Halo: Nightfall – Review

Halo Nightfall - Title Picture
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Darkest Night

In and amongst all the (quite frankly) deserved flak that Halo: The Master Chief Collection has received from both critics and fans alike since its November 11th launch, it’s quite easy to forget about Halo: Nightfall – the latest TV series set in the Halo universe, that came bundled with copies of the game. Produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions in collaboration with 343 Industries, Nightfall is similar in both style and presentation to 2012’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. It’s an episodic five-part Halo TV series (accessible via the Xbox One’s Halo Channel, the Xbone’s next-gen replacement for the 360’s Halo Waypoint app) that follows the exploits of new character Jameson Locke (or, as he’s known at this point in time, Lieutenant Commander Locke) and a bunch of ONI operatives on a high-risk covert operation to a blackened and twisted fragment of the Alpha Halo ring from Halo: Combat Evolved.

However, once you have watched it, you start to see why Nightfall is rather easy to forget. Whilst the series is a palatable Halo-flavoured sci-fi action romp with some mild horror elements thrown into the mix for good measure, overall the series just feels generally underwhelming. Similarly to Forward Unto Dawn, the visuals, special effects and aesthetics of Nightfall are for the most part pretty cool; unfortunately though, like its predecessor, Nightfall is let down by a weak script, its shoddy execution and pace and a largely uninteresting cast of characters.

It’s a shame, as there are some cool ideas and concepts in Nightfall, but they’re massively hindered by the series’ truncated structure; the plot never really gets chance to unwind naturally across the limited span of five episodes. Occasional attempts to create any tangible sense of tension or fear in and amongst the bland dialogue – which is completely saturated with cheesy ’80s action film one-liners – largely fall flat, as events are hurried along at such a pace that it becomes hard to connect with or even care about the majority of the cardboard cut-out cast of characters; most of which are either forgettable or played in a laughably bad over the top manner.

Combine all these concerns with some dreary backdrops, some shockingly bad costume/creature designs, and a pretty big clump of narrative loose ends that are just left unsatisfyingly untied by the series finale, and you get a series which unfortunately feels really limp, loose and decidedly lacking.

Unlike The Master Chief Collection, which feels like it was yanked out of the development frying pan far too soon – on the multiplayer side of things, a hideously undercooked and unacceptably red-raw fillet steak of a fuck you to Halo fans – Nightfall instead feels like (to stretch this poor cooking analogy even further) someone tried to force far too much stuffing into a tiny little poussin, then slapped it in the oven for 119 minutes at gas mark 6, and lo and behold, it’s just gone absolutely everywhere. A grisly cacophony of flesh and forcemeat, smeared all over the inside of the oven like a Jackson Pollock painting gone horribly, horribly wrong; a gallimaufric gloop of meat and bone, oozing through the wire shelves before finally congealing into pools of fat and misery on the crusty oven floor. You can see that Nightfall had some cool ideas in the mix, and the potential to get us really excited about 343’s new protagonist ahead of the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, but instead the show feels rather like the Alpha Halo fragment the story takes place on; a lifeless burnt out husk of ash and dust.

Plotholing

Okay, let’s take a step back here for a second, and put my shoddy cooking metaphors to one side for the time being. What’s the series all about I hear you ask?

Halo: Nightfall focuses upon the re-emerging tensions and the old animosity that’s starting to bubble back up the surface between the UNSC and the outer colony worlds since the war with The Covenant ended in an uneasy ceasefire after the events of Halo 3. Set in the year 2556 (placing it on the Halo timeline roughly between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4), the plot of Nightfall takes place just prior to the detonation of a massive chemical bomb on Sedra, an agricultural outer colony planet largely ignored by the UNSC. 343 Industries have said that the events of Nightfall are set to connect the story between Halo 4 and the upcoming Halo 5 – in which Locke is said to be a playable character – and it effectively acts as a vehicle for us to learn about Locke’s origin story as a soldier.

This is a really interesting part of the Halo lore which never really gets explored in the games, and is largely left to the realm of the books – which is a shame really, as this conflict is in my opinion one of the more interesting backstory elements of the entire series, so it’s great that Nightfall is the first major exploration of these themes outside of the printed Halo media.

We first see Locke and his team of ONI operatives as they track and attempt to neutralise a suicide Sanghelli (that’s Covenant for an Elite my dear Watson) but despite their efforts, they are ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the detonation. While there’s no explosion as such, the bomb sends out a massive energy wave which rapidly makes the majority of humans within the blast radius contract a deadly poisonous infection – one which appears to be able to specifically target and break down just human DNA. Upon further analysis, it turns out the deadly chemical element of the dirty bomb came from a loose fragment of the Alpha Halo ring that the Master Chief destroyed in Halo: Combat Evolved, which is now in a low orbit around Sedra’s sun.

Locke and his ONI unit (handily unaffected by the infection, despite being right there at the ground zero of the bomb’s detonation) are then dispatched to the surface of the ring fragment on a secret night operation (hence the name Nightfall). As part of the operation, they are begrudgingly paired up with a group from the Sedran Colonial Guard and its commander, Randall Aiken, to track down this poisonous chemical cache and destroy it with a HAVOK nuke – after all, it’s the only way to be sure.

The catch is that the team only have a couple of hours to get in, destroy the chemical deposits and evac; due to the ring fragment being in a very close orbit to the sun, if they aren’t off the surface by daylight, then they will be burnt to a crisp. Naturally, soon after they touch down, things start to go horribly wrong, and the mission suddenly gets a lot more complicated…

Leatherface or Dr. Who the Fuck is That?

I’m going to kick my critique of Nightfall off properly with what’s admittedly a very trivial point. It’s minor, superficial and quite frankly, it’s a really petty thing for me to have a go at, particularly at such an early stage of the review. But due to the immediacy of the appearance of this problem within the opening moments of the very first episode, it’s that incredibly jarring to the mood and atmosphere which Nightfall tries to establish that I feel it’s entirely appropriate to bring it up right now before we get into the more salient points of discussion.

What might I be alluding to you ask? Well, in the opening scene of Episode 1, we see Locke and his team tracking down a mysterious alien creature, who’s lurking about in the Sedran forests to deliver the dirty bomb to the Elite bomber. This ‘thing’ is a brand new alien race that we’ve not seen yet in the Halo universe and…oh great, it’s just a man in a fucking rubber mask.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, The Halo Channel is currently not my friend (most likely because of the recent DDOS attack, or perhaps due to what I’ve written so far) and is refusing to let me play back the episodes of Nightfall after my initial viewing – hence the reason this review is rather short on relevant imagery. Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve been unable to acquire my own decent images of the new critter to include in this piece, so I’m afraid that you’ll just have to witness the general disappointment of it yourself via YouTube etc. I’ll wait, don’t worry.

Seen it now? Good. It’s pretty rubbish in my opinion – it looks like a cross between a rejected Doctor Who creature and an exploded curd tart (okay that’s the last cooking gag for now, I promise) and it certainly curbed my appetite (No seriously, that really is the last one, I promise) of what to expect from Nightfall pretty early on I have to say. It’s totally immersion breaking; it just looks like a guy in a rubber mask, not some enigmatic new alien race – did the costume department get absolutely shafted in the production’s budget or something? It looks like something out of an amateur student horror film, not a top-end sci-fi production.

What’s really bizarre though is that from a visual effects perspective, Nightfall has some particularly good and tastefully used CGI aliens in my opinion – they look pretty damn good in other words. In particular, the Elite suicide bomber in Episode 1, and without going too much into spoiler territory, the creepy-crawlies that later terrorize the team on the ring look suitably impressive. It’s just a shame that the ‘real’ creature effects look laughable in comparison. Nightfall is quite possibly one of the few times when I’ve watched a TV series/film where the CGI looks way better than real effects used within the same piece of media. Couldn’t the Yohnet have been CGI’d in too?

It’s introduced in an incredibly poor fashion as well – there’s no significant explanation for who or what this brand new creature is in Nightfall, so I had to go look it up online – always a good start. It turns out that these candlewax catastrophes are known as the Yohnet; from my reading around, apparently the Yohnet do make an appearance in the comic Halo: Escalation to be fair, but Nightfall is their first introduction in a feature-length visual piece of content, and arguably, the place where the vast majority of Halo fans will first encounter them. It’s treated right from the off as though this brand new blancmange-faced alien race has always been part of The Covenant, and that the viewers will conveniently know this as well and be instantly familiar with them. Wrong. As a result, you don’t really feel that much empathy with the thing/character when it’s being interrogated by Locke and the ONI/Sedran team in a later scene, it just feels like a nonchalant shoe-in here, a convenient plot device conjured up to plug a gap in the papery thin story.

The Halo universe is renowned for having a vast plethora of uniquely fantastic alien races to draw upon, each with their own distinct cultures, behaviours, thoughts, societal structures and belief systems which are fleshed out to a great extent in the extended Halo universe of the books, comics, anime etc. So why on earth does Nightfall decide to kick things off by thrusting not only a brand new race into the fray without explanation, but a really dull and uninspired one at that? Were the other races not good/rubbery-faced enough?

From the word go, this shoe-horning in of a brand new, uninteresting creature and it’s appallingly tacky on-screen quality just really knocked me sideways. It doesn’t sell you at all on the atmosphere of gritty realism that Nightfall is desperately trying to go for, nor does it draw you in as a viewer; it does the opposite and pushes you further out.

When the creature’s design looks like something you could bodge together yourself in true Blue Peter style, using several swimming caps, countless tubes of PVA glue, a plethora of toilet roll middles, swathes and swathes and swathes of sticky back plastic and a whole fucktonne of Play-Doh to top it off, it’s not good. Oh, and don’t forget a gaint Fairy Liquid bottle too – don’t forget that old chestnut, whatever you do.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that new ideas aren’t welcome in Halo – far from it, I’m personally desperate for new and exciting changes in the Halo series now we’re up to the fifth numbered entry in the games. But the way this new race of rubbery leatherfaces are just casually retconned into existence just feels uncharacteristically sloppy for the otherwise meticulously constructed Halo canon.

Scriptly Come Prancing and Shed Queasiness

Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to some of the more important concerns about Nightfall. Like I said at the start of the piece, the main problem that I found with the series is that while there are some potentially interesting characters in the story, the writing is so cripplingly poor that it does little to make you care about them.

There are good performances here and there; in particular, Christina Chong injects some real passion and grit to the proceedings. She’s the character that’s easiest to identify with in a lot of ways, as the others are mainly just the same typical old macho-man marine hardasses you see in game after game, film after film. In fact, she’s easily the most expressive character in the whole thing; Exuding quiet but steely resistance to the elitist ONI operatives when they assume joint command of the mission in the early episodes, and portraying convincing reactions of fear and fright when things rapidly head south, she pretty much carries the human element of the story throughout the entire series.

Likewise, Steve Waddington brings a gruff solemnity and a charismatic world-weary charm to his character, Randall Aiken (a name no doubt familiar to observant Halo fans), and many of the series’ more emotional scenes are suitably anchored around his character’s poignant arc.

Mike Colter does turn in a decent performance as Locke, but ultimately his character just simply isn’t that interesting. In fact, that’s kind of the problem with Nightfall; the main character is less engaging than his supporting cast. You don’t really get much chance to peek under Locke’s mental bonnet at any point to see what really makes him tick; you have little idea what he’s truly about, what he stands for, what his raison d’être is beyond just following the mission protocol. Nightfall is an origin story that fundamentally fails to tell the protagonist’s origin story; it fails to convey to the audience what exactly makes its protagonist interesting.

Nonetheless, you do root for Locke. I’m still keen to play as him in Halo 5: Guardians (presumably he has an Advanced Warfare style accident which is how he’ll get the necessary Spartan IV augments before the events of Halo 5), if only to have the chance to leave the Master Chief’s bulky MJLONIR shoes for a bit. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s more of a substantial grounding to his character in the upcoming game. In fact, I actually learned far more about Locke from the feature-length video documentary/advertisement that was Remaking The Legend – Halo 2: Anniversary, where in between recording takes in a voice-over session, Mike himself dishes out a few details about his new character in the context of the new game.

Unfortunately though, from what we get to see of him in Nightfall, it looks as though Locke is pretty much written to be the same character as Spartan 117 – bland, stoic and essentially another blank and boring canvas to project yourself onto, another empty set of shoes to fill with little character of his own to explore. I’m hoping 343 will prove me wrong on this of course – playing as the Arbiter in Halo 2 was fantastic plot device, one which was almost universally disliked by the majority of fans unfortunately – but from what we get to see in this ‘origin story’, I’m not at all convinced that lightning will strike the secondary character slot twice as it were.

The rest of the performances are particularly lacklustre. One minute the crew are a highly trained bunch of professional soldiers, they touch down on the ring and almost instantly everybody turns on each other like a bunch of headless chickens (just how headless chickens go about turning on each other, I’m not too sure, but trust me, they do). There’s no natural character development; everything feels cut and pasted, scene by scene, episode by episode. You pretty much can spot the typical character stereotypes for what they are in the very first episode even before the proverbial brown hits the proverbial fan blades – which is not necessarily a problem in of itself, but the result is that absolutely nothing will catch you by surprise. The writing feels static and lacklustre, as the majority of the cast show no interesting progression or any significant development throughout the series.

It also doesn’t help that there’s a dirge of cheesy one-liners throughout – “Tonight…we are god!” being a particularly excruciating moment of toe-curling wincery from what I can recall – and some dopey over the top death sequences which give the series a decidedly B-movie tone. All these things keep Nightfall feeling like a sheep in wolf’s clothing; it looks like a slick top-tier production upon first glance, but ultimately feels very video-gamey in a cheap and chintzy way when you barely scratch the surface.

Without spoiling things too much, when it gets going the show’s central conceit is a sort of Lord Of The Flies situation, where the morality and mental stability of the group is gradually worn down over the course of the series until they are essentially just desperate savages. But the pacing of Nightfall’s episodes are just so fast to the point that the isolated cabin fever like pressure-cooker situation that the writers have tried to craft never really manages to take hold. The execution and pacing of the plot just feels rushed and compacted to neatly fit within the five episode arc – it’s a limited vehicle that isn’t particularly suited to building the sustained sense of tension the story required. Perhaps going for a feature length single-sitting movie might have worked better?

Anyway, the slow-burning paranoia that sets in amongst the team of soldiers in the early episodes doesn’t really get the chance to naturally unfold, and instead of things gradually boiling up to an intense breaking point, it just disappointingly fizzles out like a lukewarm opened bottle of coke. Unsurprisingly then, a lot of the drama just feels artificial, dull and boring; again, often to the point where its laughably bad at times.

Dust Bowl

The cinematography in general is pretty good. In particular, the early scenes set on Sedra all look great. With its pouring rain, lush green forests and sprawling futuristic urban metropolis all suitably realised on-screen, these scenes look like they fit into the Halo universe perfectly. The art direction is detailed realistic and familiar; the design of the Sedran city looks just like it could be something straight from the Halo: Reach‘s New Alexandria, or Halo 3: ODST‘s New Mombasa. In other words, the art direction and cinematography of the early episodes feels spot on.

Unfortunately, the later episodes set on the broken Halo fragment just become a blur of charcoal and ash after a while. Although these are impressive and mysterious at first – you get plenty of these awesome wide open shots which are very reminiscent of Scott’s Prometheus, Lynch’s Dune and Cameron’s Aliens – these dusty environments all start to look pretty much exactly the same. Each scene becomes just another variation on watching the same dwindling group of soldiers clamber up and down the same sooty hills again and again. At times, it can be hard to work out what’s more interesting; the barren landscape or the more barren characters.

Classified Intel

As you watch Nightfall, you’ll get prompted to watch additional bonus scenes and ‘second stories’ that act to bulk out the main narrative. They don’t. The bonus scenes that unlock as you watch the episodes range from stuff that should have remained on the cutting room floor, to these frenzied rambling vlogs which are just obtusely boring and impenetrable. They’re just filled with characters giving fish-eye camera lenses a very stern talking to; their scientific logs and video diaries all sound very important, chock full of sci-fi medical jargon, but you can just feel your eyes glazing over the more they go on. With the exception of some of the early additional scenes that depict characters who actually are in the main piece, a great deal of these extra scenes just felt unnecessary and boring. They simply come across as pretentious; the harder they try to push home just how serious and grave whatever subject matter they are waffling on about is, it also becomes less and less interesting to process, which is a real shame.

Everything is heavily censored and classified. After a while, it starts to feel like you’re listening to a confidential blacked out FBI report in audiobook form, and it’s about as entertaining. Even as a longtime Halo fan, listening to these extra sections, straining with freshly peeled ears to hear any little golden nuggets of info that might drop, any easter eggs or cheeky nods to other materials in the Halo canon quickly felt boring, and just not worth the effort after a while.

Before we move on, it’s also worth addressing a whole bunch of questions that are thrown up for hardcore Halo fans to digest. Again, I’m trying my best not to go too far into spoiler territory here, but there’s a lot of loose threads left unsatisfyingly dangling in the breeze that are just never tied up. For example, it’s never really explained just why the main threat on the ring is the way it is. Basically, it’s a variation on the well known creature/organism from the Halo universe, only exhibiting drastically different and uncharacteristic behaviour from anything that we’ve seen before in any of the books, games or TV projects. That in itself is fine – again, I’m all for new ideas in all aspects of Halo – but there’s not even a hint of just why this organism is acting so erratically. It’s just sort of arbitrarily thrown in in similar fashion to the leatherfaced Yohnet; it’s all kicking off because (as Mr. Torgue would say…loudly) reasons. So although the CGI for this organism is cool, the way it’s handled in Nightfall basically renders it as just another poorly used side plot device.

I do understand that 343 don’t want to give away too much information here – after all, a great part of Halo‘s success was due to the mysterious and enigmatic sci-fi tale woven carefully throughout the series – and I appreciate that Nightfall is set to tie into Halo 5: Guardians, where we might well get concrete answers for a lot of the strange shenanigans going on here. However, as a viewer watching this as a standalone piece, the lack of any explanation/resolution is frustrating. In fact, if the soldiers weren’t carrying around the iconic assault rifles, battle rifles and DMRs of past games, you’d struggle to identify Nightfall as having anything remotely to do with Halo at all.

Whilst mystery and intrigue have always been significant parts of the magical Halo formula, they’ve certainly never been enigmatic to the point where any previous media has required a prolonged and carefully sustained analysis (apart from perhaps the exception of Greg Bear’s awesome Forerunner book trilogy) in order to get at their true core meaning.

Lump of Coal

For all it’s faults and my moaning, if you’re prepared to endure through Nightfall‘s plethora of problems, then you will appreciate it as a piece of content designed to function as a hook in the run-up to Halo 5. However, as I’ve indicated here in this piece with all the subtlety of custard pie to the face (sorry but I had to just shoehorn one more cheap food gag in), it’s a shallow, tedious and unrewarding watch at best.

It’s just that, to me, it’s incredibly disappointing to see how poor Nightfall has turned out to be. This should have been much, MUCH more. This should have been a glorious marriage of awesomeness, a sci-fi fan’s sloppily wet dream, a great big fucking triumph of triumphs to be shouted aloud to the heavens (or Halo rings) – Ridley Scott, the king of realistic and gritty sci-fi movies such as Alien and Blade Runner, working on a Halo project, arguably one of the greatest sci-fi video game series ever made. But instead, it just fails spectacularly on the absolute basics it should have easily got right. Uninteresting characters. Weak story. Cheesy dialogue. Bland environments. Poor pacing. Yada yada yada, you get the picture by now – it has none of the hallmarks of quality and excellence that you would expect from either big name.

It’s not like a good Halo TV tie-in can’t be done though – far from it in fact. Halo: Legends in my opinion was absolutely awesome, and without a doubt it’s easily the best DVD/TV offering that has been produced so far. In my eyes, it set the bar high for what to expect from Halo when it comes to extraneous Halo TV content. Yes, it’s not live action, that’s kind of missing the point – what Legends did really well was to take small bite-size self-contained stories from across the Halo universe and put some creative and fresh twists on the familiar material; fleshing out both canonical chapters in non-canonical offshoots and creating new stories that fit the franchise like a glove, totally getting what makes Halo, Halo. Something Nightfall completely missed.

Forward Unto Dawn fell short in a lot of the same places Nightfall does, but credit where credit’s due, Forward Unto Dawn actually did provide an interesting origin story/introduction to a brand new character – again, something Nightfall completely failed to do. In addition, the pacing of Forward Unto Dawn felt just generally better paced and more exciting than what’s on offer in Nightfall, the latter containing both peaks of excitement and quieter moments of calm whilst Nightfall just plateaus out at this steady mediocre level before petering out completely. In particular, the carefully orchestrated set pieces of Forward Unto Dawn were really well executed; the section with stealth elite stalking the young cadets in the locker room, and the final battle with the hunter being particular standout moments.

Anyway, you get the picture – Nightfall is a mere shell of what it could have been. A Halo fan’s dream scenario of epic proportions in theory, but lying in the gutter, gurgling pitifully to itself in a drunken stupor whilst staring at the stars in actuality. To end on a more positive note, let’s collectively hope that whatever the state of play is with Spielberg’s Halo: The Television Series, I just hope that it doesn’t suffer from the same problems that Nightfall has. Just like the dirty bomb that goes off at the start of Nightfall, let’s hope that the problems that infected this series don’t jump and take hold on the next one.

In other news, the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta is now live at the time of writing, (I’m probably playing it in my pants as you read this – an image almost as revolting as the rice pudding-faced Yohnet from Nightfall) so stay tuned and I’ll report back soon with the latest on the Halo 5 front – oh, and happy new year too!

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