Apologizes for this piece being as late as it is. I’ve been working on other projects like my new wrestling podcast as well as seeing more movies now that studios are willing to put them out in theaters, so the retrospective fell a bit to the wayside. I’ll try to get it back on track though and we’ve certainly got some interesting things to look forward to now that the original trilogy is over and the series has to find new ways to keep fans invested. To that end, we’ll be looking at two books that were released within months of each other and have some very interesting parallels as both are essentially the same Halo story we’ve seen before; a colony is attacked by The Covenant because there’s some sort of Forerunner artifact or weapon on it that they want, and now the UNSC has to send either a bunch of Spartans or a bunch of ODST to sort it out. What’s perhaps just as interesting is that, at least as far as I can tell, there was no drama or overlong delays in the production of these books, so in a way they are the first of these to come out firing on all cylinders; created as intended with the utmost professionalism, unlike some OTHER books I can mention *COUGH* Halo: Uprising *COUGH*! Which one does it better, and what can we learn from how each tackle this kind of story differently? Let’s find out!
Halo: Helljumper (Comic Book) – 2009
Written by Peter David with art and lettering by Eric Nguyen and Nate Piekos
Our first book follows a group of ODST soldiers as they investigate a colony where everyone has mysteriously disappeared! Said mystery lasts for maybe five pages into the second issue before it’s revealed that The Covenant are up to something and are crawling all over the place, and so it’s up to Dutch and Romeo to find out what’s going on, put an end to The Covenant’s plan, and explore the depth of their bromance in an effort save the galaxy! For a lot of people who were casual fans like myself, I’m sure their first exposure to the concept of ODST was in the game that Bungie put out not long after this comic book was released and I always thought they were more of a stealth unit who cleaned up and reported on things after the fighting already happened. It didn’t take long though for that notion to be dissuaded as even in the very first Halo novel they are portrayed as brash over the top machismo-tastic soldier bros (and bro-ettes) who are basically Spartans without the Super Soldier Serum and with the Walmart brand version of Mjolnir armor. The most obvious comparison are the Colonial Marines in the movie Aliens and the book starts off as brash and obnoxious as they were in that film with the crucial difference being that they are the protagonists here and not someone more relatable like Ripley. When we’re only a few pages in and dudes are getting into fights over nothing, well I don’t consider that much of a good sign.
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
Much like the Halo franchise itself, Red Vs Blue definitely started to branch out around the time of Halo 3’s release; not just because the engine allowed for much greater control and possibilities for the show to work with but because Rooster Teeth themselves wanted to start fresh and gave us its best work after breaking away from Blood Gulch. Can they continue that success going forward, or will the temptation to return to what worked in the past be too great for them to resist? Let’s find out!!
Red Vs Blue: Relocation
Relocation is a four part mini-series to bridge the gap between Reconstruction and the next season Recreation as it follows Red Team trying to establish their new base while Caboose is working on some secret project at his new base. If you’re really in the mood for some breezy Blood Gulch comedy then it does the job fine and frankly holds up better than a lot episodes from that original run, but by going back once again to the two teams in a valley setup (this time they’re using the Valhalla map instead of Blood Gulch) it feels like little more than filler to tide fans over while they work on the next season.
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.
It’s a bit of a toss-up with 2007 and 2015, especially when you start arguing what your actually counting, but 2008 is looking to be the most jam packed year of Halo content with two games coming out (including the first Halo game NOT developed by Bungie), a few different comics, and of course this collection of short stories which is much longer than any of the books released so far; so much so that we’re not gonna get through each story today and will instead split it across two weeks. That certainly wasn’t the plan, especially since I usually cover two novels at a time in these pieces, but with each short being its own thing with a beginning, middle, and end, I wouldn’t be giving them their due diligence if I tried to crunch it all into one piece, so without further ado let’s get started!!
Halo Evolutions (2009) – Short Story Collection
The book starts with an introduction by Frank O’Connor to try and… I guess the word is “justify” why this is a short story collection instead of another novel. I mean I guess anytime you change up the formula you’ll want to explain it (I couldn’t tell you if the Halo book fan base was perturbed by this news), but what I found pretty fascinating in this little section is the insights into Frank O’Connor’s mind as his word choice and writing style is… well I guess the word is “INTERESTING”. I like that he compared a short story collection to a box of chocolate and then called that a “Gumpian phrase” which I am totally going to add to my vocabulary, and his use of the word Chateaubraind to describe some of the meatier stories in here is kinda funny because I had to actually look up what the heck that was, and I feel like Mr. O’Connor had to of done the same thing because it’s probably the LAST dish you’d want to use when talking about a short story collection. Chateaubriand is large center cut of tenderloin grilled between two less tasty pieces that are discarded after cooking which to ME unintentionally throws some shade at certain stories in the book which IF that was intentional here I’m curious which ones he was talking about. For me though, the most interesting tidbit is O’Connor name dropping the first anthology he read as a kid which was Great Space Battles by Stewart Cowley and Charles Herridge. I looked at it a bit and it’s definitely up my alley as I was on a Retro Sci-Fi kick about a year or two ago, and you can see little bit and pieces of what could have inspired some of Halo in the included illustrations, so if nothing else he’s given me something else to add to my reading list.
Written by BK Evenson
I’ve made no bones about my eye rolling disdain for the framing of the Spartan programs and how often humanity is subsumed for duty in service of this ridiculous premise; the fact that they could have just had Super Soldiers but felt the need to go the extra mile and make them CHILD Super Soldiers kidnapped and conscripted into military service for what is ultimately (according to the text of this franchise) justifiable means to an end. I have a hunch based on some things I’ve half heard about future things in the franchise that they’ll eventually come around to my side of thinking (at least somewhat), and this story is perhaps the first real examination of that cost outside the context of trying to justify it. Unlike the books which follow the exploits of the SUCCESSFUL Spartans, this is the story of one of the not so lucky ones named Soarin; a Spartan who didn’t get to die in battle and save humanity but instead was deformed by the body augmentation procedure. He doesn’t die like so many of the others and he DOES have heightened strength and agility which probably puts him a step above your standard Space Marine, but he’s not allowed to return to duty and is given a desk job to while away his life away from the guilt ridden eyes of those who put him and every other Spartan through that procedure.
It’s time once again for the Halo book club, and it seems that Contact Harvest wasn’t a fluke as this is another Halo book set in the universe but far away from ANY of the games! Still, Contact Harvest was one of the better books we’ve read so far (and that’s including the comic books they’ve tried to do), so perhaps this one will also prove to be a solid sci-fi adventure despite not having the Master Chief or Cortana’s marketable faces on the cover. Let’s find out!!
The Cole Protocol – Novel (2008)
The Cole Protocol is written by Tobias Buckell
So it seems that Contact Harvest being a prequel wasn’t a one off for the book series and that we’ll be spending more time AROUND the Halo games than telling stories between. Continuity wise it’s SOMEWHERE in that nebulous space between Contact Harvest and The Fall of Reach, though leans much close to the latter since the Spartans are around and doing their thing for the war effort. This time though things are a lot less IN YOUR FACE BOMBAST as the story feels much closer to a spy thriller with various factions trying to out maneuver everyone else over a colony that shouldn’t even be there. Frankly it’d be more accurate to call this The Rubble instead of The Cole Protocol, but I guess protocol sounds cooler so they went with that. In any case, the story takes place in the secret separatist colony known as The Rubble; one big town hidden amongst a whole bunch of asteroids that are held in place by an AI named Juliana who is VERY invested in keeping this hunk of junk livable. Some of them are Insurrectionists, some are there for the great trading opportunities, and all of them want nothing to do with the UNSC; so much so that they’ve more or less made a peace agreement with the Kig-Yar; the Jackals of The Covenant who are MUCH more interested in finding and trading loot than spreading the world of The Forerunners and blowing up heretics. Sadly, this state of affairs cannot last forever as there appear to groups within The Rubble trying desperately to get their hands on a data chip that has detailed navigational data to Earth which could spell doom for humanity if The Covenant got their hands on it. To make matters worse, both a UNSC ship (eventually commanded by a younger Captain Keyes) as well as an Elite ship manage to come across this unauthorized “peace” which only escalates tensions and forces the hands of those who have sinister plans for all involved. Who is trying to get this data, and what do they plan to do with it? Are the Kig-Yar sincere in their desire to keep this colony out of the greater war, and what consequences could befall them for taking such a stance? And on top of all this there’s a small group of Spartans watching all of this and pushing events towards some sort of end goal that may ultimately be in Earth’s best interest, but is The Rubble and the people who built it just collateral damage? I’m not about to say that the book is evenhanded with its politics as military wisdom and strong leaders tend to fare better than those who follow more democratic ideas, but the fact that we’re bouncing around various stories with characters driven by believable motivation makes this one more genuinely engaging novels in the series so far.