Review: Halo: Escalation (Volume Two)

Halo: Escalation (Volume 2)Halo: Escalation by Brian Reed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Halo: Escalation series continues to impress. It’s everything a great tie-in graphic novel should be.

While most of volume two continues the adventures of the Spartan-IVs, a section of the book is devoted to a somewhat surprising face: the Master Chief himself and the Spartan-II Blue Team. I mention this as a surprise because it seems like, aside from a few early novels, the Halo universe seems to shy away from depicting the big MC in the expanded universe fiction, preferring instead to save his exploits for the games themselves. It’s nice to see Blue Team show up here, which I recognize is meant to prepare gamers for their appearance in Halo 5, but regardless, it’s still fun.

The Master Chief storyline is a very nice segue between Halo 4 and 5, dealing with the aftermath of Halo 4’s emotional ending. One thing that has continually struck me as odd is the Didact himself, however. Warning: spoilers for the comic and (possibly) Halo 5 to follow.

Still with me?

Halo 4 made it seem like the Didact was going to be a recurring antagonist; he definitely seemed “defeated, but not killed” at the end of that game. Which I’d thought would mean we’d see his big ugly mug again in Halo 5 . . . but Escalation makes it pretty clear that the Didact is done, since in this book, Blue Team hunts him down and kills him, and they kill him pretty decisively. I suppose it’s still possible we’ll see more of the Didact, but . . . it feels unlikely. I wonder if he wasn’t as well received as 343 was hoping and so they steered away from him in favor of other villains in Halo 5.

Back to Escalation itself; although the Master Chief storyline is the standout here, the rest of the book is quite good. There’s a good balance of world building that I enjoy and the work that’s gone into the Spartan-IVs really shows. Ray and Thorne are back and even Palmer’s characterization has smoothed out from her rocky start in a previous graphic novel. Despite how good it was to see the Chief in a book, it also reminds one that the universe is much, much larger than just the Chief. I appreciate that.

Final verdict: good stories, good art, good pick for a Halo fan. I’m happy to recommend this one.

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Review: Halo: Escalation (Volume One)

Halo: Escalation (Volume 1)Halo: Escalation by Christopher Schlerf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now this is a damn fine Halo story and an example of what I think should be the standard for other Halo graphic novels.

As mentioned in my “Halo: Initiation” review, this book does a much better job of introducing Sarah Palmer as a likable character, as not only is she devoid of much of the arrogance from her previous version, she even apologies to another character for being “unprofessional” at one point, which I think indicates the author has a better handle on her character. The cast is also much larger and more diverse, with a few different plotlines woven together. In particular, I really enjoyed Commander Lasky and Spartan Ray working together and their subplot was, I think, the most interesting.

I’m also a big fan of the Arbiter (he might even be my favorite Halo character, in fact) and so any book that gives him a role will make me happy, even if he’s mostly a side character.

But what made this book great for me, aside from the strong cast of interesting and likable characters, was that it wasn’t afraid to really dive into the plot and world building. We’re getting a look at the universe in the post-Covenant era, full of warlords and feuding and attempts at diplomacy. We see Sangheili that are becoming money-driven information brokers and Jiralhanae that are actually more than just berserker monsters (though only barely).

It’s a world that fills vibrant and alive, and focuses on a story that’s more than just “kill these guys and blow this thing up.” It even brings back a tantalizing glimpse at a story element from the somewhat forgotten game “Halo Wars” which wasn’t terribly popular, but one I really enjoyed. I won’t spoil the details here, but it was great seeing the UNSC Spirit of Fire getting mentioned again.

“Escalation: Volume 1” sets a high bar and I’m eager to see if Volume 2 can continue this level of momentum. Regardless of how the next book plays out, though, I would say this is a must-read for any series Halo fan. It has a bit of everything: action, plot, Spartans, aliens, and action, and it’s all wonderfully balanced. This is what a Halo graphic novel should be.

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Review: Halo: Initiation

Halo: InitiationHalo: Initiation by Brian Reed

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Based on her role in Halo 4, it seems like Sarah Palmer was intended to be the “face” of the new Halo generation and the Spartan-IVs. And on the surface, she seems like a pretty great character; she’s a Commander, which is cool, and she’s voiced by legendary voice actor and perennial fan favorite Jennifer Hale. Unfortunately, her characterization throughout the game is uneven and even somewhat unlikable, and those problems extend to this book which was meant to serve as an origin story for the character.

Palmer’s character is, for lack of a better term, just flat-out unlikable as a protagonist. It’s always great for characters to have flaws, of course, but those flaws do need to be tempered with characteristics that cause an audience to identify with the main character. Even worse, Palmer is uneven, at first disliking the Spartans for being “superior” and then lording that same superiority when she becomes a Spartan herself. There’s also the odd inconsistency in her rank and promotion: originally, her character was supposedly a lieutenant before she became a Spartan, which would make sense, but here she’s a lowly corporal . . . which means that, by the time of Halo 4, she’s jumped how many ranks in how short a time?

Basically, it’s just hard to root for her, and as this story is entirely focused on introducing us to her character, it drags the entire story down, even though the rest of the book is pretty decent. Fortunately, I’ve also read the next book in the Halo graphic novel line, Escalation Volume 1, and that story does a great deal to redeem Palmer’s character.

Thus, I’d say skip this one entirely. It doesn’t do anything for the character except make you dislike her, which is a huge problem for a backstory book.

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Review: Halo: Helljumper

Halo: HelljumperHalo: Helljumper by Peter David

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For me, the best Halo stories are the ones that dive headfirst into the Halo universe’s deep well of lore. Most of the games barely scratch at the surface of this universe, only lightly touching or referencing the deep mythology. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the action of the games themselves is so deeply satisfying.

“Helljumper” has the problem of trying to be more like the games than other stories. It’s very light on the story, focusing on the bond-of-brother-soldiers thing between Romeo and Dutch, two of the characters from Halo: ODST. Romeo was always my least favorite of the ODST cast, although to my surprise, he reads very differently than his game counterpart. Regardless, the focus of the book is largely on ODST action, kicking butt and killing aliens. Which is . . . okay, but the games handle this action-first focus far better.

Things like “the Knowing” which could be deeply interesting questions to ponder and investigate are instead reduced to a McGuffin that needs to be kept out of enemy hands or humanity is doomed, though we’re never told how exactly, as the McGuffin is blown up about four pages after it’s revealed.

Helljumper doesn’t really do anything wrong, but it doesn’t play to the strengths of its medium. Dutch and Romeo are likable and their bond is a good one, and I did like how the story ended on the question of whether they will transfer out or not. So while Helljumper doesn’t make any mistakes, it plays things too safe.

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Review: Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved

Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved
Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved by Luke Cuddy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I knew this one was going to be a pop approach to philosophy, being about an FPS video game franchise like Halo, I was hoping that its discussions would be more focused on the lore behind Halo itself. We are, after all, talking about a franchise that was first introduced in a mysterious email chain that quoted T. S. Eliot. The Halo universe can be pretty mythic and deep when it wants to be.

Although a few of the essays do approach Halo from a lore perspective, the majority are more concerned with the philosophical implications and considerations of the actual Halo gameplay. For me, this was somewhat less riveting. There are a few interesting discussions, but overall, my general feeling towards these sorts of arguments is a sort of inward eye rolling. I’m reminded of my philosophy undergraduate days and how my peers could turn absolutely anything into a philosophical debate, even things that seemed rather pointless. This might be indicative that I wasn’t really cut out to be a philosopher, but as this is my review, I’m free to hold to it. But I digress.

The most redeeming aspect of this book is the fact that it’s indicative of the overall progress video games have made as a medium; that we’d ever have a book discussing Halo and philosophy is a sign of progress. That said, I remain skeptical that one can really glean any deep philosophical insight from playing Halo multiplayer. The attempts to bolt things like Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument onto a Halo deathmatch feel more like an attempt to play to the reluctant reader category, the sort of person that might be enticed towards philosophy if it comes in a tasty Halo-flavored coating. But even for reluctant readers, there are other books I would recommend instead; “Sophie’s World,” in particular, which was the book that hooked me many years ago.

Overall, we’re left with a somewhat interesting book. It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it also doesn’t manage to really excel. The arguments here aren’t going to surprise a dedicated philosophy reader (some are telegraphed enough that you’ll be able to predict them). And while I did like it enough to finish it, I’m not sure to whom I’d recommend this book. Three stars.

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Review: Halo: New Blood

Halo: New Blood
Halo: New Blood by Matt Forbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best Halo novels I’ve read in a long time; maybe even my very favorite. It helps that it’s a story about one of Halo’s most likeable side characters: Sergeant Buck, originally from ODST, and now a squadmate in Halo 5. Buck is voiced and modeled by Nathan Fillion, an iconic figure to geeks everywhere and his character is basically a pitch-perfect translation of Malcolm Reynolds moved into the Halo universe. And it works perfectly.

Author Matt Forbeck either has the uncanny ability to mimic those around him, or he binged on Firefly episodes and Fillion’s other work while writing this book. You can hear Fillion’s voice in these pages and it’s excellent. The story itself is very human and focuses on the themes that make the Halo universe the most compelling: duty, identity, loyalty.

The story is told out of sequence, which is interesting as it creates a strong sense for how Buck (the main character and narrator of the story) thinks. We get a quick recap of the plotline of ODST, which is interesting, check in with some old comrades (which is interesting and also heartbreaking), and see how exactly Buck transitioned from ODST to Spartan-IV.

The best aspect of this story, however, is that it succeeds where almost all franchise tie-in novels fail: you don’t have to be a Halo fan to enjoy this book. It stands on its own; if you’ve never played a Halo game, you can still enjoy this story. It doesn’t rely on the reader having a degree in its own lore; if you’ve never played a Halo game, you’ll understand the difference between ODSTs (elite, but thoroughly human) and Spartans (human supersoldiers) and even the different classes of Spartans.

Most of all, it’s a human, character driven story. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, really did catch me off guard and caught me right in the feels. That’s a rare achievement for most books focused on space wars and future soldiers, let alone a video game novel.

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But Does It Project A Tiny Blue Hologram?

I am enough of a nerd to admit this: if Cortana is the actual name of Microsoft’s personal data assistant, I want one. If it’s just the code name for the project, I will be disappointed.

I hear people talking to Siri on their iPhones all the time, but Siri doesn’t remind me of one of my favorite Xbox games. I want to have a brief moment of Halo fan-thrill every time I need to find out something.

“Cortana, find me a restaurant.”

“Cortana, what’s the weather like today?”

“Cortana, what’s the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Is that dorky? Yes. Yes, it is.

Do I care? I still hold my hand out and pretend to be a Jedi every time I walk through an automatic door. You tell me.