Twenty Years of Halo: Conversations From The Universe & The Art of Halo

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

You know, despite all the effort that goes into all this supplemental material, whether it’s I Love Bees, the canonical novels, and what we’ll be discussing today, the games themselves still pretty much stand on their own and I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble by just doing a retrospective on them instead of on everything Halo related I can get my hands on.  For completions sake though, we might as well talk about these which were released alongside Halo 2 and gave us more context for the series; not just in terms of the ongoing narrative, but the story behind the scenes as the games were being developed.  Let’s take a look!

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Conversations from the Universe – 2004

Halo 2 got a Limited Collector’s edition release which came with a making of disk that I’m not going to try and track down, and a booklet called Conversations from the Universe that had a bunch of letters from characters within the Halo universe.

A bunch of them are rather pointless.  There’s some musings from 343 Guilty Spark during the events of Halo that just reiterate what they already said out loud in those games, and there’s an entire spaceship battle that as far as I can tell means absolutely nothing to the overall story.

The ones that are interesting are about characters questioning things such as Cortana questioning0 whether Spartans or AIs are the better tools for the UNSC, and a conversation between two members of The Covenant as they try to figure out why The Prophets have decided to destroy the humans rather than have them join their Covenant.  They ARE a religious cult after all and I for one would LOVE to see a couple of Elites go door to door asking humans if they’ve hear the good news about the Great Journey.

“I didn’t want to say anything, but those Scientologists jerks have been killing it in this section of the galaxy!” “Freaking Xenu. Why doesn’t the green demon go after THAT guy?”
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Twenty Years of Halo: Halo 2

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Halo 2 was developed by Bungie and ported by Gearbox and 343 Studios

To this day I have never owned an Xbox so Halo 2 was always out of reach for me.  Oh, what’s that? A Windows Vista port?  Yeah, this was back in the Stone Age when all I had was a Windows XP, so no I never got around to playing it on PC or on Xbox until they FINALLY released The Master Chief collection and I bought it a few months ago on Steam.  The game has pretty universal acclaim, and introduced a lot of features that would be refined in the sequel Halo 3, so getting my hands on this gem after all this time will certainly be an interesting experience; no nostalgia to cloud my judgement, and not the next gen experience I enjoyed when I got the Xbox 360.  Does it hold up is this a classic better left in the past?  Let’s find out!!

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I like to start these with discussing the narrative first, and if I were to give this game one GIANT thumbs up, it’s that the story is actually pretty darn good.  Not PERFECT as the ending left me rather unsatisfied and I had to look up a few details on the wiki when all was said and done, but it definitely soars above the original in this regard.  Following the events of the first game (and also the novel First Strike, though I don’t think there are any overt references to that in here), Master Chief is back with the UNSC and chilling out on the Cairo space station.  While we see him getting commendations and trading witty barbs with Sergeant Johnson, we also see The Covenant having a decidedly less celebratory congregation as Thel Vadamee, an Elite solider who was in charge of the operation to reclaim Halo and use its weapon (we all know how THAT ended up), is getting jeered and condemned by the leaders of The Covenant; known as The Prophets.  He’s stripped of his armor, burned with a symbol of shame, and with nothing else to live for… agrees to be the top solider of The Prophets.  Yeah, apparently if you screw up SO badly that you’re effectively convicted of treason then you can qualify for the position of Arbiter which Vadamee agrees to since he doesn’t really have anything better to do.  I joke, but Thel Vadamee is the reason to play this game, as he’s not just an interesting character filled with conflict and contradiction, the voice work for this character (done by none other than Keith David) is top notch and he gets across all the mixed feelings that this character has to embody.  He’s part of a proud warrior race so he speaks like a Klingon with twice as much acting range but the story puts him through his paces as he goes on one suicidal quest after another only to find more questions and challenges to his faith at the end of each path.

“None of this makes any sense!  Why would they release all the Halo games on PC, EXCEPT for Guardians!?  Infinite is coming to PC, but not Guardians!?”
Continue reading “Twenty Years of Halo: Halo 2”

Twenty Years of Halo: I Love Bees

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

I Love Bees was created by 4orty2wo Entertainment

Alright, I’m gonna be honest here.  We’re one game, three books, and a fan made web series into this retrospective, so I thought I had a good handle on things… but then I started researching this I Love Bees thing, and I’m in WAY over my head.  I’ve never participated in an ARG and simply trying to find out what happened after everything has already has been solved has proved to be more than my patience can normally sustain, so I’m not going to be able to give you a full breakdown of this experience or will fully appreciate it the way that many people still do to this day.  I can only try and come in here as the layman trying to get a complete picture of the Halo Universe and what makes this series tick, but trying to unravel this mystery and extract the relevant details kind of reminds me why I even felt the need to do this retrospective in the first place.  The Halo narrative always washed over me even when I was enjoying the games and some of the other content around it, and in trying to fix that problem I just end up feeling that way all over again with this ARG game that took place prior to the release of Halo 2.  I put in the time though and I have what I think is a reasonable approximation of what this was, so let’s take a look and see what this whole I LOVE BEES thing is all about!

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One of the things I didn’t want to do when trying to understand this series is to troll the Halo wiki and just get my information there, but I spent about ten minutes perusing the I Love Bees website and just threw my hands up as it’s just a collection of nonsense obscuring tiny fragments of things that may or may not be relevant to the upcoming game, and the Summary on Wikipedia does a good job of telling me what the point of this is.  I Love Bees is an ARG game developed by 42 Entertainment as a promotional device for Halo 2 and to expand on the lore of the franchise.  The story is that back in the novel First Strike, the big inciting incident to kick off the third act is that The Covenant somehow managed to find out where Earth is and The Masterchief along with the rag tag crew of soldiers who survived both Halo and Reach have to stop them.  What I love Bees reveals is HOW The Covenant found Earth via strange messages on the site, cryptic data, and eventually an audio drama which has been collected into a twelve episode series that I listened to from beginning to end.  Right around the time of the Fall of Reach, a UNSC shipped called the Apocalypso found an alien artifact and was taking it back to Earth.  The artifact is some sort of lost Forerunner tech that the Covenant wanted (from the sound of it, it was a mini-Halo?) and so they sent an EVIL AI called The Seeker to infiltrate the Apocalypso and corrupt it’s AI called Melissa.  It seems to have worked because Melissa caused the ship to explode just outside of Earth’s orbit, and Melissa was broken more or less in half; one half found its way to some teenager’s computer named Jersey in New York City who named this fragmented AI Durga, and the other half was sent back in time to the year 2004 along with the remnants of The Seeker.  This is where the AR Game comes into play; the part of Melissa in the past (itself getting split into The Sleeping Princess and The Operator) as well as The Seeker are the entities who were running the game and took over the I Love Bees website.  Everything we learned from I Love Bees and its related stuff (including phone calls to payphones that players had to be at during specific times on specific dates) are supposedly fragments provided by these two corrupted and fragmented AIs.

Say what you will about these B Drops, at least they aren’t telling people to overthrow a leftist cabal of baby eaters.
Continue reading “Twenty Years of Halo: I Love Bees”

Twenty Years of Halo: Red vs Blue Season 2 & 3

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

We’re back with our Halo retrospective, and once again we’re talking about something that isn’t technically part of the series!  After the success of season one, the folks over at Rooster Teeth knew they had something big on their hands and started right away on Season two.  The second and third seasons both released in 2004 (season 3 finished up in early 2005) so we’ll be looking at both back to back as the Blood Gulch Chronicles grows from a bunch of people bickering in a canyon to those same people bickering in different places!  Let’s get started!

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Red vs Blue Season 2 – 2004

By season two they had a better grasp on the concept and the characters which leads to some fun and unexpected story beats, but for every place that they manage to improve it just shines a spotlight on the places they don’t budge an inch.  I wasn’t keeping count, but they did lessen their overall use of the R-word and the more mean-spirited bickering is less omnipresent.  However, there are still some issues throughout the season that hold this series back; particularly the way they pumped the gay jokes up to eleven.  Donut is not without his fun moments, but the joke being that he embodies what the writers think is funny about gay people (the pink armor, jokes about girly things, etc) is a constant thorn in this series’ side throughout its first five seasons.

“I’m super!  Thanks for asking!”     “I didn’t ask.”
Continue reading “Twenty Years of Halo: Red vs Blue Season 2 & 3”

Twenty Years of Halo: Red vs Blue Season 1

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Today we’ll be taking our first detour into non-official fan works as opposed to licensed material, though Red vs Blue is definitely something that fits in the gray area of which we’ll see more of the further we get into this retrospective.  In any case, it’s no surprise that Halo generated a lot of fan made content considering how successful it was at release and how much Microsoft and Bungie pushed it as THE NEXT BIG THING, and Red vs Blue in particular is inalterably tied into the franchise and I’d say is more than a little responsible for having such an enduring presence in the industry.  Its place in entertainment history is definitely secured, but does the show itself still hold up to this day?  Let’s find out as we look at the first season!!

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Red vs Blue and all the images you see in this retrospective are owned by Rooster Teeth

Red vs Blue is a Machinima series (i.e. a narrative show using gameplay footage) created by Rooster Teeth depicting two teams who are fighting for control of a dirt canyon of no particular significance and was created using the Halo games.  On Red Team we have the delusional yet slightly competent Sarge, the lazy yet somewhat sensible Griff, the genuinely smart Simmons who’s also a total brown nose for Sarge, and the new recruit Donut who ends up getting pink armor because this was made back when something like that was considered hilarious.  On Blue Team we have interim team leader Church who’s a HUGE jerk but kind of the main character of the series, the fun yet ALSO lazy Tucker, and the very ignorant Caboose who’d be like if Ed from Ed, Edd, n Eddy grew up to join Space Force.  Throughout the first season we learn more about the teams as well as get introduced to secondary characters like Lopez the Red team’s robot mechanic, Sheila the Blue Team’s talking tank, and Tex the freelancer hired by the Blue Team with a checkered past that ties directly to Church’s.  Compared to where the series will end up going on later seasons, the first is fairly self-contained and can be broken down into three primary arcs; Donut getting the Blue Team’s flag, Tex getting Blue Team’s flag back, and Tex going after Red Team’s flag, but for the most part the actual plot is secondary to the characters’ personalities bouncing off of each other in a ludicrous combat situation; kind of like what Archer would eventually do with the spy genre a decade later.  Needless to say that with all the silly situations, potty mouths, and it being a cool VIDEO GAME thing, I was pretty obsessed with this show when I was a teenager, but there were a lot of things I liked when I was a teenager that don’t hold up now, so is this one of them?

EVERYTHING’S FINE! NO PROBLEMS HERE!!
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Twenty Years of Halo: The Flood & First Strike

Artwork by Usbaia

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!!

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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.

Nothing gets the blood pumping like watching someone have to trudge back because they got a crappy loadout!
Continue reading “Twenty Years of Halo: The Flood & First Strike”

Twenty Years of Halo: Halo Combat Evolved

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
Halo: Combat Evolved was developed by Bungie and ported by Gearbox and 343 Studios
Destiny 2 was developed by Bungie

I don’t remember what year I got this game, but it was the PC version that I played back in the day and I loved every second of it!  Well… at least every second that I could remember.  The first couple of stages of this game are etched into my memory clear as day, but there’s a general fuzziness around this game outside of the top notch moment to moment action.  The whole point of me doing this series is that I clearly remember having a GREAT time with this game and the third one, but so much of it is hazy and without context so now’s the time to really sink my teeth into this game and try to understand I found so engaging about it all those years ago!

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We’ll get into how it connects to The Fall of Reach soon enough, but narratively the game does a great job of getting you right into the action and not fussing too much with the details.  Without knowing the first thing about the Spartan project, MJOLNIR armor, or even the name of the enemy, it’s almost second nature to put yourself into the main character and start playing the role of the unflappable badass who can fire big guns and punch alien baddies with the force of a jackhammer!  Perhaps you may not have seen Aliens or Starship Troopers when you first played this game, but the whole idea of SPACE MARINES and wars with aliens is deeply ingrained in popular culture (at least here in the US) and creates a great foundation to build a franchise off of; allowing the overly familiar setup to do much of the heavy lifting while also providing more than enough context of the much bigger world we’re in and the stakes going forward.  Master Chief as well works on this level of rehashing old tropes to build something new.  His design is instantly iconic with the metallic green armor and the reflective faceplate who still conveys personality through body language and the performance of Steve Downes without giving us TOO much detail that you can’t easily slip into his character.  What do you know about the Chief going into this game?  Absolutely nothing, and yet more than enough.  He’s the hero who’s there to kick butt and take names.  His job is to protect his fellow soldiers and to fight the bad guys which makes him a useful blunt object that the UNSC relies on, but also one that is nearly manipulated into unspeakable evil by the eventual antagonist of the story.

“So we get the Index, activate Halo, and then we all get cake?”     “Sure, buddy!  Sounds like a plan to me!”
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Twenty Years of Halo: The Cortana Letters & The Fall of Reach

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Our long journey to explore the Halo series begins well before the first game even came out as Bungie was building its universe and teasing their fans long before they even knew what the game was going to be!  The seemingly haphazard nature of the production of Halo: Combat Evolved which went through name changes and story changes all the way down to switching the genre at something approaching the last minute can certainly be reflected in these two early works which are interesting time capsules of that period of the development, but beyond their places as being the earlies entries on the timeline, do they hold up as genuinely interesting pieces of media in their own right?  Let’s find out!!

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The Cortana Letters – 1999

Having read these letters, I’m starting to remember why I didn’t bother diving deep into this stuff back when I was playing it!  As far as I can tell, the Cortana letters are the first things Halo related that was released to the public; in this case being eight cryptic e-mails sent from someone at Bungie claiming to be Cortana that were sent to a Marathon fan page; Marathon, in case you were wondering, being a game series that Bungie had worked on in the nineties that may or may not connect to Halo in some tangential way.  I guess I’ll learn more about any implicit or explicit connections the further I get into the lore of this, but needless to say that these letters are not the ideal way to START your Halo journey if you wish to experience the series from the beginning.  They are intentionally vague and full of cryptic language, and their status as canonical is dubious at best; especially since Halo was still in the conceptual stages in 1999 and was MASSIVELY overhauled when Bungie was acquired by Microsoft in 2000.

Follow the white rabbit!  Save the cheerleader, save the world!  WHO ARE THE PATRIOTS!?
Continue reading “Twenty Years of Halo: The Cortana Letters & The Fall of Reach”

Twenty Years of Halo: Where To Even Start?

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

It’s finally 2021 which means it’s time for trying new things and making new goals for ourselves, and coincidentally this is ALSO the 20th anniversary of one of gaming’s most iconic franchises; Halo!  The series has always been something of interest to me as it was one of the big NEW franchises to come up during my generation, though my relationship with it has been off and on to say the least.  I am aware of certain things in the Halo universe and the first and third games are two of my favorite shooters of all time, but honestly that was about it.  I never played the second game, I didn’t get far in ODST, and I remember buying Halo 4 for about five bucks yet never got around to playing it so the whole series just kind of faded to the background despite how much I enjoyed the parts of it I played.  I was mostly content to leave it at that but a little over a year ago I managed to pick up a few of the novels on a whim without even any real plans to read them anytime soon, and it dawned on me at that moment just how much Halo stuff there is out there, and looking into it further revealed an astonishing amount of books, comics, lore guides, and even a few movies that slipped under my radar!  So with all that and the 20th anniversary being right around the corner, I figure it’d be fun and interesting to try and unravel this franchise that has always been at arms-length, and perhaps it will give me a renewed appreciation for the games that I already enjoyed!

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Halo Is About Rings, Right?

The biggest hurdle for me has always been the narrative which never stuck for me.  I always found the story to be confusing and I completely ignored it whenever I played the games, which is weird because I’m usually the last person to do something like that as I tend to follow things in order and dread the idea of getting lost in an ongoing story, but with Halo that just never was a problem.  To this day, I’ve never played the second Halo game, and yet it didn’t stop me from playing Halo 3 because the gameplay and moment to moment action was so perfect that I could just roll with it; ignoring the story beats and just assume that I was kicking butt and winning the war!  To that point though, this is definitely going to be a “Newcomer” perspective to the series as I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’ve followed this franchise from the beginning and can give you a more comprehensive and detailed examination; and will probably be doing so for the twentieth anniversary as well.  It’s also going to be a bit new for me to be reviewing straight up books as my closest experience has been reviewing comics, but I relish the challenge and frankly I could do with a bit more reading on books without pictures in them; even if they are sci-fi pulp novels. 

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The Mission Objective!

For this series I’ll be covering as much official (and a few unofficial) pieces of media in the franchise, from the games and books all the way to some of its more esoteric entries like the podcasts and augmented reality games.  The list, frankly, is daunting as I will pretty much have to cover two to three entries every week if I want this to be a twentieth anniversary retrospective and not bleed into a twenty-first anniversary as well, but hopefully it will all be worth it and I can at least make this strange little journey a little bit entertaining!  The first post will be out next Saturday and I hope you all will follow me on this journey!

Next: The Cortana Letters & The Fall of Reach

Jumping the Soapbox: Games of 2018 (Part 1)

Now that we’ve got the movies of 2018 out of the way, it’s time to tackle a subject I very much enjoy but have much less experience in.  Very rarely will I talk about video games on this site as my focus is almost exclusively on movies and television, but I do play a lot of games throughout the year and as a critic I can’t help but have opinions on them, so what I do is I save up ALL those thoughts and put them right here for you to enjoy!  Well, either enjoy or utterly detest me for.  I’ll take either one!  Let’s get started!!

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (PC)

games2018-1-1

Developed by Techland

Man, was THIS a fun little surprise!  The only thing I know about the Call of Juarez series is that it was as series of ho-hum cowboy shooters that eventually jumped the shark when they went to modern day and made it SUPER racist.  This game on the other hand, while admitting that there is a level where you track down a Native American, seems to have been a total course correction or at least something of a soft reboot; a la when they did that 2D Blood Rayne Side Scroller or when Sonic the Hedgehog took a brief respite from being awful in Sonic Mania.  From what I saw of the other Juarez games, they were mostly drag and went for an authentic aesthetic where this game is all about charm, wit, and stylistic excess.  The character designs are bright and colorful which is not only more appealing but a practical improve since it makes them stand out more prominently against the landscapes, and the overall feel is that of an over the top spaghetti western; encouraging you to make the big moves and go in guns-a-blazing just to see if it’ll work.  That’s actually something I think game developers should explore a bit more; how aesthetics and style can change the way that players make decisions in the game which may be a more powerful incentive than more straightforward gameplay design incentives.  In something less fantastical and more serious I probably wouldn’t have even bothered dual wielding pistols and unloading them into a group of enemies when my trusty rifle can do the job with fewer bullets and at a safer distance.  With the visual design, the UI interface, and ESPECIALLY the story which is a series of flashbacks conveying a story that your player character is narrating as you play through it made me feel more inclined to try and be the BIG HEROTM than play practically.  It can be a bit buggy at times as I’m pretty sure I ran into one enemy who was shooting me through a wall, but despite its modest scale it’s still one of the most enjoyable First Person shooters I’ve played in a while!

Continue reading “Jumping the Soapbox: Games of 2018 (Part 1)”