortana were faking third disagreements to make Cortana looks like she was on Blue Team’s side to win their trust. Linda seems to suggest as much, but for now it’s just a head-canon. But his unclear motivations are just a sign of his bad narrative issues. Perhaps this is hinting at a major double-cross, but a double-cross ala 343 Guilty Spark would just be rehashing old plot points. If anybody should betray Cortana, it should be Governor Sloan since I would imagine he’d be pretty sore at seeing the people of Meridian killed by Cortana’s Guardian, but I doubt it will happen.
If the Warden Eternal should be anyone, it should be the Ur-Didact. I’ll touch on this a bit later in the design section, but I can envision a scenario where you can have both the Didact and Cortana as antagonists. Towards Halo 4’s end, Cortana has the Didact restrained on the lightbridge overlooking the slipspace portal in the Didact’s ship. You see one of Cortana’s fragments hit his head with a splash that could be interpreted to be said fragment entering the Didact’s armor. Cue “The Next 72 Hours” story from Halo: Escalation and have the Didact be “composed” and able to retain his consciousness in the bodies of what we’d know as the Warden Eternal (maybe a forgotten plan the Forerunners wanted to use to fight the Flood but never got around to making an ancilla for). The Didact could inhabit them, but perhaps find his access to the Domain or some other facility is restricted unless a human touch is registered. At this point he may notice he retains a fragment of Cortana he can puppet to his whims and uses it to lure the Master Chief and Blue Team to Genesis to allow him further access to whatever is on Genesis and to halt a dangerous foe from stopping his plans. This is just a rough sketch of an idea, so it’s not too developed, but the point is that the Ur-Didact could very well have been the Warden Eternal if circumstances permitted. As it stands, the Warden Eternal just has nothing going for him from a narrative angle. He lacks any standing in the expanded universe to give him a backstory and what little of him we need just subjugates him to generic henchman. He is the Starscream of Halo, just without any of Starscream’s actual charm and development.
This where my skills as an analyst may be weak, but in my objective opinion that is irrefutable the Warden Eternal suffers from one of the criticisms Forerunner structures in 343 works suffer from: busyness. The Warden Eternal is all floating bits and parts and lights that feel all over the place. This isn’t to say I hate 343-designed Forerunner structures that look as if they can from Tron, far from it. However, his general appearance doesn’t convey who he is or what he is about. Think back to past Halo games and the enemies appearance tells you all you need to know about their identities. Grunts are small and diminutive little creatures that flee at the first sign of resistance. Elites are imposing warriors that have a hint of nobility about them (they are monsters, but at the same time they aren’t scary). Brutes live up to their namesake with shaggy features or crude, spiky weapons that leave little to the imagination.
The Warden Eternal? He’s a giant robot with a skull for a face. We’ve seen this already with Halo in the form of the Promethean Knights and the newly-introduced Promethean Soldier. Even the Guardians effectively have menacing skulls for a face. Plastering a skull on something is great visual shorthand for establishing who the bad guys are, but it’s window dressing that shouldn’t be their defining trait. With his giant sword I get the impression he is meant to have sort of a knight in armor vibe to him, but he falls short of that.
If I was given the chance to redesign the Warden Eternal, I would try to hone in on the concept of him being a knight and protector of the Domain and Cortana. His body could still be somewhat skeletal, but layer on-top of it hardlight armor plating reminiscent of armor that knights traditionally might wear. He doesn’t have to literally look like he came out of the medieval times, but that’s the direction I’d go. There is a gameplay application for this, so store that in your memory banks for now. Or, perhaps in Cortana’s deluded machinations, she might reform the Warden to vaguely resemble a Spartan in MJOLNIR armor. I’m thinking it could look like the Mk.VI in a roundabout way. He can keep his general head-shape, but maybe have a visor or facemask to hide the freaking skull he has for a face. I apologize that it may be hard to envision this since I have no real drawing skills to think of, but I’m shooting for a more “noble” identity for the Warden Eternal. If he is going to be dubbed Sir Friendzone by folks, you may as well make him a literal “white knight” in the process. While on the subject of color, I also think 343 should move past the blue, red, yellow-orange color pallet for all things Forerunner with the Warden Eternal. If you go with the faux-MJOLNIR concept, maybe throw in a dark shade of green for the armor. Experiment with the colors at the very least. As it stands, Warden only comes in grey-yellow, gold-blue, and red and the latter are essentially just recolors.
As for a narrative explanation as to why he’d look like this, you could easily spin it off as Cortana wanting to soften the image of the Created to those she conquers, especially humanity.” Spartanizing” her chief lieutenant to resemble the go-to reference for humanity’s saviors might be a decent propaganda tool. If you had the resources and budget you might even have her forces vaguely resemble the species and their ideal hero to win them over. Can you imagine a Warden Eternal that resembles, say, the Arbiter’s armor? That’s an ideal-world situation, of course, but if the Warden is defined by his relationship with Cortana, then becoming a mirror to reflect those she wishes to control may be a way to go.
Better than a big robot with skull.
Again, I’m not sure how well my notion of gameplay stands up compared to my knowledge of the story, but I think the Warden is due for a major overhaul. The Warden just straight up is not interesting to fight. At all. You usually get stuck in an arena-like environment (which isn’t inherently bad of course), but it exposes the flaws the Warden Eternal has as an enemy. The environment tends to be larger enough that he can laser blast you AND small enough that he can run to you to hit you with his massive fuck-off sword. I cannot think of a time I used any of the Spartan Abilities to really make a difference. Furthermore, you just shoot at him over and over, preferably on his massive glowing weak spot (really?). He is a bullet sponge, plain and simple. Add in the fact you fight him about 7 times and you have an enemy whose gameplay contributions wear out their welcome quickly. Is it a wonder that many opted to exploit their way out of the final Warden Eternal fight? Then you throw in how he tends to have offensive support from Promethean units and its just becomes too much of a hassle to fight him and his Knights, Soldiers, etc.
If I were to be given the chance to change the way the Warden Eternal played, I’d approach his gameplay by giving him different “forms” that are contingent on the scenarios he experiences. When you first encounter him, he should be given a massive shield that projects in front of him. This is similar to how Watchers project shields on other enemies. That said, there should be enough space for the Warden to thrust his sword as if it were a lance if he were to get close. However, in this form he’d be unable to shoot his laser blast. The shield itself should be projected by two specialized Watcher units with a third specialized unit hovering towards the back that protects the first two. While you can avoid the Warden from the distance, you’d have to risk taking out the back Watcher by getting closer. However, these would ideally be the only other units you fight, no need to teleport in Knights to make the whole thing more difficult. When the first Watcher dies, the others can be taken down and when one falls then half of the Warden’s shield will sputter out and disappear which opens up the Warden to damage.
Remember how I said I’d give him hardight armor in the design section? This is where that comes in. The armor should be plated and be able to be individually destroyed. Think of it like a Jackal’s shield. You keep hitting the plating and the color changes until it ultimately blinks out. This would allow the Warden Eternal to be defeated in different ways. Say you shoot his sword arm off after exposing enough of his skeletal frame and destroying it, he can’t use that anymore. He’ll use his laser, yes, but it won’t be too effective at close range. He might try hitting you with his remaining arm, but players can boost out of the way OR Spartan Charge his arm and cause damage. Once both arms are gone, perhaps that can leave him open to being clambered on for an easy assassination once players cause enough damage to cause what armor he has on his head to fade away. Or a head shot, whatever works. Depending on the method used to take him down could theoretically lead to different ways he fights back.
Now, obviously, this would probably only be relevant in campaign. In Warzone or whatever it’s equivalent may be in Halo 6, everybody will be using tanks to probably wipe him out quickly. I’d like to think the shield set up would at least cause people to re-evaluate how they would attack the Warden in Warzone.
Even if I ultimately haven’t said anything new or my suggestions for design and gameplay aren’t all popular, I hope that you can see that on an objective level the Warden Eternal is just a bad character all around. However, beyond just saying he is bad, I hope the reasons provided give better evidence as to why he is flawed. For 343, it is okay to admit this and go back to the drawing board. You are giving yourselves a lot of time to rethink things, so don’t hesitate to do something with the Warden Eternal.
“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”