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‘Halo’ Review: Sci-Fi Series Is a Strong Start for Paramount+, But May Divide Gamers

The long-delayed video game adaptation takes a hard detour from established lore

Languishing for over two decades in pre-production hell, “Halo”, the live-action series based on the Bungie video game franchise, drops on Paramount + on March 24th. Created by Steven Kane and Kyle Killen and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the show is based on a massive franchise with legions of fans that includes multiple novels, several comic book series, an anime, and two live-action web series. In other words, “Halo” has no shortage of stories to pull from.

Creating a new origin story for SPARTAN-II soldier John-117/Master Chief played by Pablo Schreiber (“American Gods”) is only the beginning of what’s being built in the Paramount+ adaptation. It isn’t easy to judge a series of this scale from just the first two episodes released to the press. But based on the initial installments, “Halo” feels like a solid introduction to a new science-fiction franchise — as long as you’re not a die-hard video game fan.

The series starts in 2552 on an outer rim colony called Madrigal. Described as a “Tier 4 Heavy Water Extraction Planet” it’s also an Insurrectionist outpost. Weary of bureaucratic-military rule, the insurrectionists are humans who have been at war with the UNMC  (United Nations Marine Corp), a division of the United Earth Government, for quite some time. We follow Kwan Ha Boo (Yerin Ha), the daughter of an outpost leader who escapes the monotony of the compound. Out exploring with friends for the day, she is the first to witness what amounts to an invasion.

Quan frantically returns to report that not the UNMC, but a deadly unknown force is headed their way. The invaders are The Covenant, a religious military alliance hell-bent on the extinction of humans. Like their video game counterparts, the Covenant soldiers are vicious. Even with the arrival of the augmented SPARTAN-II soldiers, eradicating the Covenant fighters takes a bit of work. Of course, the SPARTAN’s destroy the invaders, but the aftermath inexorably ties Kwan to John (aka “Master Chief”), giving the show a “The Mandalorian” vibe and marking an immediate shift away from video game lore.

When we first meet John in the show, he is as robotic and detached as his video game counterpart (think Winter Soldier locked in Iron Man’s armor). A mere puppet of the UNMC and his direct report/creator, scientist Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), John’s fate changes quickly after he comes in contact with a Covenant relic. Somehow bonding to the artifact, it severs his cognitive connection for a moment. When he returns, he not only questions the mission, but his very existence.

The first two episodes are caught between long-time “Halo” fans’ expectations and sci-fi fans new to the franchise. In an attempt to appeal to both parties, we end up with two completely different episodes.

The premiere episode feels created for video game fans — it’s firing on all four cylinders almost from the beginning, including familiar game HUDs and weaponry. And we are introduced to the backstory and litany of characters so quickly that those not familiar with “Halo” lore might end up a little lost.

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Natascha McElhone as Halsey in “Halo” (Paramount+)

The second episode slows quite a bit as worldbuilding splits between Kwan and John’s journey to meet Bokeem Woodbine’s Soren-066, a former SPARTAN who left the program. Meanwhile, Halsey plays political chess with the heads of UNMC to fund her AI Cortana program. (Another fan favorite of the game). Not to mention the ongoing war with both the Insurrectionists and the Covenant, which is escalating.

If it seems as if the series isn’t too concerned with what video game fans think, that’s by design. Intended to be an independent arc, those familiar with the comics and the “Halo” extended universe, however, will recognize certain aspects of the plot and characters. For example, Soren-066 is featured in the “Halo” novel “Halo: Evolutions,” and the first episode’s storyline is reminiscent of the Dark Horse comic, “Halo: Collateral Damage.” In addition, that same issue not only features John removing his helmet but speaking his mind freely, both of which occur in the Paramount+ series. The show’s diverse casting is also much more indicative of more recent iterations than 20 years ago when the games were first released.

For the most part, the series uses its $10 million-per-episode budget well. However, the Covenant aliens look like they are missing a layer of texture, and the SPARTANS’ occasional undercranked movement looks more stilted than superspeed.

The first two episodes of HALO are a solid start to the sci-fi series. Paramount+ has a lot of competition with Disney+, Netflix  and Apple TV+ in the sci-fi department, but as the series has already been renewed for a second season, clearly the team believes in the project. If video game fans can keep an open mind and the series can garner enough attention from sci-fi fans less familiar with canon, “Halo” has the potential to be Paramount+’s flagship series.

“Halo” premieres exclusively on Paramount+ on March 24.

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