The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
With the first Halo game in our rearview mirror, we return to the novels with the first one (The Flood) being a novelization of the game. Okay, by “rearview mirror” I meant “firmly still in the middle of”, but a book is a great chance to expand upon the universe and fill in the cracks of the game’s narrative which certainly has a few spots that could be improved with some character development. Not only that, but we’ll be looking at First Strike which will be the bridge between Combat Evolved and Halo 2; a game I still haven’t played yet am and very much looking forward to experiencing for the first time! Speaking of time, let’s not waste anymore and get started on these books!!
Halo: The Flood (Novel) – 2003
Written by William C Dietz
What makes this book unique in the series is that it’s based on one of the games as opposed to all the other books which are stories taking place in-between them. Because of this, half of the novel is just straight up adapting the campaign which means we go through each of the levels and get to have all of the familiar set pieces described to us; something that would have been fine if these sequences were written with any particular flair, but much like the last book the writing is too utilitarian to add much flavor to the proceedings and it feels like I’m reading the novelization of someone’s Let’s Play. Having just played the game right before picking up the book, it makes all these scenes feel redundant, and I’m not sure who would be buying these books other than those who have already played the campaign. This is most prominent in the Flood containment facility (mission 343 Guilty Spark) where Keyes and his men were overrun by The Flood and where Master Chief encounters them for the first time. That would have been a PERFECT point in the book to keep things quiet and not indulge in action scenes to build the mood, but because there were Covenant troops there in the campaign they HAVE to be there in the novel as well. I understand needing to have some enemies milling about for you to fight in the game, but in the book it undercuts the severity of the Flood and it would have been way more haunting if there were NO Covenant there to kill. Heck, even better you could have a few Covenant there scared out of their minds and not even fighting back to further cement the horror that we’re about to run into; just liked the crazed marine in the game itself. On that note, I will say that the adaptation DOES work in regards to adding story to the already established story bits. Master Chief is mostly silent throughout the game, so adding dialogue to certain scenes like when he meets the terrified marine or during the Library chapter where he’s trying to talk to 343 Guilty Spark (The Monitor) are definitely moments where they added something to the material, but for the most part his story contains rather rote action set pieces.
Fortunately the rest of the book spends a lot of time on other characters who landed on the planet as well and even some individual members of the Covenant who have their own interesting story going on. By far the best parts of the book involve Zuka ‘Zamamee as an Elite with a grudge against the Master Chief and his Grunt totty Yayap who is forced to go along with this space Don Quixote. Zuka is a bit one note as the very proud guy with a chip on his shoulder, but I find fun about him is that all his dialogue and internal musings belie a fierce taciturn warrior (much like the Chief himself) but his actions throughout the book are almost comically inept or rely on ridiculously contrived schemes which makes him come across as less of a bitter and lethal warrior than some dude who a VERY high opinion of himself having to face a real challenge for the first time. You half expect him to be carrying Wile E Coyote’s GENIUS business card around and shows it to Yapyap whenever he has the chance.
The human stories are much more hit or miss. I wouldn’t say anything they did particularly enthralled me, but I did like some of the details we learn about the UNSC and the ODST unit in particular. It’s a LITTLE bit funny that their whole shtick is dropping from atmosphere to Earth in little death tubes where half the time they don’t even survive (I can’t IMAGINE getting a five minute lead on the other ships is worth THAT kind of casualty rate), but they are definitely the most complex characters in this. Where the previous book had nothing but duty and honor as motivations for their characters, the ODST are basically the Space Marines from Aliens; tough, brash, and usually their own worst enemy. I don’t remember much from ODST on the Xbox, but I always got the sense they were more CIA stealth operatives rather than run and gunners, so it’ll be interesting to see how the story of that plays out now that I have more context here. Even with that extra layer to the story though, it’s still pretty straightforward military fiction and most of the action scenes ended up washing over me as they spend a lot of time taking and then protecting their camp on top of a hill while Master Chief is moving the plot forward. We also get more of Captain Keyes story which was one of the highlights of The Fall of Reach and his story is pretty good here as well. Being the most vulnerable character in here as he’s not a super-armored warrior or working with a whole platoon behind him, his scenes of bravery and defiance carry quite a bit more weight to them and it makes his tragic fate at the end of the game feel all the more important. However, the single worst part of the book for me is early on in his story where he’s running away from the Covenant. Remember the last book gave a whole chapter to a character named Lovell and that it looked like they were setting him up to be an important character? Yeah, forget about that. He’s dead.
The whole scene is just kind of dreary and too broadly written. I mean sure, I’ve never been in a combat situation myself, but to me the character who “betrays” them is written like such a cartoon character and the end result is a bunch of characters from the first book unceremoniously getting killed for dramatic effect. Speaking of death, we should probably start talking about the ending. For the most part I found this book to be pretty middling as the Master Chief scenes were tedious, the action feeling perfunctory, and the character work across the board vacillating between fun and interesting (particularly with the Covenant) and kind of one note or straight up boring. Then we get to the final two chapters where Master Chief is off to destroy the Pillar of Autumn (the final level in the campaign) and we see what the rest of the humans were doing to try and get off of Halo themselves. The team is led by one of the aforementioned boring characters Major Silva, and their plan is to take the Truth and Reconciliation (one of the Covenant ships we visit in the game) off the planet. His second in command McKay is in the engine room, knows the threat that he flood pose if even one of them are still on this ship, and well… she tosses a grenade in the engine and blows up the whole ship.
I’m very torn by this character decision as it does feel a bit contrived (it’s one step below them having a History Eraser Button) and I feel like there are ways it could have been handled instead of just blowing everyone up, but on the other hand I can understand the motivations behind it; what’s at stake and how a soldier would come to that particular conclusion. The whole final chapter is a bit of a downer as the destruction of Halo takes on a melancholic tone because of how much time we spent with these characters who we know DON’T make it out of here, so it HAD to have succeeded to some degree if I was even a little bit taken aback during those final moments. I think this is what makes it better than The Fall of Reach which was definitely more consistent and had better action scenes (ones that were designed to be in a book instead of retrofitted into one), but even by the end with the destruction of Reach I just didn’t feel much for it. This one is clunkier, has some boring characters, and is literally all over the map, but it has a decent arc to it with a VERY solid ending that ends up adding meaning to what we saw at the end of the game.
Halo: First Strike (Novel) – 2003
Written by Eric Nylund
Where The Fall of Reach was lacking in character and The Flood was all over the place in terms of structure, this book manages to find the right balance as it bridges the gap between Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. At least I ASSUME it does as I still haven’t played the second game, but it picks up right after the destruction of Halo as The Chief tries to get his way back to the UNSC. The action is certainly drawn out, but it’s much better suited for a book than transcribing levels from a video game, and it’s an interesting set up that finally starts to humanize The Chief and the UNSC. With the fall of Reach affecting the UNSC at home and The Chief still in the middle of nowhere space with a few survivors he found in orbit, everyone has to be crafty to find solutions and in some ways rely on instinct and selfishness rather than hardline duty. Everything is depleted, everyone is still mourning over Reach and Halo, and it’s not clear what the next best move is for anyone which allows people to make mistakes, be selfish, and fail miserably without being framed as out and out bad guys. The story does start to lose momentum after a solid opening act however, with an extended sequence of surviving Spartans on the remnants of planet Reach. The action feels pointless since they’re fighting over an already dead planet, and the bigger lore stuff involving some sort of crystal flew right over my head.
Things thankfully pick up once again after the rag tag group of survivors (including Dr. Halsey) are in space on a Covenant/UNSC combined trash pile of a ship which includes a fun little moral quandary for The Chief that he takes WAY too long to figure out, but this is also where the series’ politics rear their ugly head. The most glaring example was the depiction of the Separatist colony that they have to go to for help to fend off a Covenant invasion of Earth and the contempt is palpable. None of the novels have bothered to get into WHY certain human colonies on other planets don’t want to be under Earth rule, and yet Nylund is perfectly content to portray them as vain, cowardly, and decadent. The governor even has the audacity to have LONG HAIR! Can you even imagine!?
It’s once again an example of the series doing its best to not stay tied down to anything which I can only assume was a mandate by Bungie/Microsoft, and so there are some cool ideas and interesting characters that can be built upon but are either one dimensional or just die off so the slate can be cleaned for the next adventure. A separatist colony that survived THIS long on their own while avoiding the Covenant could be a story in and of itself, but they’re essentially written as cartoon characters and sure enough they get blown up like everyone else because god forbid there be more than two sides in a big intergalactic war! If you want more straightforward action then it’s probably the best of the series by a wide margin and even if the ending doesn’t quite have the gut punch of The Flood it does have some pretty impressive set pieces and sets the stage for the UNSC to finally take the battle to The Covenant which I’m guessing is what Halo 2 is mostly going to be about. Even at its best though, I’m still rolling my eyes through most of it and am not sure I can handle another twenty or so books of the same without rolling them so hard that they never stop spinning.
There’s at least one more piece of official Halo content we’ll go over before diving into Halo 2, but before we even get to that we’ll be taking a detour to something VERY iconic of the series but was not in fact created by Bungie or Microsoft. Stay tuned because next time we’ll be looking at the first season of Red vs Blue!