*CLICK on ALL images in this review for 1080p, full resolution screenshots
I've been both anticipating and dreading the (not so?) inevitable release of a live-action Halo film. Whether you love the franchise or think it's been overhyped since day one, nobody can deny it's one of the most iconic first person shooters of all time... but does that necessarily make it a good candidate to transition into something more cinematic? Let's just consider that Doom, the most recognized FPS of all time, was given one of the worst theatrical adaptations ever seen. Still, thanks to the live-action marketing campaign that preceded Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST, people still have hope that a cinematic Halo experience can be done right. Not letting a good opportunity go to waste, 343, the studio now responsible for the Master Chief starring franchise, capitalizes on fans piqued interest with the five part live-action webisode series, Halo 4 - Forward Unto Dawn.
Now, I don't know about you, but I don't exactly consider wepisode series to be synonymous with quality. As a matter of fact, whenever I hear 'webisode', the only memories I can conjure up reflect efforts that acted as uninteresting side stories coupled with shameless self-promotion. So, when I learned that Halo was going to be given some episodic treatment on the internet, I figuratively waved my hand in dismissal. Regardless of the validity of Halo as a feature film, I was certain the one thing gamers of the world didn't need was another promotional piece of dreck. I mean, this is Halo we're talking about, and most people already knew if they were planning to purchase the game or not. Then, I heard that nearly $10 million was being spent on the production of this series. That's when I raised an eyebrow and began asking myself if Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries could actually pull this off. I don't typically associate money spent with quality, but a considerable amount of lettuce had to be invested if the intent was to meld this project into the already well established Halo-verse. And that's really the big question in regards to Forward Unto Dawn - Does it actually feel like an extension of the series, or is it just another promo piece we're going to forget about after all is said and done?
In answering this question, two things need to be understood about Forward Unto Dawn - First and foremost, that Master Chief is not the star (although he's certainly more than a mere cameo), and that the story itself is something of a slow burn. Taking place decades before the events of Halo 4, our focus is on that of Thomas Lasky (Tom Green, and no, not that Tom Green), a cadet who is going to foolish lengths to live up to his family's militaristic name. However, instead of looking like a natural born hero during training exercises, his reckless actions brand both him and his squad as a liability, which subsequently draws some negative attention from their commanders. This causes much friction between Lasky and his squad mates, so he eventually decides to take some initiative and prove his worth. Unfortunately, he collapses in a pivotal moment during a capture the flag exercise, due to a severe allergy which would eventually come with a medical discharge. This leaves Lasky to question his future if not his life altogether, but before he can make heads or tails of everything, destiny calls - An alarm sounds at the academy, proceeded by the sights and sounds of Covenant ships and the ground presence of the forces they've transported (including Elites, Jackals, and Hunters). Although things are looking grim for the cadets who've had no real experience in battle, hope arrives on the shoulders of a small band of Spartans and none other than Master Chief himself. Will they be able to stop the Covenant threat, and will Lasky be able to prove his worth on the battlefield when tested?
This disc presents us with a 90 minute special edition, whereas the original stream clocked in at around 75, so there's essentially an entire new segment of material here for those who are already familiar with the series. I did watch the series as each episode premiered on Halo Waypoint (the Xbox Live spot for all game statistics and content), but it was an entirely different experience than the presentation on this release. Not necessarily because of the new content, but because Forward Unto Dawn is best served in one feature-length bite. Although the premise of the story is simple enough, there's actually a surprising amount of depth to the characters. Lasky is not only struggling with the expectations of his family, but a love interest springs up during his emotional journey and it doesn't feel forced. The other cadets also come off as genuine kids who are also trying to find their way in this world - They reflect on the necessity of violence and if opening a line of communication with the enemy might be a better option. Some admit being groomed for warfare, while others are popping their proverbial cherries. Whatever their ideals have them contemplating, it all gets put to the test and they have little choice but to dig deep and see where they rise, or perhaps even fall. Once the action picks up about halfway through, things are a bit more straight forward, but the groundwork laid in the beginning make every action speak louder than words ever could. So, yes, Microsoft and 343 have pretty much done what I considered to be an impossible feat - They've not only made something that fully realizes the Halo-verse, but they've made a compelling character driven story along with it.
I was more than surprised by how much of the in-game stuff they've been able to include, too. Again, training exercises emulate capture the flag, shows off the in-helmet vision from ODST as well as the all too familiar radar, and the weapons and vehicles are all expertly replicated with realism. What surprised me most of all though, was just how well the special effects, both visual and audible, were implemented. A lot of the action takes place in the dark, which is undoubtedly an attempt to save some money in everything from set design to CGI, but the results are truly impressive. I don't want to spoil everything for you, but let me put it this way - There are a lot of colors associated with the weapons in Halo that don't exactly make one think of battle; green and pink come to mind. I thought their presence in a live action battle would come off silly, as well as the sounds that accompany guns like the Needler, but all the in-game sights and sounds make the transition flawlessly. Even gamer terminology, such as 'noob' or 'spray and pray' appear to have valid placement.
Halo 4 - Forward Unto Dawn is, and I can't believe I'm saying this, a great taste of what a Halo film could actually be in the right hands. It leans closer to the dark claustrophobic feel of Alien sometimes, but it works incredibly well here. If this franchise ever were to be transformed into a major motion picture, I'm now of the opinion that Microsoft and 343 would have to be involved, and with no Hollywood studio intervention at that. They've done a great job here, and until we do get an actual Halo film, this 90 minute feature is impressive enough to hold us over for quite some time. The only minor complaint I have of the whole affair is that Master Chief is voiced by someone other than Steve Downes, who voiced the super soldier in the games. Considering Downes' voice was almost as iconic as the green helmet with yellow visor itself (at least amongst fans), it's hard to think of a logical reason for his absence. 343 developers have confirmed that they used a sound-alike since Master Chief is a little younger in this story, but so what? That being said, their 'sound alike' guy does a commendable job. A lot of credit needs to go to director Stewart Hendler, because he made the best possible use out of the money he had to work with.
I've done enough talking at this point, so I'll just leave you with this - This is an important project because it could very well change what a 'webisode' means to viewers at home, and one could only hope this helps to set a trend in future marketing. See it to believe it.
Halo 4 - Forward Unto Dawn easily impresses in its theatrically inspired 2.35:1 aspect ratio at 1080p (AVC encoded). Clarity, depth and detail are nothing short of stunning, offering up a believable amount of depth and dimensionality more often than not. Contrast is flawless and black levels are deep and inky without any signs of crushing. Skin tones are conveyed appropriately when the source allows, although some artistic intent has them tinted in appropriate sequences. Colors are also bold when allowed, which is important considering the bright white and blue of the Energy Sword, and the various pinks and greens that fly through the air on the battlefield. There's no digital enhancements to worry about, such as edge enhancement or noise reduction, as evidenced by certain shots at night that look grainier than the rest. The only real complaint I can muster up at all, is that there's some banding on display from time to time, but considering how stellar the encoding appears to be, I'm willing to bet that has more to do with the source than anything else. Fans of the webisode series, or newcomers for that matter, should be satisfied by this presentation and then some.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is nearly a theatrical experience in and of itself. Of course, dialogue is crisp and clear, although if listening loud enough, it can sound a tad harsh on a few occasions. The fantastic score builds in the background to drive the suspense of the story along, but comes forward when appropriate, majestic and proud. It's the sound effects that deserve the most praise though - The shots of various Covenant weapons rushing past your head is realistic enough, as they come with pinpoint precise directionality across the entire surround stage. The LFE gets its time to shine on quite a few occasions, but is never overstated enough to seem excessive or unnatural. A lot of care was put into the sound design for this 'nearly theatrical' Halo experience, and it shows. Turn this one up loud for the best experience at home.
-Pre-Release Vignettes - With 10 million spent after all was said and done, you bet your butts that there was a substantial marketing campaign in place for this... well, marketing campaign (and for once, I don't mean that in a bad way). There's about 22 minutes worth of vignettes here, and they provide us with an intimate look of the cadets, as well as the uncomfortable sense of things to come.
-Corbulo Academy of Military Sciences Recruitment Video - Just under two minutes, this is exactly what it sounds like. A highly decorated man is telling us about the importance of UNSC over a montage of footage of the Academy, as well as cadets training and gearing up for battle. Short, but it's an extremely effective piece.
-Audio Commentary by Director Stewart Hendler / Audio Commentary by 343 Industries Frank O'Connor and Kevin Grace / Audio Commentary by Producer Josh Feldman and Writers Todd and Aaron Helbing - These are three solid commentary tracks. You get a complete rundown of the 90 minute feature thrice, and the viewpoints coming across from each side are different enough from one another to make each listen worth your while.
-Behind the Scenes - Bringing Halo Into Reality / Awakening a Sleeper: The Making of Halo 4 Forward Unto Dawn / The Perfect Spartan / Rendering the Real: The Design of Forward Unto Dawn / One Epic Tour: The Stunts of Forward Unto Dawn / A Drive with Warthog Pete / Built For Battle / Outfitting the War: The Costumes of Forward Unto Dawn / The Final Arc / Tether to Digital Space - Quite a listing of featurettes, no? If this doesn't cement just how seriously this production was done, then I don't know what will. With the 'play all' feature, this all comes to just under an hour in length, and covers everything you could possibly care to know - What 343 and the producers have to say about the inception of the series, an in-depth look into the production of Dawn, creating a live-action Master Chief, how the stunts were done behind-the-scenes, and so much more. Fans of both the series and games themselves shouldn't miss this.
-Isolated Score - Again, the production on Forward Unto Dawn is remarkable, so it should come as no surprise that the score is shown off as a standalone feature. The music really does help to cement the already present cinematic vibe this series/feature has, so it's a welcome addition to an already astounding set of supplements.
-Red vs. Blue PSR: Sleeper - A live-action bit from the Red vs. Blue team, and unsurprisingly, it's hilarious!
Sully's Comm Database - This section is basically where all of the behind-the-scenes and promo photographs are location, not to mention the production notes. You can choose from Production Photographs, Storyboards and Concept Art, Visual Effects Models, and Full Screen Interfaces.
It's been my opinion that webisodes really have no business being this good, yet Microsoft and 343 have done it - They've made a live-action Halo experience that, in the 90 minute special edition presented on this disc, actually comes off feeling theatrical. Not only that, but it's likely to appease both casual viewers and fans of the franchise. To spend nearly $10 million on a web series is almost unheard of, especially when the purpose of said series is to help promote a video game, but it's been done to great effect here, and marks an important moment in the history of entertainment as a result. It proves that you don't necessarily need Guillermo Del Toro or Peter Jackson to give validity to an already well established universe, and more importantly, this very well could have opened the door for similar projects to come in the future. As far as the technical stuff is concerned, the A/V presentation on this release does Forward Unto Dawn justice, and the supplemental material is stunningly in-depth. Highly Recommended.