There's a faintly sinister irony hovering at the centre of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a five-part web video series which premieres this very morning. It's not just the tale of a gang of wet-behind-the-ears UNSC recruits, struggling to iron out their personality problems while the galaxy goes to hell around them.
It's also a Halo recruitment video, a quasi-military outreach project aimed at a fledgling generation of games enthusiasts, many of whom weren't even alive when Halo: Combat Evolved hit shelves. Its story arc - the transformation of cadet Thomas Lasky from a pop-eyed sack of self-doubt to a cast-iron Master Chief fanboy - is also the arc Microsoft hopes fans of Twilight, The Lying Game or (dare I say it) Harry Potter will follow. The idea isn't just to entertain, but to enlist.
I'm aware the above makes me sound like a pompous old curmudgeon, so let me immediately follow up by stating that Forward Unto Dawn Episode 1 is rather enjoyable - glossy popcorn entertainment with just enough bite to keep the neurones fizzling, after the example of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. Needless to say, the production values are beyond the wildest dreams of any Youtube amateur. Mighty starships swim in the void, holographic video dances before the eyes of tender young teens and lantern-jawed generals dismount from fully functioning Warthog jeeps to lay down some Ancient Roman wisdom.
The game's trappings are woven into the proceedings with enough intelligence to intrigue. A greenhorn-friendly version of Master Chief's HUD gets a cameo, care of some augmented reality glasses. Later, a recruit berates Lasky for bringing the squad's combat score down in a training exercise. It's redolent of team-based Halo multiplayer in a not-entirely-comfortable way. Let's hope there's no teabagging in Episode 2...
Lasky's home outfit, Hastati Squad, are like a miniaturised, multi-cultural homage to Predator's roughnecks and Top Gun's flyboys. Anna Popplewell's Chyler Silva is impressive as the strong, silent would-be love interest, Masam Holden's Sully has "apologetic sacrificial lamb" written all over him, and Iain Belcher's Vickers is the team's Iceman - expect him to strike sparks with Lasky down the line. Tom Green portrays the lead with respectable sensitivity, but I was most struck by Enisha Brewster's Sergeant Orenki. Not many young actresses can tackle a role normally reserved for hairy, chain-smoking body-builders without inviting ridicule, but somehow she manages it.
Big budget silverscreen science fiction tends towards the bloated and unwieldy nowadays, sacrificing coherence for the sake of length. Forward Unto Dawn feels like a response to that, fitting its 20 minute running time like a glove. Whisper director Stewart Hendler's well-judged editing keeps the script from sinking under the weight of its own melodrama, and his close-ups never overstay their welcome, hiding the weaknesses of the inexperienced (but talented) cast.
It's not going to have HBO or even ITV4 rushing to sign up for a series, but it's an entirely watchable extension of the Halo universe, and while this first episode is heavier on exposition than action - the excellent, slo-mo-splattered first training mission is the only real adrenaline spike - it sets the stage nicely. Cameos of Master Chief himself suggest weightier things to come, while nods to Lasky's questionable health and his relationship with Silva introduce the smaller stories that'll drive it forward. We'll keep watching. Check back next week for our writeup of Episode 2.
You can watch all the Forward Unto Dawn episodes on Machinima, totally free - it's also due to be broadcast on Halo Waypoint. Let us know your thoughts.