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Nightfall debut shows live-action Halo series still a sideshow to games

Commentary: The latest attempt to bring the sci-fi shooter series outside its game origins is more of the same, illustrating the failures of keeping the best plot points away from the medium that could do them justice.

The five-episode mini-series Halo: Nightfall will debut on Xbox One later this month alongside the release of Halo: Master Chief Collection. 343 Industries

Making a successful live-action spin-off based on the multibillion dollar sci-fi video game franchise Halo has been as confounding as chasing a unicorn. The mini-series "Halo: Nightfall," the latest crack at bridging the gap between film and the virtual game world, seems a bit like taping a cone to the head of a horse.

Since "District 9" and "Elysium" director Neill Blomkamp's failed run at making a film adaptation of Halo in 2005, fans have clamored for a movie or television show that could capture the scope of the celebrated franchise.

In the meantime, Microsoft, which owns the Halo franchise, has teased players with numerous live-action trailers for Halo video games. The result was a surprising display of the emotional touch real human beings could bring to the series' militaristic plotline. In 2012, fans got a better taste of that with the mini-series "Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn," a prelude to 2013's Halo 4 that did a reasonable job, though it felt like an an hour-long commercial for its video game counterpart.

"Halo: Nightfall" follows in the narrative footsteps of "Forward Unto Dawn" by acting as a prelude to next year's installment in the series, Halo 5: Guardians. Comprised of five episodes around 25 minutes in length each, Nightfall is made by the production company created by sci-fi juggernaut Ridley Scott and written by "Prison Break" creator Paul Scheuring. Microsoft's 343 Industries, which makes the games and manages all things Halo, is helping too.

Microsoft is not alone in this endeavor. Nearly every major company in the video game industry is eyeing the silver screen. "Need for Speed," a film based on the popular driving games from Electronic Arts, skidded into theaters in March, with mixed reviews from critics. Ubisoft, meanwhile, is attempting to adapt its "Assassin's Creed" historical action games to the big screen, and Activision Blizzard's "Warcraft" movie based on its hit franchise is due in 2016.

But so far, video games and Hollywood haven't had an easy marriage. Jean-Claude Van Damme attempted to play the role of Guile, a headstrong American soldier in the film "Street Fighter." It did not go well. Neither did big-screen versions of "Mortal Kombat," though at least that series was successful enough to spawn a sequel. And we'll just forget Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's rendition of the horror shooting game, "Doom."

Nightfall is different. It may not be the hour-long commercial you got before, but now it feels like a visual adaptation of a Wikipedia entry describing that comic book you didn't read.

The first episode is titled "It's Only Just Beginning" and is set to release on Xbox One consoles as part of the release of a remastered collection of Halo games on November 11. I can only assume it would have been less expensive to create this series as a CGI digital feature, much like an extended game cutscene. But there's no reason for Nightfall to exist as a live-action project other than to give Halo -- which has countless games, books and unneeded Mountain Dew packaging tie-ins -- another feather in its branding hat.

In Nightfall, soldier Jameson Locke (Mike Colter) and a crew of other humans on a colony planet called Sedra investigate a terrorist attack after the events of Halo 4 (Wikipedia might be helpful here, after all). In the episode's 24 and a half minutes, we get a quick narrative setup, but not much else. The treaty that ended the Human-Covenant war in Halo 3 (Wikipedia, again, if you need it) may have been violated by the use of a biological weapon. Locke is set to investigate the mysterious element causing the infection, and data shows it was sourced from a destroyed Halo ring fragment.

In case you're wondering, the acting is fine and the special effects are on par with prime-time television.

But the primary problem with Nightfall is that it feels like unnecessary filler. The original Halo trilogy was a triumph for its technical achievement, online battles and narrative that at its peak could rival Star Wars. Then 2012's Halo 4 did the seemingly impossible by humanizing Halo's faceless protagonist, the super soldier Master Chief, who until then was portrayed as an emotionally detached war machine.

Halo has even more complex themes to explore, like the children the military abducted and turned into super soldiers, including Master Chief. There's also how Master Chief's deepest relationship has been with his artificial intelligence partner, Cortana. Halo 5: Guardians is sure to snatch up this meaty stuff to continue pushing the series to further narrative maturity. And if that doesn't do it, there's another opportunity with a Steven Spielberg-produced Halo TV show coming to Showtime next year.

Peruse the comments sections of any live-action Halo game trailer video and you'll see fans lament that we can't get the Halo plotlines that matter most acted out in live-action. That means Nigthfall's biggest challenge isn't just escaping accusations that it's merely flashy marketing (it is). It's that the Halo series' most interesting, complex and uncharted territory will always be reserved for the video games themselves, delivered by code and not a camera.