"Between the series’s somewhat nondescript visual style and its overwhelming exposition, Halo is bogged down by world-building and almost hampered by its source material," says Roxana Hadadi of the video game adaptation. "Not even the singular intensity of Pablo Schreiber, a man who somehow made being a leprechaun god both scary and sexy on American Gods, can entirely hold one’s attention. To be fair, Paramount+ only provided critics two advance episodes of Halo... There are seven episodes left to go in this first season, a second season already ordered, and $90 million already spent. Maybe with time, Halo will develop an identity of its own. But these first two episodes bring to mind an array of sci-fi series that have come before, from Altered Carbon to Cowboy Bebop to Westworld (all of which had stronger beginnings). And the things that should set Halo apart — like thrilling action sequences that honor the video game’s many first-person-shooter iterations or a strong sense of the enmity between humans and the alien Covenant force that aligns with the franchise’s lengthy backstory — don’t yet click."
Halo is devoid of the video game's soul: "Honestly, the narrative of Halo has never been its strong point as it consists of science-fiction first-person shooter fodder used solely as motivation for video game players to feel unstoppable, but this new TV series hasn’t done it any favors. Furthermore, while trying to humanize Master Chief, the charisma and mystique surrounding him have been lost, leaving a stoic husk in its wake," says Max Covill. He adds: "What makes Halo an engaging video game is the ability to step into the boots of Master Chief and give waves of space aliens a shellacking. Most of the action is done in a first-person perspective and allows the player to become Master Chief—in fact, never revealing Master Chief’s true identity to this day. The television series, on the other hand, wastes no time removing Master Chief’s helmet. Underneath is actor Pablo Schreiber, probably best known for his time on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. His performance in Halo isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his ability, as Master Chief is literally a blank slate behind his helmet. Schreiber has the chance to expand his performance of Master Chief into something interesting, but in the two episodes provided to critics, there isn’t much that inspires confidence. Master Chief doesn’t need to be some sad man in a suit—anyone could be behind that armor. It's better to keep him hidden so that the audience can imprint themselves on the iconic character."
Halo is yet another story about a "generic chosen one": "It would have been a bold move if the Master Chief of Paramount+’ new Halo series never removed his helmet, and we were left to wonder what kind of person the hulking spartan in his signature Mjolnir armor truly is, as is the case in the Halo video games," says Charles Pulliam-Moore. "Repeatedly unmasking Master Chief and highlighting the difficulty he has processing basic emotions is one of the major ways Halo tries to humanize him as he embarks on an adventure across a universe that’s familiar, but slightly different continuity-wise. But rather than using Master Chief as a lens through which to view its war-torn worlds, Halo instead tries to mythologize him with a story that turns him into your standard-issue Chosen One Who Doesn’t Know He’s Special. Though Paramount+’s Halo doesn’t immediately try to bowl you over with dense world-building information dumps, it’s obvious from the pair of episodes provided to press that co-creators Kyle Killen and Steven Kane both have a deep respect for the source material. With a civil war raging between the United Nations Space Command and groups of insurrectionists from Earth’s off-planet colonies, humanity’s future was already uncertain before the events of Halo’s first season. But things became that much more complicated when alien beings known as the Covenant first appeared unexpectedly and established themselves as a powerful, deadly force from beyond the stars."
Halo works because it's nothing like the video game: "The showrunners were absolutely correct in their choice to 'not look at the games,'" says Ash Parrish. "The result is a story that asks us to grapple with the very reason Spartans were created: as weapons for the suppression, repression, and subjugation of humanity — a premise the games have almost never asked us to interrogate. Spartans have always been these superhuman human-killing machines devoid of emotion, but we have never had the chance to see how the Spartans themselves feel about that. That’s the promise of this show, and I’m super invested in the conclusions it’ll draw."
Halo does something even better than killing Master Chef: "Master Chief is a relic from a different era in video games, a time when seemingly all the heroes were gruff white men who spoke through their weapons more than their mouths," says Adam Rosenberg. "The Halo TV series on Paramount+ surprises in a number of ways, but the biggest shock of all are the steps the story takes to unmask our inscrutable space marine. Rather than relegate Chief (Pablo Schreiber), aka John-117, to mythic status on the sidelines, Halo makes him a central player. The mask comes off, but it's more than that. In the first two episodes that Paramount provided for review, Halo dives right into the head of the Spartan super-soldier and hints at some of the trauma that made him what he is. Just as importantly, he's not the show's sole focus."
Halo misunderstands the game's fans: "Master Chief’s fuzzy memory is a common conceit in games, one so clichéd it’s stunning that it still happens," says Todd Martens. "Opening an adventure with a hero who has somehow had his recollections wiped is a narrative shortcut to do away with the disconnect between player and character: Why would we be instructing someone to seek out answers to questions they know the answers to? In television, however, we don’t need to see ourselves as Master Chief to want to wield a virtual space gun. We simply need to find him interesting. So while we may believe Master Chief when he pleads ignorance — thanks go to Pablo Schreiber, who, like Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian, is emotionally vulnerable and existentially curious when the mask comes off — let us hope that this loss of introspection isn’t a permanent fixture. Ultimately, the problem of Halo the TV series is an even more fundamental one: In making its central mystery not 'Who is Master Chief?' but 'What is Master Chief? it shifts Halo from a character-driven story to a plot-driven one."
Halo ignores how influential the video game has been: "There is an attempt, as there was in the video game franchise on which the series is based, to build a science-fiction universe rife with factions — disparate cultures advancing different goals in a manner that creates uneasy alliances and shifting allegiances. And in the fleshing out of all of that ostensibly chewy conflict, an attempt to create rich, satisfying television," says Glenn Weldon. "Rich, satisfying television like say ... The Expanse. And that's the problem: The series seems determined to ignore the more than two decades that have passed since the launch of the game HALO: Combat Evolved, and the many science-fiction properties that have, in that time, incorporated many of the game's once-innovative story elements."
It's worrisome to count zero moments of real awe in the first two episodes: "Worth remembering that one of the first Halo game's sharpest decisions was an act of genre-stripping moderation," says Darren Franich. "Players could only carry two weapons at a time, an invitation to careful strategy. In TV form, so far Halo's all assault rifle but no direct hits. Consider what happens when Soren introduces Master Chief to his anarchic asteroid community. It's 'home,' Soren explains, 'to every misfit, reprobate, outlaw, and renegade in the galaxy. No law, no police, no government, no responsibility.' Quite an introduction! They have a very nice time, and nothing bad happens."
Halo takes John 117 to new dimensions of character depth: "I'll admit I winced when watching the Halo series.... as the iconic green and yellow helmet rises to reveal actor Pablo Schreiber's face," says Roger Cheng. "As someone who's played virtually every Halo game and is emotionally invested in the Master Chief, something in my gut told me this was wrong. For whatever image I had of John built in my mind, Schreiber wasn't it. He was, for the lack of better description, too normal. But after a moment (or two) of processing the scene, and after making a conscious decision to let the story unfold over the next few episodes, I realized it was smart to rip off the bandage (or helmet) early. Blasphemy, you say? Maybe. But seeing this war-weary face, of a man questioning the military authority he's been raised to obey, is key for the show given how much the other characters, the story, and really the entire universe, hinges upon this one character. This isn't Star Wars, where the characters and settings are well understood by the masses. Halo will need to educate many viewers on the different races, worlds and political dynamics, and it does that through John's eyes. And sans helmet, you'll get to see those reaction through his actual eyes."
It's hard not to be drawn to Pablo Schreiber’s eloquent, emotive face as he portrays Master Chief’s moral confusion: "Fans of the games, in which the Chief never sheds his helmet, may be surprised that he is unmasked (and often) in just the first two episodes," says Gene Park. "But once players get over the shock, you get used to his gravelly, chiseled mug framed by all that green titanium. The role calls for a stoic performance that softens over time, and Schreiber’s face tells that story often and clearly. His Master Chief is a somber one, yet unafraid to be assertive when he knows he’s right."
Halo feels too much like a generic action show: "Halo isn't the first videogame to become a movie or TV show, and it certainly won't be the last," says Brian Lowry. "But the series faces a formidable challenge crafting a Paramount+ show around the contours of the game, one that it seeks to master largely by slapping together pieces of established properties -- a little RoboCop here, a bit of Starship Troopers there, and a whole lot of The Mandalorian. That's not necessarily all bad, and the series generally looks splashy, although the action is heavily frontloaded in the first of the episodes previewed. But nor does it feel special or distinctive, and while committed players might welcome seeing this world fleshed out, the derivative touches can't help but make the whole exercise feel generic, exhibiting a lot of hardware but not much creative spark."
Halo's story is not the most inventive of all science fiction, which is where it struggles to find its footing: "Even as the early action scene is a good introduction, the show begins to slow way down, and Halo becomes much more about characters delivering stilted lines that are almost crushed under how exposition-heavy they are," says Chase Hutchinson. "Central to this is Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone) who is trying to create a new artificial intelligence that players of the game will be familiar with. However, there is opposition within UNSC that she will have to navigate in order to achieve her ends. This and all the other political machinations that are swirling around John begin to feel rather tedious, drastically dragging down the forward narrative momentum. As characters walk down hallways or sit around conference rooms to discuss the bureaucracy underpinning the conflict, the show teeters on the brink of complete and total mundanity. Characters speak so stiffly that it only draws more attention to this aspect."
Halo may not be for diehards or newbies: "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," says Ben Lindbergh. "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."
Shabana Azmi credits Halo with achieving color-blind casting: "Asian actors have been saying that they really were struggling for color blind casting, because they were saying why should the Caucasian be recognized as the mainstream?,” asked Azmi. “And why if Laurence Olivier can play Othello, then why can an Asian actor not do it? And now when I do Halo, I realize that they have really got color blind casting, because in spite of the fact that I play, Margaret Parangosky, I have not been asked to change my accent, the color of my eyes is exactly the same, they did not color my hair.”
Natascha McElhone says the green-screen acting can be challenging: “I mean, I had a scene where I’m playing against myself,” she says. “It sounds crazy, and I won’t tell you any more than that, but I’m in a scene with myself, with the camera going 360 degrees around us, so there was tons of very cool tech stuff that was definitely new for me.”
Halo producers wanted to go beyond the game: “We wanted to bring the Halo ethos to a new medium,” says showrunner Steven Kane, “and explore this, not only deep but wide canon…. and show audiences worlds beyond what the game is and world build in a different way to really bring this amazing canon to life."
Costing $10 million per episode, Halo went through 265 drafts before Season 1 was filmed: The greatest hurdle was sorting out what to do with the lead Spartan, Master Chief. “He’s everybody, right?” says Kane. “He’s you, he’s me, he’s a 6-year-old girl, he’s a 15-year-old person in a different country. Whoever plays the game is him.” He adds: “We didn’t look at the game. We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about the characters and the world. So I never felt limited by it being a game.”
Pablo Schreiber on why taking off Master Chief's helmet is necessary: “It was very important early on that the helmet comes off, you see the face, and you disassociate your version of who you believe the Chief was,” Schreiber explains. “Rather than being co-creator of the experience as you go along and believing that you’re Chief, we’re now inviting you to sit back on the couch and watch Chief start to discover elements of himself.”