Halo: The Fall of Reach
Written by Eric Nylund
Books written about videogames are odd prospects. Fiction expanding on published properties has existed for years, but it's been mostly limited to feverish fantasies written by fans in dark corners of the Internet, usually involving bizarre and improbable sexual situations. Times have changed, however. Suits at the top of skyscrapers have finally realized how popular videogames can be, and have come up with yet another way to cash in. The concept: take these "further adventures" based on hot games, clean them up, and make them "Official" for fans who can't get enough of a good thing. I guess those suits have earned their bonuses this time around, because it seems to be a strategy that works.
Speaking of hot games, what better choice than Halo? I'm not the world's biggest fan of Microsoft's shining star, but despite launching two years ago it's been the Xbox's biggest hit to date—and still smoking. Who can resist one-man-against-the-universe odds combined with above-average game design and a knockout presentation? It's undoubtedly a winning formula, and the game that Bungie built has gone on to become one of the most important efforts of the current generation. However, instead of singing the praises of Halo, the game, today's subject is Halo, the book.
Covering a span of approximately thirty-five years prior to the events in the game, Halo: The Fall of Reach gets off on the right foot by opening with a bang and then quickly easing back from the stereotypical battle-heavy tale you might reasonably expect. I've read a few game-to-book efforts, and many make the mistake of structuring themselves as a string of action scenes with little effort made to illustrate the events or people behind them. Not only is that kind of page-after-page bloodshed terrifically boring, it rarely adds anything to what is established during gameplay. In my eyes, that's the entire point of these books: tell me more about what I played, don't give me more of what I played. In this respect, Halo: The Fall of Reach more than satisfies.
The story primarily deals with the background leading up to the creation of Halo's hero, the Master Chief. Beginning from his induction at age six into the Spartan supersoldier program, author Nylund explains how John-117 actually became the Master Chief, yet it does not position him as the end-all, be-all center of the book. Instead, there is a cast of several characters with different roles, each fleshing out different aspects of the Halo universe beyond the confines of that imposing green armor. This approach may seem like standard protocol for literature in general, but when looking at videogame books it's not as common as you'd assume. Few efforts are crafted to be even halfway literate, so it's a joy to find one that tries harder and shows more imagination than most.
For example, the scientist behind the creation of the Spartan program is given far more page time than I would have predicted, and the way the Earth-Covenant war is presented gives readers a sense of the overall conflict, not just a series of adjective-heavy skirmishes where the Master Chief kicks ass and takes names. It was also quite interesting to find that the Master Chief wasn't always a one-man army as portrayed in the game, but rather a leader of troops trying to make the best of a pitch-black situation. Nylund also avoids the common trap of providing an anal amount of detail on specific equipment or items taken from the game, which is an extremely smart move. He's obviously here to tell a rousingly good story, and he gets the job done admirably without irrelevant fuss.
Solidly written and surprisingly creative given the framework established in the videogame, Nylund has crafted an excellent novel that really does add to the overall play experience. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I would strongly recommend reading the book before starting the game (for those four people who haven't played Halo yet.) When talking about videogame books, I can think of no higher praise than saying that Halo: The Fall of Reach would be an enjoyable read for Sci-Fi fans regardless of their interest or experience with the game, and it most definitely is.
Review By Brad Gallaway
Even though Halo quickly became one of the greatest games of all time for me, I wasn't expecting much when I bought the book. Spontaneously, I picked it up and said to myself, "I'm in the mood for some bad science fiction." It's the conservatism that comes with buying most game-based novels. Fortunately, like Brad illustrated, Halo: The Fall of Reach exceeds expectations by being an intelligently written and well-paced story with enough imagination to improve on the original Halo mythos.
There's plenty to like, for both fans and the uninitiated. As Brad mentioned about the weapons, the author's descriptions of the alien Covenant forces are true to the game designs, yet described in a way that fleshes them out beyond their bump-mapped game counterparts. Describing the shield-wielding jackals, Nylund writes, "Its knobby scaled skin was a sickly, mottled yellow; purple and yellow fins ran along the crest of its skull and its forearms… It reminded him of the carrion birds on Reach—vicious and unclean." Similar descriptions of the other aliens are as vibrant and rousing.
The origin of the Master Chief, referred to here as the biblical John-117, also asks the reader what are the costs of war, and what it takes to win. The only criticism I have here is that the Master Chief is decidedly a different person in the book then he is in the game. True that the book tells the story of his past, and the time span is over 40 years. However the book ends right where the game begins, and even at the end, the confident and wry Master Chief from the game is nowhere to be found. Instead, John 117 is a confused but heavily trained soldier with very little confidence in his abilities. It does give more depth to the character, and perhaps the half-joking mannerisms of the Chief in the game are merely a disguise for his self-consciousness and high stress level. But it would've been nice to have some kind of transition, or give the Master Chief a similar sense of humor instead of giving us the impression that he had a radical personality shift during the cryogenic sleep he awakes from at the beginning of the game.
There are also more characters in the novel than you can shake a plasma grenade at. All of them fit nicely into the Halo universe, especially Dr. Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program that breeds soldiers like the Chief. However there are a lot of names thrown out that you are meant to recognize, and often times I found myself referring back to previous chapters so I can relearn who Sgt. What's-his-face and Private Who-did-what are.
The book is decidedly a military science fiction story, so naturally along with names, there would be a lot of heated battles. Thankfully, all of them are vividly detailed so nothing gets confused. Nylund is patient in describing the violence that happens on the pages, and as a reward the reader is never lost. Among other juicy details are how the aliens speak English, why the Pillar of Autumn ran into the Halo planet and why an artificial intelligence like Cortana playfully flirts with the Chief.
The most surprising thing about the novel was how professional it felt, but the best aspect is that it fills in many of the holes the game leaves. The Halo story is mysterious and vague, and the novel provides the background material. I would've liked more insight into the Jihad motivations of the Covenant, and we don't learn much more about the alien race than we might have already known or imagined. Still, Halo: The Fall of Reach gives context to a videogame mythology ripe for elaboration, biblical allusions, commentary on war and, most importantly, lots and lots of sci-fi action, most of which isn't all that bad.
Review by Gene Park