Microsoft's never made any secret of its desire to turn Halo from a huge game series into a multimedia entertainment juggernaut. But ever since its famously overreaching attempt to strong-arm Hollywood into a film deal was batted away by movie execs - denying us the mouthwatering prospect of seeing Halo's universe realised by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp - the software giant has been relegated to meddling in the murky margins of promotional video.
The new web-series Forward Unto Dawn, which debuts today, is certainly an aggressive sales pitch - and not just for next month's Halo 4, whose plot it foreshadows. Weighing in at five 20-minute episodes, it's a fairly substantial strip of film drama that goes further than ever before in colouring in the backdrop of Master Chief's continuing adventures in space.
The first episode (embedded below) doesn't apply a lot of colour, mind. Rather than the lurid spectacle of the games, Forward Unto Dawn opts for the washed-out palette and gritty, sorrowful tone of current TV fashion - fans of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot will feel right at home in this overwhelmingly gunmetal-grey future.
The drama plays it muted, too. This is the story of a bunch of fresh-faced cadet space marines at an elite military academy - all their parents are senior offices in the United Nations Space Command - and so far it's strictly high school. There's even a locker-room confrontation between the dumb jock and our troubled maverick hero, Lasky, after his insubordination wrecks a combat exercise, while romantic tension simmers with a concerned best friend. Swap the battle armour for American football kit (and the stiff young actors for much better ones) and it might as well be Friday Night Lights.
100 minutes of sci-fi drama must be expensive when written off against a marketing budget, so there are obvious budgetary reasons for keeping things low-key - and trailers have suggested we'll get our share of action later, along with an appearance from everyone's favourite eight-foot slab of space hero. And in truth, Forward Unto Dawn rarely looks cheap, while an appearance from an actual working Warthog should stir a little fanboy fervour in even the most cynical viewer. It's a convincing impersonation of real TV with a serviceable script, although the woeful acting is probably the most obvious cut corner.
But surely no-one expected this to be a masterpiece, and there are four episodes left to warm things up. The bigger concern I have is that Forward Unto Dawn shows a misunderstanding of what gave the Halo universe its broad appeal in the first place. It's all in the tone.
Like the toe-curling Remember Reach campaign before it, Forward Unto Dawn mistakes overwrought, sentimental militarism for a sense of the epic, mundane human drama for involving storytelling, and takes its world so seriously it comes across a bit pompous. The blame can't be laid entirely at the door of Microsoft's marketers either, since Bungie itself started taking the series in this direction with ODST and Reach.
And while such a sombre mood might suit the hardcrabble survivors' existence of Adama and the Galactica's crew, Halo is fundamentally a series about blowing up aliens that succeeded, in part, because it filled the vacuum for intense, frivolous, high-octane space opera left by those unsatisfying Star Wars prequels. Maybe you can only ever do that stuff on a much broader canvas and a bigger budget than Forward Unto Dawn has, but would it hurt to try? I for one would love to see the 21st century produce some science-fiction that dared to be fun...