Monday, February 15, 2010

Halo: Legends Two-Disc Special Edition (DVD) Review

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know what Halo is. Since the original launch of Halo: Combat Evolved on the Xbox in 2001, the franchise has been breaking and setting all kinds of records, and its excellent gameplay, engaging sci-fi story, and phenomenal soundtrack have attracted a legion of fans always looking for more.

Like any franchise this large, it simply can't be contained to its original medium, and so we have Halo novels (got them all!), action figures (got one of these too!), and even pajamas (um, no comment), but this Tuesday, Halo will go to previously uncharted territory that has fans all abuzz: Halo: Legends will launch on Tues. Feb. 16, 2010. So for the two of you who don't know, what exactly is Halo: Legends? It's a collection of several short films set within the Halo universe, each created by a premiere Japanese anime studio. Each episode is done in either traditional anime or CG, and all but one are canon to Halo lore.

Make no mistake that this crossing into another video medium is an important move for Microsoft's juggernaut, but when all is said and done, is it just a quick cash-in or can it deliver? Well, you're talking to the right guy, or, well, reading the right guy's review. Why? Because I love Halo, and I've absorbed every bit of juicy Halo goodness faster than the Flood takes over a city. I'm also a cynical bastard, very quick to call out something's flaws plainly, bluntly, and brutally, even if that something is that which I love and hold dear. I also hate anime with a passion. It's creepy and features far too many innocent looking school girls with big eyes, so when I first heard about Halo: Legends, you can imagine my negative reaction. Now that I've actually sat down and watched it in its entirety a couple of times, however, I must say with all honesty that I'm not only impressed, but that I've enjoyed this compilation.

It opens with parts one and two of "Origins," a story set after Halo 3 in which Cortana reflects upon all that she's learned, chronicling the desperate war between the Forerunner and the Flood over 100,000 years ago. Cortana details the tragedy of that conflict, its culmination with the creation of the Halo array, and the ultimate sacrifice the Forerunner's made for the galaxy. And yes, we actually get to see the Forerunners for the first time in all their power and glory. The second part to "Origins" details the rise and violence of humanity, and our ultimate conflict with the Covenant and the re-emergence of the Flood threat. For those new to the Halo universe or simply looking for a nice summary to put it all together, "Origins"are the episodes for you.

We next move on to one of my personal favourites, "The Duel." I'm a huge fan of the Elites, and this episode deals with what appears to be the original Arbiter and his rejection of the teachings of the Prophets. This of course leads to conflict and one of the most fascinating points of the story is that it shows us exactly how the rank of Arbiter came to be the mark of shame that it is in the Halo trilogy. "The Duel" is a tale very heavily inspired by traditional Japanese story telling, and its visual style is quite unique, designed to look like a moving painting. It's also worth mentioning that this is the first time we've ever gotten to see the Sangheili home world.

Next up is "Homecoming," which follows the reflections of Daisey-023 (Gah, innocent looking school girl with big eyes!) during a pitched battle, as she remembers the darker history of the Spartan-II program. For those unaware, each of the 75 Spartan-II candidates were children abducted by the UNSC and forcefully conscripted, yet as several young escaping Spartan-II's discover, there's a good reason why their parents never asked any questions about where their children's whereabouts.

Halo: Legends then takes a pause from the more serious canonical stories and shows us "Odd One Out," where Spartan-1337 takes on a new Covenant bio-weapon, with a little help from some new friends. "Odd One Out" is so off the wall, so ridiculously silly, and pokes fun at the franchise in just the right way that you have to laugh, and love it for the parody that it is. Definitely a crowd pleasure with its awesome heroism.

We then come to a very interesting tie-in episode entitled "Prototype," which details the salvation of a solider known only by his callsign, Ghost, and a new prototype UNSC weapon. Already read "Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian" from Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe? Well, watch "Prototype" to know what the experimental weapon was. Kind of gives me Voltron flashbacks from when I was a kid.

The second last episode, "The Babysitter," would have to be my least favourite. A squad of four ODSTs under the command of a Spartan-II are sent to assassinate a Covenant Prophet, and this episode is designed to show fans of the games who have not read the novels a glimpse at the true rivalry and feelings between both UNSC special forces branches. However the main ODST character, O'Brien, is a whiny crybaby who just needs to shut up and get a hair cut. I couldn't stand him and if he's the best humanity has to offer in this war, it's no wonder we're getting our asses kicked. The episode turns this darker, brooding rivalry so well depicted in the novels into a grade school playground whine-fest that it actually hurts to watch. So much potential depth lost to juvenile behaviour. At least we get to see Dutch of Halo 3: ODST fame.

Lastly, we finish off with "The Package," a CG animated short featuring many of the Spartan-II's we've read about in the novels, and also another very important character to the Halo universe. In this episode, the Covenant have captured a valuable UNSC asset, and the Master Chief and Blue Team are sent on a retrieval operation. Featuring action-packed space battles, inner ship combat, and sword duals, "The Package" is a wild ride and visual treat, and without a doubt the gem of the collection. The lethal efficiency of the Spartan-II's is well demonstrated in this episode, but they're also not invincible. Excellent production values, and the space battles has a very Star Wars feel to it.

Underlying ever episode is the phenomenal Halo:Legends Original Soundtrack, featuring wonderful tracks from the entire franchise performed by a full German orchestra as well as unique pieces composed specifically for this compilation, this is the Halo soundtrack like you've never heard it before, rich in both presence and emotion. This powerful performance alone helps to underscore every aspect of each episode, and even elevates and carries some of the weaker episodes when they would have otherwise faltered utterly.

Halo: Legends will be available in three flavours: Blu-ray Disc, featuring hours upon hours of bonus content not featured in any other version. There's a Two-Disc Special Edition DVD which I own and who's second disc features a "Making of" Documentary as well as an overview of the Halo universe up until the end of the Halo trilogy, all of which are excellent compliments to this fine collection and really help to take you through the creation process and laying out what the teams created for your viewing pleasure. Lastly, there's a Single Disc DVD edition featuring simply the Halo: Legends episodes with their respective commentaries. The core material itself runs for 119 minutes.

So which version is right for you? Well if you have a proper HD set up then the Blu-ray Disc version is the obvious choice. If not and you still want to delve deeper into the fiction and love additional documentaries like me, the Two-Disc Special Edition is your version of choice, and if you simply want two hours of animated Halo goodness, you'll do just fine and save some cash with the Single Disc edition. Keep in mind however that the DVD versions come in those annoying and flimsy new environmental DVD cases that can break easily, so be careful when handling. Halo: Legends will also be available On Demand for those looking to avoid the physical medium entirely, though which services aside from Xbox LIVE Marketplace will carry the collection and what their pricing structure will be I don't presently know, so do your research first.

So is Halo: Legends worth your investment? For the hardcore Halo fan, yes, it most certainly will be. I can't tell you how exciting it was to simply see the Halo universe come alive in rich new ways, it's a wonderful new addition to the expanded fiction and Halo lore, and there really is something here, a different kind of story for everyone. Some of the suggested retail prices are a little steep, but careful research shows that many retailers will carry Halo: Legends at greatly reduced prices on launch day and a little after, so buy this one while it's hot!

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