POSTED: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - 3:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - 3:04am
ENTERTAINMENT NEWS (CNN) — After announcing that 343 Industries was taking over the blockbuster "Halo" franchise, Microsoft has faced plenty of speculation about what the new developer would do with one of the most popular video games.
Early reviews of "Halo 4," due Tuesday, have been positive (with some critics saying it's the best one yet). But in the meantime, a live-action Web series has been drawing the sci-fi franchise's many fans to YouTube.
The five-part series, "Halo: Forward Onto Dawn," recounts an alien attack on a planet hosting a United Nations Space Command military school. The ambush decimates the unprepared planet, leaving the survival of a handful of recruits in the balance. It's a way to bring a new slice of the "Halo" narrative to life and whet appetites for the latest game.
Digital filmmakers and executive producers Lydia Antonini and Josh Feldman came up with the idea for the Web series to tell the story of a group of recruits and their connection to the games' iconic Master Chief character.
Feldman said 343 Industries wanted to make a big splash with their game and had been impressed by Web videos that had been produced for other gaming titles. Antonini, who was involved in the "Mortal Kombat" digital series, was approached by Microsoft and 343 about transforming an interactive story into a linear one.
The team had to finish the project "on what was a pretty nutty schedule," Antonini said. "We wrote, managed, produced the whole life cycle ... in a little less than a calendar year."
Antonini and Feldman brought in people who could stay true to both the "Halo" feel and 343's vision of the franchise. The five parts were shot as a movie over 24 days and will be released on Blu-ray disc, but Feldman said they knew they needed break points to fit the series format.
"We had to think about how it would work episodically because that's how the consumers would be viewing it on YouTube," Feldman said. "We didn't want one delivery to come at the expense of others. That's really tough because there is a huge difference between what is episodic, call it television if you will, and the structure of a feature."
That work required a balance of action and narrative for each part of the Web series, yet the entire story still needed to all flow together.
The producers said they were also very cognizant of fans' knowledge of the franchise and did not want to stray outside the narrative boundaries already established. The video story fits in to the overall storylines featured in "Halo 4" and is a literal bridge between "Halo 3" and the new video game. It also introduces a new character, Thomas Laskey, who will play a role in the upcoming game.
"For the hardcore fans that have played the games, read the books, read the comics, have the consumer products, and are fully intending to dive into 'Halo 4,' this is very much an additive experience," Feldman said.
Antonini said they also wanted to make sure the casual or new fan could appreciate the Web shows and not get lost in the vast history of the franchise. She said developing a story for the Web needed to have its own hook but not one that was outside the overall plot line they wanted to explore.
"It was one of the toughest things about this show. It's like working in a World War II museum," she said. "There is a whole lot of history that people care about and you've got to be really true to, but then it is also wonderful to be able to create something new within that world."
The "Halo" series chronicles an interstellar war between humans and aliens known as the Covenant. The protagonist of the games' fictional universe is Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced human soldier encased in green armor.
Antonini and Feldman knew the one thing they had to get right from a fan's perspective was their portrayal of the iconic Master Chief. Antonini said a representative from 343 was with them throughout the shooting process and was able to answer questions and point out details to keep them on the right track.
"What we try to do with our extended fiction is create a kind of 'history' for the universe, from which we can draw ideas, scenarios, characters and events, and connect those to the game in meaningful ways," said Frank O'Connor, franchise development director at 343 Industries.
"The beauty of this approach, when we get it right, is that for fans of that extended fiction, both the game and the related stories end up having more resonance and meaning. But for folks who simply play the games, the story of the game feels like it comes from a richer, deeper foundation."
Antonini said they had access to the developer's art department to represent the imposing Master Chief with an accuracy that fans would appreciate.
"This was an area we knew we couldn't veer in any way shape or form, and we'd be crazy to," Feldman said. "We had to make the best, most authentic Master Chief gear that you could make."
Daniel Cudmore, the actor selected for the beloved role, is an imposing presence on the screen. Cudmore also does all the stunts and action scenes in the Web series.
One of the bridges between "Halo 3" and "Halo 4" is a series of flashbacks to Master Chief's artificial-intelligence sidekick, Cortana, and what happens to her after the spaceship, "Forward Unto Dawn," is ripped in half at the end of "Halo 3." Feldman said he thinks casual and hardcore fans will appreciate some new insight as they get ready to play "Halo 4."
Part 1 of the live-action Web series was released in October, and the final episode was revealed just days before Tuesday's official "Halo 4" release. More than 8 million people watched the first episode on YouTube. It will be interesting to see how many continue the story in the video game.