Everyone remembers that Xbox One reveal. It was so memorable for its focus on things other than gaming that it spawned its own “TVTVTV” meme. Everyone remembers the subsequent u-turns, many made after the appointment of Phil Spencer as the head of Microsoft’s Xbox Department in March – decisions made in an effort to right the ship after months of negativity toward the Xbox brand.
And so, it came as little surprise when, a few months after Spencer assumed control, Xbox Entertainment Studios was shut down. Formed in 2012 to create interactive television content for Xbox Live, the studio never got a chance to show us what it could bring to the table. While a couple of the studio’s projects, like the subject of this piece, survived that closure, it would have been interesting to see where such a venture might have lead in the fullness of time, especially if they were to focus primarily on gaming-related content. As a big fan of extended universe stuff, I like that the worlds we explore in games can exist in more places than just the consoles and PCs we play them on.
As with any project that ties into a franchise’s extended universe, the result is of course that these things often end up being very obviously ‘for the fans’, and that’s no bad thing; it’s the most hardcore fans that are going to care about the wider universe these things sit within.
Which is why it’s a little odd, that on first starting up episode 1 of Halo: Nightfall – the Xbox Live-exclusive miniseries from Scott Free Productions that requires ownership of the Master Chief Collection to even access – there’s a short text intro to set the scene. Fans don’t need the Human-Covenant War explained to them, nor the resultant unsteady peace, yet newcomers are unlikely to even see the series (at least for the time being).
Thankfully, pretty much everything from here on in is pure fanservice. Right from the moment we’re introduced to Jameson Locke as he and his team track an alien smuggler on a human colony world, we see that the soldiers are equipped with Halo: Combat Evolved‘s iconic pistol. Following the smuggler, the team witnesses a Covenant Spirit flying low overhead, looking and sounding exactly as you’d expect. Later, when we meet Aiken, a colonel in the local Colonial Guard, the mistrust between the colonists and their UNSC ‘guests’ is palpable, yet the show wastes absolutely no time explaining why this is; hardcore Halo fans will likely understand, and so it’s left at that.
The story follows a small intelligence team as they track an alien smuggler on the human colony of Sedra (population: 92% human, we are reliably informed). Witnessing the smuggler hand over a package – thought to be a bomb – to an Elite in the forests outside of Sedra’s capital, Locke’s team give chase, losing the alien as it escapes into the city. Before it can be stopped, the Elite detonates the device in a crowded shopping centre. Rather than explode however, it emits a strange pulse that quickly infects humans – and only humans – leaving them to slowly perish from an unknown malady.
Realising that the Covenant could now possess a biological weapon that only targets humans, Locke’s team, assisted by a colonial guardsman named Macer, manage to track the substance to a fragment of Alpha Halo (“the one destroyed by the Master Chief!” – again, no explanation deemed necessary), and set in motion a plan to travel to the fragment, apprehend the smugglers that are collecting the substance, and destroy it if possible.
As you’d expect from a Scott Free production, it’s very nicely composed and shot, and holds up well against other recent sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica, at least in the audiovisual department – unsurprising perhaps, given the choice of Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break, alongside the aforementioned Battlestar reboot) on directorial duties. The overall tone isn’t too far removed from something like The Sarah Connor Chronicles either, going for a reasonably grounded feel, despite the fact it’s set in the 2550s. CGI shots of the Covenant Elite seen in this first episode could probably be better, though it’s no worse than, say, a computer-generated Cylon Centurion.
Though we’re only half an hour in at this point, I can’t imagine I’ll be quite as complimentary about the script and performances. Prison Break‘s Paul Scheuring is on writing duties, and though Mike Colter seems likeable enough as Locke, so far everyone else is simply adequate, if a bit flat. Dialogue is generally fine, but the occasional dramatic line falls flat, too (sample line: “He says it’s sourced from a place no one will go. He says it’s sourced from Hell.”). While Aiken obviously hides some secrets in his past, Locke’s team remain mostly anonymous, and I can already imagine the cast shrinking somewhat to focus around the core of Locke, Macer and Aiken as we go forward.
But then, standing up to genre stalwarts most likely isn’t the point of Halo: Nightfall. It’s an excessively expensive piece of fanservice meant to introduce players to the character of Jameson Locke, someone who will become increasingly important in the Halo universe the closer we get to next year’s release of Halo 5: Guardians. It fills a similar role as 2012’s Forward Unto Dawn, then, serving to bridge the gap between sequels while introducing a new character or two along the way. It feels like an expansion of that idea, yet at thirty minutes per episode it isn’t quite television length – Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming live-action adaptation (another survivor of the closure of XES) will likely cover that role, and it’s easy to see Nightfall as something of a practice run for the larger project.
It’s difficult to recommend Halo: Nightfall to newcomers to the franchise, given how much knowledge is assumed, but for fans it’s as shiny and lavish a piece of extended universe fiction as we’re likely to see – at least until Spielberg’s offering materialises. And as a look at what might have been had Xbox Entertainment Studios continued, well, it’s a shame that it never really got a chance to get started.