Ask Master Chief a tough question, and the super-soldier leader of “Halo” often has an answer at hand: “I don’t know.” From the start of the Paramount+ series, adapted from the sci-fi-inspired video game space fantasy, the scientifically enhanced human doesn’t know much.
It’s a video game trope.
Master Chief’s fuzzy memory is a common conceit in games, so cliched it’s amazing it still happens. Opening an adventure with a hero whose memories have been somehow erased is a narrative shortcut to eliminate the disconnect between player and character: why would we ask someone to search for answers to questions to which he knows the answers?
On TV, however, we don’t need to see ourselves as Master Chief to want to wield a virtual space gun. We just have to find it interesting. So while we may believe Master Chief when he pleads ignorance — thanks to Pablo Schreiber, who, like Pedro Pascal in “The Mandalorian,” is emotionally vulnerable and existentially curious when the mask comes off — hopefully this loss of introspection isn’t a permanent device.
Ultimately, the problem with “Halo” the TV series is even more fundamental: By making its central mystery no “WHO is Master Chief? corn “What is Master Chief? it shifts “Halo” from a character-driven story to a plot-driven one.
But games didn’t begin to deepen Master Chief’s personality until Microsoft’s 343 Industries picked up the series with “Halo 4” in 2012. There’s a rushed nature to the first two episodes of the TV series. , as if to fast forward to this more personal era of the franchise – and that means a significant amount of information is passed on to the viewer.
There are the so-called good guys from United Nations Space Command (UNSC), who may not be so good after all. There’s the orchestrator of the super-soldier program, a far-from-subtle schemer, Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone). There is an alien race known as the Covenant after a powerful relic, which just so happens to give memories to Master Chief. Oh, and there’s an intergalactic war going on between the UNSC and the human rebels, who we’re clearly meant to sympathize with over the Space Marine army.
While this scheme nobly challenges the patriotism of the early “Halo” games – we’re in a more cynical time when it comes to the military-industrial complex than we were in the early 2000s when “Halo” arrived for the first time – all of this exposition forces “Halo” to broadly define its characters. Master Chief is the killing machine with a conscience, Halsey is a most sinister mother figure, young rebel Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) serves to spark Chief’s moral awakening, and the Covenant aliens wage a theological war no one understands. really yet (but he leads them to assassinate, without provocation, human outposts on random planets).
If that all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is: “Halo” now spans six mainline games and spinoffs, as well as around 30 novels, and the TV series has been in development for over a decade. a decade to try to make sense of this.
In the process, the series loses some of the silliness that set “Halo” apart from the more frantic “Doom” and the more serious “Call of Duty.” (The aliens taunt the player as if they were in a WWE match rather than an intergalactic war, for starters.) Developed by Kyle Killen (“Mind Games”) and Steven Kane (“The Last Ship”), the Paramount+ version makes it clear from the start that the tone here won’t be so light; in the opening moments, an oversized alien lizard – that’s the Covenant – blasts a teenager’s body with a laser gun. This dismemberment is a shock for those accustomed to the more caricatural violence of the games.
It will be curious to see the temperament of the series as it develops. In the world of video games, it makes perfect sense for a character to run and hide after taking a few bullets to wait for an energy bar to replenish. When it happened in the first episode of the series, with the game’s audible whoosh, I bought it – but I speak “Halo” and want any rendition of it to retain a touch of cheesiness. In fact, I’d welcome more of the latter, and it was a relief when the Covenant leader looked like a Jim Henson-inspired creation.
There’s a long history of video game adaptations that attempt to distinguish between dedicated fans and the uninitiated. It’s hard to shake the sentiment here that the producers and writers are desperate to appeal to those who have already played and watched the definitive “Halo” experience – that’s the recently released “Halo Infinite” – as well as those who skipped the games but want to see what the problem looks like.
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But this is not the right ambition. “Halo,” video game text as vital as “Super Mario Bros.” and the title that has become the symbol of modern shooters is already a blockbuster. And it’s full of transmedia content with an embedded audience that just wants Continued.
The goal shouldn’t be to be everything to everyone, and while “Halo” treats the source material with respect, it does so hesitantly, as if afraid it’s missing a key element. It’s time for “Halo” to find its rhythm. But when the second episode ends with a match of the incredibly important game character Cortana – Master Chief’s holographic sidekick, with whom he develops a co-dependent relationship (yes, that’s weird) – it’s hard not to. Don’t worry that these first nine episodes will unfold as a “greatest hit” game.
It’s playing it safe rather than being at peace with the fact that “Halo” die-hards already have their favorite “Halo.” And it’s not a TV series.