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The ‘Halo’ TV Show May Not Be for Diehards—or Newcomers, Either

The early episodes of Paramount+’s much-delayed new adaptation of the classic video game series miss their target, though the streamer appears to be giving the series a long leash

Paramount Plus/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Video game adaptations have made an evolutionary leap in the past few years, but at least one ironclad rule remains from the dark days of the 2000s: If you’re going to make a movie or TV version of a first-person shooter, you have to show some shooting from a first-person perspective. House of the Dead (2003), Doom (2005), and Gamer (2009) all obeyed this bylaw, and Halo abides by it too. The first fight scene of the long-in-development series, which premieres Thursday on Paramount+, gives viewers glimpses of the battlefield through Master Chief’s visor as he frags familiar-looking Covenant Elites with equally familiar firearms. From the outside, Chief’s armor is just the right shade of green, and as his shield depletes and recharges, it makes the same sounds that Halo veterans have heard in their dreams. There’s no teabagging, but in every other respect the set piece seems calculated to trigger deep-rooted memories among those who have dabbled in or overdosed on Halo in the decades since Halo: Combat Evolved came out in 2001.

That first free-for-all, in which the well-known super soldier drops from the sky and starts making mincemeat of previously unstoppable aliens, is a flashing sign pointed toward fans of the franchise: Come on in, the weapons are warm. But Halo soon establishes ambitions beyond retracing the steps of the preexisting series. The new Halo is, if anything, eager to distance itself from the old, positioning itself not as a facsimile of or homage to the game series whose latest installment has been played by more than 20 million people, but a distinct, expensive epic filled with worldbuilding, lore, and fancy special effects that could give Paramount+ another streaming tentpole to pair with its burgeoning Sheridanverse and ever-swelling lineup of Star Trek TV. The effort far surpasses the aforementioned cinematic turds adapted from first-person shooters, but Halo has bigger game in its crosshairs. Thus far, its aspirations outstrip its results. It’s impossible to pass a definitive verdict after seeing only the two episodes sent to critics in advance of the nine-episode season’s start, but in the early going, at least, the series maps a middle path that may fail to fully satisfy either Halo diehards or nongamers in search of nuanced, cerebral, inventive sci-fi.

Like the hollow-but-lucrative Uncharted, Halo went through development hell en route to its final home. Uncharted’s sights stayed trained on theaters throughout its many musical-chair alignments of writers, directors, and stars, but Halo proved more malleable. After a planned pre–District 9 collab between Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp fell through, Halo pivoted to TV almost a decade ago, a smart move for many game adaptations. Shepherded by Amblin Television at the behest of Halo fan Steven Spielberg, who executive produced and is said to have been heavily involved, the series cycled through directors, showrunners, scripts, and even networks, relocating a little more than a year ago from one Paramount Global property (Showtime) to another (Paramount+). The change in pace and length afforded by a nine-episode opening act allows Halo’s lore to breathe, but it also puts pressure on the Spartan known as John-117 to be a charismatic lead, rather than the blank vessel he served as in the original Halo trilogy.

The games didn’t add much depth to the taciturn Chief’s personality until Halo 4, and they’ve never allowed players to get a good look at the character’s face. On both counts, the adaptation immediately dispenses with past precedent. To Halo’s credit, the series doesn’t slow-roll its plot: Within the first episode, Chief goes from perceived faceless enforcer for the United Nations Space Command to perceived savior of the species in its struggle against the Covenant back to merciless, unquestioning killer, and then to manipulated, sympathetic pawn and righteous rogue who rejects an immoral mission.

The premiere establishes that 26th-century humanity is at war with an implacable enemy whose origins and desires it doesn’t understand; that Chief and his fellow psychologically conditioned and physically augmented Spartans are the tip of the UNSC’s spear and its PR campaign; that the UNSC has a heavy hand in keeping colonies in line; and that Chief has special, mystical abilities, repressed childhood memories, and a long-suppressed conscience. At the start of the episode, his task is to kill the Covenant and help quell an insurrection on the strategically valuable colony world of Madrigal; by the end of the episode, he’s interfacing with a Covenant artifact, dredging up his hidden past, and defying orders for the first time to protect a survivor from Madrigal whom he’s been told to execute. We’ve all had days like that.

Series star Pablo Schreiber removes his helmet in Episode 1, and it stays off in the second episode long enough for him to surpass Pedro Pascal’s cumulative facetime in two-plus seasons of The Mandalorian. Comparisons to The Mandalorian—and, for that matter, Star Wars: The Bad Batch—are inevitable, because the series follows the formula of “armored, indoctrinated warrior who’s ill-equipped to take care of a kid makes many new enemies by rescuing a young sidekick who inspires the protagonist to get in touch with their emotions.” In Chief’s case, the sidekick is the newly orphaned Quan Ah (Yerin Ha), who holds grudges against both sides of the UNSC-Covenant conflict.

Chief’s sensitive side is stunted not just through lack of practice expressing it but also by a feelings-suppressing implant, obstacles to self-actualization that he’ll likely spend much of the season overcoming. They may not be Mando and Grogu in terms of meme potential, but Schreiber and Ha have the presence and chemistry to capture as much of the audience’s attention as the script permits. Other intriguing characters include Natascha McElhone as Dr. Catherine Halsey, creator and deceiver of the Spartans; Bokeem Woodbine as vaguely Landolike Spartan defector Soren-066; and Charlie Murphy as Makee, a human who sides with and is sacred to the Covenant for reasons that are still unclear. The series’ supporting characters—some central to the games, some drawn from the expanded Halo universe, and some new creations—provide the foils through which we and Master Chief learn who John-117 is and once was.

To their credit—and perhaps in some ways to their detriment—the series’ cast, creators, and marketing materials have sounded almost overly eager not to draft off the public’s built-in fondness for Halo. The first full-length trailer was almost a bizarro Obi-Wan Kenobi trailer; whereas the latter embraced Star Wars prequel nostalgia via a “Duel of the Fates” needle drop, the former eschewed the beloved Halo theme in favor of a remixed version of “In the Air Tonight.” (Fan edits soon set things right.) In the same vein, the series itself tantalizingly samples a snippet of the iconic theme in the opening credits before segueing into more generic and less memorable music the rest of the way.

In a Variety feature published last week, prominent figures from Schreiber to EP and director Otto Bathurst admit to not playing the game before signing onto the series; in the same story, Season 1 showrunner Steven Kane said, “We didn’t look at the game. We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about the characters and the world.” Nor is the adaptation adhering rigidly to the way the world and characters worked in the games; although Alex Garland’s original script for the never-made movie version stuck close to the events of the games, the TV series is employing an alternate “Silver Timeline” that mirrors the Halo fans know in the broad strokes but isn’t bound by the specifics of its canon.

All of the tidbits above range from irrelevant to possibly beneficial. You don’t need to be able to rip off a Running Riot to write or deliver Master Chief’s dialogue, and the experience of playing Halo wouldn’t translate to the TV series regardless. (Nor does it need to; one can already play Halo on the same screen.) Although those comments could alienate some portion of the player base that believes the minds behind the series should be lifelong, hardcore fans, a perfectly faithful adaptation would be largely redundant (and let’s be honest, fellow fans of Halo—not always close to coherent). Two similar-but-different versions of Halo canon coexisting could be confusing at times, but Halo has always been confusing, and sci-fi/superhero fans’ brains are already broken by multiverse creep. What’s one more reason to rely on explainers and wikis? A plot that provides a different reason for Chief and Cortana to arrive at Alpha Halo may make the mythology worth revisiting for fans who’ve worn out their Master Chief Collection, though for a series that tries to stand on its own, the adaptation doesn’t always hold the hands of Halo noobs as it lays out the state of civilization in 2552.

The biggest challenge the series faces so far isn’t that it’s too Halo or not Halo enough, but that it doesn’t do enough to stand out from the array of recent or current series it seems to emulate. Kiki Wolfkill, an executive producer of the series and a studio head at Microsoft-owned Halo game maker 343 Industries (which worked closely with Paramount+ on the production), has likened its scope, assortment of settings, and interlinked cast of characters to that of Game of Thrones, but Halo’s themes, dialogue, and characters aren’t exactly HBO-caliber. “What’s the point of saving humanity if we’re gonna give up our own?” one character laments, summing up a central tension of not only this series, but every other series about a world (or worlds) at war.

The first two episodes were written by Kane and Kyle Killen, the latter of whom codeveloped the series with Kane and was originally supposed to serve as coshowrunner. Killen is best known for creating and (briefly) running three broadcast-network series that were very quickly canceled; Kane wrote for and/or produced a spate of broadcast or TNT procedurals and cocreated TNT’s The Last Ship. The world needs network procedurals, and I liked The Last Ship. I’m just saying, somewhat snobbishly, that you should go into Halo with your prestige meter set to TNT, not HBO.

In its exterior spaceship shots and its depiction of downtrodden colonies and an off-the-grid asteroid-field hideout, Halo seems to be aiming for The Expanse and its conflict between Belters and Inners, but its politics and power struggles aren’t as rich right out of the gate. (The presence of Thrones and Expanse alum Burn Gorman reinforces the sense that we’ve seen this before.) Halo doesn’t always look like a $10 million–per-episode series—its landscapes and some of its interiors resemble those of basic-cable series such as Snowpiercer (shoutout to TNT again) more closely than lavish, streaming sci-fi series such as The Mandalorian, Apple TV+ series Foundation and For All Mankind, or HBO Max’s Raised By Wolves—but its creatures, Covenant architecture, and combat are convincing, albeit much more gory than the games ever get. (If you want to see a lot of limbs spurt blood and chunks of children get vaporized, subscribe today to Paramount+.)

Aside from a divisive new look for Cortana (who’s voiced by video game holdover Jen Taylor), Halo nails the looks of its legacy guns, vehicles, and characters. Visually and sonically, the Spartans are the series’ center; even more so than the games, the adaptation evocatively conveys their towering height and intimidating tonnage via footfalls that shake the ground. (Though it’s something of a mystery why their bullets do so much more damage than anyone else’s—which, to be fair, is more or less the way things work in the video games too.)

At the end of Halo: Combat Evolved, Chief tells Cortana that they’re just getting started, the truth of which has been borne out by several blockbuster sequels. Paramount+ hopes the TV adaptation will sprout similarly long legs. The series has already been renewed for a second season under a new showrunner, David Wiener (who developed the one-and-done drama Brave New World for Peacock). That renewal could reflect confidence in how the first season proceeds, or it could be a product of the time and fortune invested in this project, and the potential payoff (and small-screen spinoff universe) that awaits if it finds a large and loyal audience. Paramount’s big bet hasn’t horribly backfired; Halo is off to an undistinguished but nondisastrous start. Xbox lineage aside, there’s not much reason to recommend it over the wealth of superior streaming sci-fi alternatives, but it may yet climb the list as the series refines which fans it’s for and the Chief figures out what it means to be a more relatable super soldier. “You told me there wouldn’t be any cameras,” John-117 once said. There’s nothing but cameras on the big guy now.