Bungie and Microsoft seemed to know that Halo was going to be a big thing almost immediately so they got to work right away branching the franchise out into different media with books, comics, and extremely elaborate marketing campaigns, but they never ventured into spin-off territory until this game; eight years after the first Halo was released. Halo Wars is a Real Time Strategy game developed by Ensemble Studios; the big daddy of the genre who made the Age of Empires series which also known as THE BEST REAL TIME STRATEGY SERIES OF ALL TIME! Yes, even better than YOUR games, Blizzard! Sadly this is also the LAST game that Ensemble Studios made as Microsoft shut the company down as this game was nearing its completion and the reasons why are still a bit on the hazy side. Co-founder Bruce Shelly said in 2009 that the company was being poorly managed and relying on crunch while still failing to hit targets, though another co-founder, Tony Goodman, puts it more on Microsoft shoulders. In an interview he gave for the book Gamers at Work (released in 2012), he talks about how Microsoft cancelled the Halo MMO project they were working on at the same time as Halo Wars and that they fully intended to close the studio soon after which is KIND of on Ensemble’s shoulders if you ask me as they hadn’t even gotten approval from Microsoft and diverting resources away from the Halo Wars team to do it, but then again Bungie was being a bit cagey and had final say on ANY story decision so it wasn’t exactly the “fun” project to be working on at the time. Regardless, Microsoft would end up continuing both the Age of Empires and Halo Wars franchises without Ensemble studios, and we’ll make our way to Halo Wars 2 eventually but for now we’re here to talk about this game and what it meant for the Halo franchise as well as the comic book that was released alongside it! Let’s get started!
Halo Wars – 2009
Developed by Ensemble Studios
We’ll start with the narrative and cinematics which honestly, Halo Wars plays out more like a Saturday Morning cartoon compared to the much more serious tone of the main games. The character models look blockier and more exaggerated, the story itself is pretty broad, and they rely much more on over the top dramatics from all the characters. I actually like this aesthetic and I wish that Halo would take itself less seriously more often (*cough* Odd One Out *cough*), but the one thing about the new presentation that hits a sour note for me is the voice acting on the Elites. I mean look, when you get Keith David for the previous games, ANYTHING else is going to feel a bit like a stepdown, but they just sound bad in a way that reminds me of… well, a Saturday morning cartoon! Fair play I suppose, but it’s no less jarring to hear them whenever they show up in the cut scenes.
We’re back with even more of Halo Evolutions; the short story collection that keeps on giving no matter how much you’re ready for it to end! Seriously, this was a tough one to get through what with its very high page count and absurd number of stories, and that’s why I ultimately decided that I had to break it up into two parts if I wanted to cover everything in here. We’re over the peak now and the end is in sight, so let’s see this thing through and discover more secrets of the Halo Universe!
Halo Evolutions (2009) – Short Story Collection
Before we jump into the next story, I need to point out that Halo Evolutions got a re-release just one year after it had come out. They broke it up into two separate volumes for whatever reason, and on top of that each volume had its own exclusive story that wasn’t in the original book or even the audiobook you can buy on Audible. It took a bit of searching but I did eventually find the two additional stories which I’ll be covering towards the end of this, and frankly it’s a little bit funny that the one part of this retrospective that was too long for me to fit into one piece someone found a way to get longer. Anyway, on wit the next story!
The Mona Lisa
Written by Tess Kum and Jeff VanderMeer
What is by far the longest of the all the short stories in this book is what we will be starting with today, and I get the sense that once again I’m going to be in the minority of the Halo fandom as I didn’t particularly care for this story. A lot of it is down to personal taste which I’ll cop to immediately as it’s more or less zombie story and I’m just not a big fan of them. Well, that and a VERY blatant Aliens knock off which I won’t hold against this story as much as the whole zombie thing, but despite the lack of ODST soldiers which is the franchise’s usual giveaway, the influences from James Cameron’s entry in the series are quite obvious. A UNSC ship scouting the ruins of the Halo ring that Master Chief blew up finds another UNSC ship called The Mona Lisa; severely damaged, in distress, and with one escape pod barreling towards them carrying a man who’s barely alive when he gets there and doesn’t stay that way for much longer after that. A group of marines and a few engineers led by their leader Lopez head to the ship and find it to not only be a UNSC prison ship but one where there were some shady experiments going on! It’s not long before they find puddles of blood and broken bodies all over the place and they soon come face to face with THE FLOOD who have taken over the ship and are threatening to use to spread their disease across the galaxy. On top of lifting a lot of things from Aliens, the book also seems to be a rather close retelling of The Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor from the Halo Graphic Novel, only swapping out the human marines for a crew of Covenant warriors, and frankly I wasn’t a big fan of THAT story either. There’s just something overwhelmingly PERFUNCTORY about all this as it just feels too obvious of a story with no real twists or turns to justify it. None of the characters have any real depth to them as no one particularly stands out from anyone else there with the exception of the ONE good thing about the story; Henry the Elite who was captured and put on the Mona Lisa but managed to escape when all heck broke loose and teams up with a human inmate while ALSO wielding a cricket back. I could read a whole story just about THAT guy, but instead he’s just hanging in the background being absolutely WONDERFUL while the marines just prattle on about how screwed up this whole mess is.
Red vs Blue and all the images you see in this retrospective are owned by Rooster Teeth
The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
It’s probably no coincidence that all things Halo peaked for me while I was in high school with not just Halo 3 being an amazing video game but this season of Red Vs Blue feeling like the evolution that the series needed to go in. I remember finishing my assignments early in some sort of extracurricular drafting class or something and episodes of this season in my free time which in hindsight proved to be a far better use of my time than that class ever was. I mean it’s not like I used any of those skills in any of the jobs I’ve gotten since then, and here I am today telling you all about a web series from the pre-Obama years! Perhaps it’s more of an indictment on our education system than anything else, but we’re not exactly in a position to fix America’s problems today. Instead, let’s see if my favorite season of the show still holds up to this day! Let’s get started!
Red vs Blue: Reconstruction (2008)
Reconstruction was definitely a turning point in the Red Vs Blue franchise even if the next season or two that I saw did go more towards the Blood Gulch Chronicle style of wacky sitcom setups, there was still a stronger emphasis on story and characters that was started here. We pick up about a year after Recovery One and Season 5 where Agent Washington is sitting in on a soldier’s debrief as they describe a harrowing situation at their base. It seems that Tex’s ship didn’t just blow up at the end of Season 5, but was heavily damaged and ended up crashing on another Red Vs Blue training area where the Omega AI (AKA O’Malley) ran roughshod over the troops there; taking over their minds and forcing them to destroy their own equipment so they couldn’t even call for help. Eventually, the monster that attacked Washington in Recovery One, the thing that was stealing Freelancer AIs, arrived and left only one survivor after taking Omega. It’s clear that this monster, which they refer to as The Meta, must be stopped and will no doubt be going after South Dakota for the Delta AI which puts Washington in a unique position to get his revenge on her for betraying him back in Recovery One while doing the Freelancer organization a solid that’ll perhaps put him back in their good graces. Still, before he can effectively track this thing, he needs to learn about the Omega AI that the Meta now has, and there are only a few people in the galaxy who know much about it. Sad to say for Washington, he bites off more than he can chew as the two people he manages to recruit for this operation are Caboose and Church; long separated after Blood Gulch was disbanded and at least one of them is far from happy to be here, but at long as the trail might lead to Tex, then perhaps it’s a journey worth taking.
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!
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.
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!