Twenty Years of Halo: Halo 3 Essentials & Halo Landfall

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Like with the bonus and behind the scenes content with Halo 2 this was planned to be an interim episodes instead of taking up its own cozy spot on the weekly schedule, but the more I dove into the two disc Essentials and everything involved, yeah there was no way I could get this done as a mere aside.  There are A LOT of features on these discs and plenty to talk about, so let’s not waste any more time and dive right in!

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Halo 3 Essentials (Bonus Features) – 2007

We’ll start things off with how they were released.  The first disc which was released in both the Collector’s and Legendary editions of Halo 3 is something I SOMEHOW managed to get a copy of many years ago (I’m still baffled that this thing wound its way in my collection) and only works on an Xbox 360 console.  I can’t even find information confirming that it works on Xbox One or Series S/X, so unless you’re like me and can’t throw away anything this disc and its content are going to be hard to get ahold of going forward.  The second disc on the other hand which was only available on the Legendary Edition is a simple DVD and will work in anything that plays those.  Considering the massive marketing campaign around this game it’s no surprise that something like this was added to the game to entice people to spend a little more, and I’m not sure how many games even bother with this kind of stuff anymore.  I remember the PS2 having a few games that had some pretty cool bonus features like God of War having a ton of Making Of videos and even something like Aqua Teen Hunger Force Zombie Ninja Pro-Am having an episode of the show on it, but I guess with YouTube being so accessible that companies will just post stuff on there if they even feel like bothering with it; and even then a lot of it is pre-release so there’s always the sense of it still trying to sell you on something whereas these kind of features are more of a celebration after the fact.  In any case, there’s a lot to talk about here so we’ll group them together into loose categories to try and cover a little bit of everything.

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Making Of Features

Now this includes the VERY extensive Making Of feature on disc 1, Seven Steps to World Domination on disc 2, and the unfortunately yet still appropriately named Git Tur Wurk back on disc 1. The Making Of document is the pick of the litter here as it’s a full hour but is filled with some VERY cool stuff about how the game was developed.  It’s well produced, we get insights into many of the interesting tools used, and the enthusiasm of those being interviewed is infectious.  Just hearing Xi Wang, one of the Graphics Engineers, talking in depth about the water engine is engaging and I learned about things you could do with the water in Halo 3 that I would have never even thought about!  There’s stuff like that, the in depth showcase of the damage system, the way the tested the online servers with teams in Japan, but my favorite bit was their play testing process!  There’s this really nifty tool they had where they would have play testers play the game and be able to report issues while in game.  Then, the developers not only get a list of these issues, they know exactly where in the level it occurred and can even watch a replay of the player playing the game at that time!  That is just really cool to me and I’m now wondering if this kind of software is standard in the industry!

If only they had this for the first game!  The Library level would just be one big sea of red!

And all of that is before you even get to the sound design stuff which I found to be endlessly fascinating.  Just capturing the various noises that the game needed was quite an effort and they come up with some interesting places to find them.  One dude just seemingly spent an hour bashing the crap out of an Xbox to get some damage sounds, Sound Designer C Paul Johnson recorded his car door to get sci-fi sounding sliding door sounds, and just watching the process is really interesting.  I especially liked this one part where they play an extended bit of gameplay and then play the audio one layer at a time so you can hear all the different pieces that went into the overall sound, and I remember playing that part of the game that they’re showing so it’s fun to see the work that went into it.  We also get to see some of the celebrity voice over actors they got for the game; some of which I knew about like Ron Perlman as Admiral Hood, but they’ve got Nolan North, Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, and even… John DiMaggio!?  BENDER IS IN THIS!?

“BITE MY HAIRY JIRALHANAE ASS!”

The Making of Feature on disc 1 is so great that it’s a shame how the other features kind of sour the experience for me.  They don’t have as flattering (or as polished) things to say about Bungie and their process, and while I won’t go so far as to say they come off as Dude Bros, they are at least Bro Adjacent.  There’s a boy’s club atmosphere that comes to the forefront in Seven Steps to World Domination and Git Tur Wurk; Not something overt where women are intentionally excluded and ridiculed, but just things here and there that caught my attention when they were brought up.  The entire staff of Halo 3 consisted of only a handful of women and in the Git Tur Wurk video the other developers are surprised that ANY women are a part of the game.  Not what I’d call a great look, and not the only thing to raise an eyebrow here.  Seven Steps to World Domination, a history of Bungie as told by Bungie employees, has some interesting information, but it’s a lot less filtered than the Making Of documentary and so there are a lot eye rolling moments of bad humor in it as well as some… well frankly DISTURBING little quirks of the office.  I’m not someone who should be charge of policing what is or isn’t appropriate in the workplace, but I know that I’d have a hard time working someplace that had Ling Ling around (look it up if you’re not squeamish).  The other video is Git Tur Wurk which is a day in the Bungie studios during crunch time, and despite everyone trying to be chipper and irreverent, you can tell that they’re all tired and miserable.  Crunch has become a big discussion in the last few years and this kinda-sorta cutesy approach to the subject feels dated to say the least. 

“See it’s funny!  Because management doesn’t know what it’s doing…”

Perhaps the bigger picture is important to catalog, but for me I’d just stick with the Making Of documentary as it has the most interesting information and is by far the easiest to watch and genuinely gets you engaged in the game making process.

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Audio Commentaries

This is probably one of the coolest features on the set as Martin O’Donnell, Joseph Staten, and Jason Jones do audio commentary for all of the cut scenes from both Halo 1 and Halo 2.  You get a bit more of an unfiltered look at the production of the game than you do with the Making of Features, and it’s interesting just how critical they are about their own games despite how wildly successful they were.  Joe Staten has this interesting moment when talking about the first Arbiter section of the game.  Some people criticized the handling of his character and the gameplay involved (not to mention the lengthy cut scenes to set it up), but he thinks that it was ultimately a risk worth taking and that Halo is better for it.  It’s not just letting the criticism roll off your back, it’s acknowledging that there are problems with these sections of the games and that perhaps sticking just to The Master Chief would have made Halo 2 a somewhat better experience, but doing so would have undercut future games as the developers themselves grew to understand The Covenant as more than just one dimensional bad guys which made them more dynamic characters for the subsequent games.  I think this is an interesting and smart way to look at this as The Arbiter (at least for me) quickly become the most interesting aspect of the entire franchise even if his levels DID drag on a tiny bit in Halo 2, and I can only hope that this is the case with the subsequent games.  I only have some experience with ODST which had a pretty narrow focus in terms of narrative, and I’m not sure what they do with The Covenant in The Fall of Reach (a prequel back before Thel ‘Vadamee became The Arbiter and the attempted genocide of The Elites) or what place they have in Halo 4 which from what I understand introduces a NEW threat in a different part of the galaxy.  That was probably the most interesting discussion there as everything else is mostly them pointing out where they could have made changes or how they accomplished some of the more extensive animations.  I feel at least somewhat vindicated that they confirmed the transaction from The Silent Cartographer to Assault on the Control Room in the first game (where you essentially go down a manhole and pop up in a new biome) was an awkward work around, and there was one really cool Easter Egg about the end of Halo 1 where the Chief took off his helmet but you don’t see his face.  It turns out that underneath the helmet… WAS ANOTHER HELMET, and it was discovered by fans when the PC version of the game came out and they found a way to unlock the camera during the cut scenes.

Source: Generalkidd – Master Chief Taking His Helmet Off In Anniversary Graphics (YouTube)

Not everything about the commentary is positive revelations however as Cortana’s butt is commented on in a jokey but still kinda skeevy manner, and apparently there was a scrapped story idea to have Miranda Keyes betray the humans because she’s upset with The Chief over the death of her father.  We already talked about Bungie’s issues with women and sadly that can be seen here as well.  Still, it gives some interesting insights if you’re interested in the storytelling and technical aspects of the game aside from the gameplay itself.

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Cortana Chronicles: In Search of Halo Fandom

So one of the MANY things that I just don’t think I’ll be able to cover in this retrospective is the fan community.  Finding a Wikipedia page with all of Halo’s media is one thing, but to really get a glimpse of the fandom at each stage of the Halo story is simply an undertaking too arduous for the scope of this project.  Thankfully there’s a feature on disc 2 where Jen Taylor, Cortana’s voice actor, visits various people in the Halo fandom that gives a decent if HEAVILY romanticized look at Halo’s fan community at its peak.  The fact is that there HALO PLAYERS as the bane of online gaming discourse is a long held stereotype that I’m sure was richly deserved, and this is a feature more or less FOR those fans so there’s nothing in here that shows them in even the slightest negative light.  A bit cringy maybe, but like the Making Of feature on disc one it does its job of making you smile at the dedication surrounding this franchise.  Taylor basically goes around the world to visit the cream of the crop of the community, from well known (at least at the time) fan creators like musician Matt Cox and flash game developer Boll, all the way up to Rooster Teeth and PMS Army; a women’s competitive gaming team that still operates to this day!  And of course, you’ve got to get your celebrity cameos to talk about how much they like Halo.  Jen visits Industrial Light and Magic where they apparently spent half of their work week playing LAN matches (I’m sure George Lucas was happy about that) and Ed Robertson from The Barenaked Ladies is apparently a big fan of the game.  For me though, being neck deep in the Halo novels, I was pretty excited to see her talk with Eric Nylund who wrote The Fall of Reach, First Strike, Ghost of Onyx, and contributed to the short story collection Evolutions!  I’m not the BIGGEST fan of his writing as I’ve made very clear in my previous posts about his books, but he seems like an affable guy and he DID lay the groundwork for a lot of Halo’s lore.

“So… you wanna talk about the Spartan III program?”     “It’s AWESOME, right?”     “I mean…”

It was definitely interesting in getting a bit more insight into the community around the franchise as I don’t get a lot of opportunities to delve into it for this retrospective, and even if it lacks in any real depth or examination of the fandom (of course it does; it’s a promotional piece on an expensive special edition) it still has some heart to it and is a fun bonus to throw on the disc.

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Red Vs Blue & This Spartan Life

There are exclusive Red Vs Blue pics and themes you could download to your Xbox 360 on disc 1, but the most significant content is on disc 2 which has two exclusive episodes.  The first one is essentially a recreation of the first episode of Red Vs Blue in the Halo 3 engine as well as prologue with Gus, Bernie, and Geoff where Gus taking sarcastic jabs at George Lucas style special editions before Bernie and Geoff recreate the “true story” of how Red Vs Blue came to be in the first place.  If you wanted to rewatch the first episode with 360 graphics and on the Valhalla map than this will do it for you, but the prologue does have someone dropping the R word which they were apparently still using as late as 2007 which is pretty disappointing.  Thankfully the other episode was much better as it involves the Blood Gulch crew essentially auditioning to be Master Chief’s understudy for Halo 3.  The prize ultimately goes to Tex but that doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t be stunt doubles as Sarge spends the last minute or so of the episode coming up with creative ways to blow up everyone else.  It’s a fun little extra that fits better with the game it’s supposed to be a bonus for than the pilot recreation and thankfully doesn’t use the R word. 

“Alight, men!  People are paying a premium price to see us, so we’ve gotta give them something worth bragging to their poorer friends about!”     “How about, we bicker back and forth…”     “Grrr…”     “In HD?”     “… Okay, I’m listening.”

Now Red vs Blue is well covered ground in this retrospective already, but the OTHER special episode they have is for something called This Spartan Life.  I tried to compile as complete a catalog of the Halo Universe as I could, and yet I completely missed this Machinima series which was apparently big enough that Bungie themselves got involved with it and yet it just never seems to come up anymore in the Halo circles that I occasionally take a glimpse into!  It’s actually a pretty interesting concept where our host Damian Lacedaemion (voiced by the creator Chris Burke) runs a talk show within the Halo 2 multiplayer maps, and I’m kind of sad that it never seemed to capture the zeitgeist the way that Red Vs Blue did.  Still, it had some real ambition behind it and got some STARTLINGLY big guests for such a short running series such as Martin O’Donnell form Bungie, The Raiders Guys, and Malcolm McLaren; the guy who managed The Sex Pistols.  I also ended up loving the Golden Elite Dancers who are five multi-colored elites that do choreographed dance routines as it’s a fun and unique use of Machinima and the routines are impressively executed.

“Keep up the good work guys!  We put in the time and me might just get a spinoff!”     “SIR, YES SIR!”

The episode included on disc 2 has Damien, Arrow and Fyb3r traveling from their usual Halo 2 set to the High Ground map in Halo 3 where they meet Frank O’Conner, one of the big wigs at Bungie.  Like the Master Chief understudy video from Red Vs Blue, this is mostly there for promotional purposes as Damien is asking questions to Frank about Halo 3’s new video features which were a pretty big deal when the game came out and seems to have been made with machinima in mind.  It’s certainly why the Halo 3 seasons of Red Vs Blue got to expand their scope the way they did, and while Frank isn’t exactly the most exciting interview subject the show has had, it’s a fun little bonus to throw on here.

“It’s so new and shiny!”     “And the ragdoll physics are better than ever!”     “Really!?”     “Of course!  Let me show you!”     *BLAM*

The story of This Spartan Life is a bit hard to pick up on at this point.  Their YouTube page at least goes as far as episode 7, but at some point they were added to Halo Waypoint and there were episodes posted on there.  How many, and for how long?  I have no idea and the Halo Waypoint website has been seemingly scrubbed of all reference to it.  At some point I should cover Halo Waypoint in one of these so I’ll keep an eye out for more details of this show during my research, but it’s a shame that for a show that had a lot of potential and some solid content hat it just kind of petered out without much impact on the fandom.   Red Vs Blue’s quirky gamer humor shtick may be the template that all others try to copy from, but this show was something unique and I hope that as I continue my research into all things Halo that maybe someone else picked up the banner and ran with it, but for now it’s a fun little feature on disc 2 and there are some videos on YouTube if you’re interested in seeing more.

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Wackiness & Extras

And of course before we close the book on the special features, they threw in a few oddball and harder to categorize stuff.  The A/V Calibration Tool is probably the most famous of these as it has Johnson himself walking you through optimizing your TV setup for the best Halo experience.  I mean I could listen to David Scully read a phone book in Johnson’s voice so it was fun to see him in this capacity, and it also has the fun little sound test with the Grunt and the Hunter that you may see pop up here and there in Halo circles.  Less interesting was the Network Setup video which followed a Bungie Employee around in an over the top instructional video that seems like it was fun for everyone involved, but it felt more like a home movie than anything and I didn’t find it all that funny.  Warthog Launch is a very simple game on the first disc that I probably spent way too much time in and was developed by Boll who we saw in the Jen Taylor feature; though I am a bit ambivalent about the idea of the Huragok being the targets you’re aiming for!  Those are kind of the least evil aliens in the entire Covenant, so I feel kinda bad about smooshing them with a flying Warthog.  There’s also production artwork and a Beastarium if you want to see more behind the scenes stuff and a credits reel for everyone at Bungie.  I can’t say that everything on these discs was entirely endearing or all that flattering towards Bungie, but it was definitely made with a lot of love and I think there’s a good mix of things that are fun as well as informative.  That Making Of feature is REALLY fascinating and probably the highlight of the whole set, but I’m also glad that it introduced me to This Spartan Life which I’m sad I didn’t get to cover properly in its own retrospective and kind of had to cram in here.  Speaking of cramming things into this piece!

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Halo Landfall (Commercial/Short Film) – 2007

In my coverage of the Halo 3 marketing campaign I somehow missed a VERY big piece of it which is this seven minute live action short directed by none other than Neil Blomkamp.  This is significant because he and Peter Jackson, along with WETA Workshop who made the props in this short, were the key creatives behind the Halo movie that sadly fell through when the studios pulled out in 2006.  Based on the timeline of everything, I’d guess that these seven minutes are about everyone involved was able to get out of the year or so of pre-production before the funding dried up, and while the project stayed in a sort of limbo for a few more years (even managing to rope Steven Spielberg in at some point), this was the end of Jackson and Blomkamp’s involvement with the series.  It wasn’t until 2012 that we got SOMETHING approaching a feature film with Forward Until Dawn which was eventually followed by Nightfall, and now Showtime is working on a TV series that’s supposed to come out eventually on Paramount Plus.  The short itself is quite impressive and you can see a lot of Blomkamp’s next project District 9 in this, but there are also some clearly cut corners.  The opening with the creation of the weapons being intercut with the recruitment of the marines is clever filmmaking (they’re just as much a tool in this fight as the guns and vehicles) but then we get to the actual battle itself and its definitely still in the PROOF OF CONCEPT phase.  It actually took me a minute to realize that it WAS a battle and not a training mission as it looks like it’s taking place in a very staged environment.  Walls are all over the place for cover but there are no buildings, everything seems to be taking place along a rather narrow corridor of space despite plenty of hills in the background that could have easily been used for a tactical advantage, and I’m not even sure why they need to get to a specific location maybe one mile away from the entrance to their base.  You’d think they’d be able to see just as well from back there as they would one mile closer.

“If we don’t take this paintball arena back from The Covenant, it’s all over!  They may have taken the mini-golf course, but we’re NOT giving up here!!”

Still, you can’t deny some of the impressive work on display here.  Some rough CGI aside, Blomkamp knows how to film this kind of action and it brings a lot of humanity to the war by focusing on the soldiers instead of Master Chief.  It’s essentially a prequel to the game where a group of ODST soldiers and marines are trying to track Master Chief’s descent from space so that Johnson can find him like he does in the opening cut scene of the game.  It’s a pretty good companion piece to the Believe campaign as it too focused on the individual soldiers in the war with Master Chief serving more as an inspiration and a beacon for them to rally around, though the heartfelt sentimentality of the Believe campaign is replaced with blood and anguish on the battlefield here.  I’m not sure if Blomkamp’s style would have worked in a full Halo movie as it definitely has that pseudo- found footage editing that was refined in District 9, but it nonetheless makes for a compelling seven minutes of mayhem.

“I think we’re gonna need something bigger to take them down!”     “If only they hadn’t melted down all those super powerful pistols from the first game!  Seems like a REALLY bad idea in hindsight!”

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I was expecting this to be a quick one to fill in the gap between the end of Halo 3 and whatever came next, but there was SO much more to talk about than I anticipated and this is easily my longest piece yet!  They really did put a lot of effort into everything surrounding Halo 3 and it’s going to be interesting if the marketing campaigns and fan centric content will be as expansive going forward if this is ultimately peak for the franchise.  In any case, it’s time to move forward and we’ll be heading back to Red Vs Blue to see what they end up doing with the Halo 3 engine.  Join me next time as we take a look at Red Vs Blue Reconstruction!

Next: Coming Soon!!
Previous: Halo 3

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