With so many great cinematic moments from the past, Halo Reach has given us some incredible pieces of content. Whether it’s the teaser from E3 (2009) where they deliver a narrative almost completely through the use of dialogue or the live-action Remember Reach trailer where we witness the death of an ODST soldier as he tries to deliver an MFDD (Medium Fusion Destructive Device) to a Covenant ship, the Halo franchise has never let us down. Halo Reach recently relaunched as part of the Master Chief Collection and it got me wondering… How do you make a trailer for a game that everyone already knows? Let’s get into it.
FROM THE BEGINNING
The trailer opens with an iconic shot of the UNSC and the Covenant forces racing toward each other across the barren lands of planet Reach. This intense standoff is immediately recognizable from the campaign and starts the trailer off strong with some high-energy, fast-paced action shots. Do you hear that? No music. This is a beautiful example of how sound design alone can create a powerful sense of drama. By blasting people’s ears with these familiar Halo sounds and by using a recognizable shot (also used in the original Battle Begins Campaign Trailer), they instantly hook their viewers. After a sound riser leads to the eventual explosion of a warthog, we’re left hanging on a single piano note as the words “From The Beginning” appear on screen.
Most people would consider this merely a title card, but there’s a bit more significance here. “From The Beginning” is the first thing you see in the original Halo: Reach teaser from nine years ago. While the throwback initially refers to Reach being a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved, we’re now faced with a bit of a double meaning. Not only do Reach veterans get to experience the game all over again, but there’s an entire generation of gamers who didn’t have the luxury of playing it on its initial launch. It’s no surprise that the next two shots are from the game’s opening cinematic.
As these shots play, a familiar voice narrates “Contact with Visegrád Relay was lost last night”. We’ve heard this before. This is from the intro of the Reach campaign as Noble Team receives their orders for the upcoming mission. The trailer maker has carefully chosen visuals that returning Halo fans know well. Coincidentally, this opening mission was used as the World Premiere trailer back in 2009.
Everything up until this point has been to prepare both new and veteran Spartans for what they’ll be up against. This is it. The battle for planet Reach starts here.
YOU KNOW THE END
As our Spartans are dropped off in a USMC Falcon, the music builds up with some percussion hits that lead us to our second held piano note and unsurprisingly, our second title card. It reads, “You Know The End” (also featured in the original Halo: Reach teaser). Behind the text we see a Spartan’s helmet lying in the dust with a bullet hole through the visor. If you’ve played Halo Reach before, you’ll recognize this shot from the opening cinematic of the game. It foreshadows the final mission where you sacrifice yourself so the Pillar of Autumn can escape.
This iconic shot seems to have gotten some serious post-production love specifically for this trailer. First off, it’s reframed with some added elements. In the trailer version, you see more of the environment and a lot more vibrant colors. The helmet is positioned in a way so that the visor damage is more visible and it sits on a desert floor that features higher resolution textures. Just beyond that, there’s some slight motion coming from a swaying bush that doesn’t exist in the campaign’s intro. Also, you can now see the peak of the mountain and it’s surrounded by a beautifully lush orange and blue sky. Lastly, there’s a lot more detail put into the particle effects making it a lot more atmospheric. They nailed it. This shot is beautiful. Here’s a link to the version from the original intro cinematic to compare.
Accompanying this title card is some voiceover. “Reach has been good to me. Time has come to return the favor.” You might recognize this dialogue from the Campaign when Chief Warrant Officer Jorge-052 decides to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the mission. What might not be so obvious is the meaning behind this perfectly chosen bit of VO. It hints at the idea of veteran players sharing their experiences with new players. This subtle call to action implemented by the trailer maker is a great way of getting veteran players hyped about showing the new players the ropes.
Good vs Evil, Player vs AI, UNSC vs Covenant, Red vs Blue. This trailer is full of these amazing moments that embody this struggle and I love it. Perhaps my favorite example is when the two warthogs go slamming into each other at full speed, one carrying the red team and the other the blue. This brought back some memories. We called this “Jeep Wars” and trying to flip each other in warthogs is still one of my favorite Halo pastimes. More importantly, this shot portrays the ongoing battle of Red vs Blue that spawned a 17 season episodic Machinima series. This series became so popular amongst Halo fans, that it ultimately ended up on Netflix. Brilliant choice including this imagery in the trailer. It instantly caught my eye.
If we mention Jeep Wars, we can’t neglect to talk about custom games. I can’t stress this enough. Custom games were one of the core features in the Halo franchise that made it what it is. Unfortunately, they’re a bit of an afterthought in today’s FPS market and we often don’t see them available in games at launch.
Gamers are creative people and with the tools to do so, they’ll supply a game’s player base with limitless amounts of free content. Jeep Wars, Infection Mode, Death Runs, Duck Hunt… Community driven content has always been the backbone of the Halo series and teasing gameplay like this is a great way of grabbing the attention of Reach fans.
It’s also worth noting that amongst these great moments, there isn’t a single shot in the entire trailer that’s in the first person. Even the heavy multiplayer scenes are from the perspective of a camera. For an FPS, you’d expect there to be at least a little bit shown but all you get is two third-person shots of a character flying through the air using a jetpack. This was a clever choice on the visual style that serves as a direct throwback to these Machinima style videos that dominated the early days of content creation.
Here we’ve got one last Good vs Evil moment when we’re shown a Spartan assassinating a Covenant Elite in slow motion. This is a big moment. The animated assassination is a fan-favourite game mechanic that was first introduced in Halo: Reach. Pulling off this maneuver in-game was difficult but very satisfying. Purposefully hanging on this shot with a slow-motion effect lets people remember these moments and builds a fair bit of tension right before the logo reveal. It’s also the turning point where good conquers evil. Or rather, it should be. Unfortunately, this is spoiled by showcasing the Spartan vs Elite energy sword shot from earlier in the trailer. These two shots are the only ones that show a distinct victor in this ongoing war. They should have left it for the end. It also would have been nice if they cut several frames earlier so we don’t see the Elite getting hit. There’s no right or wrong way of cutting these types of shots, but leaving a bit up to the imagination is always a strong effect. It’s a bit of a call to action leaving the viewer feeling obliged to enlist to this war that’s not quite over.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
While the visuals in this trailer are great, I have a few critiques regarding the audio. Let’s start by addressing the music. This was a bit of a missed opportunity. Here we have a trailer that dives into the deep end of the nostalgia pool but doesn’t use one of the iconic pieces from the Reach soundtrack. Instead, they went with more cliche action music. Does it support the visuals? Yes. Is it well synced? Yes, very. Is it a well-produced track and mixed well within the trailer? Absolutely. It’s just that it’s a rather generic, percussion-heavy, unmemorable piece of music.
I was a bit taken back by this. Past trailers for Halo: Reach had beautiful music selections. For example, in the Birth of a Spartan live-action trailer, there’s a simple but repetitive piano melody that pushes and pulls dynamically with the visuals. It’s unique, very memorable, and once the cellos enter, still a very Halo-ish sounding piece of music.
Similarly, the Deliver Hope trailer also featured compelling music. It begins with a female soloist singing this ethereal melody, ultimately passing it off to the piano. And while it doesn’t sound like stereotypical Halo music, it contrasts visuals of a violent warzone leaving us with a very impactful trailer.
Overall the audio mix is good. It’s dynamic, balanced, and quite punchy. My main critique is with the voiceover. While most of it is crystal clear, there are a couple of incoherent spots that are only digestible because of my familiarity with the game. Particularly the lines “Grafton is dust, we need to get out of here now.” (00:31s) and “You’ve been wondering what the Spartans died for? They died for this.” (00:52s). In both instances, the audio is pretty muffled, pretty low in the mix, and on first listen, leaves you wondering what was said. These are powerful dialogue choices pulled from key parts of the campaign and I’d love to hear them more clearly. Regardless, the dialogue itself still does a fantastic job delivering the narrative.
One of my initial reasons for wanting to write this post was to take an in-depth look at how shots from the Halo: Reach Master Chief Collection trailer differs from the originals (textures, particle effects, etc). And while we compared them a bit, we eventually ended up dissecting the current trailer more than comparing it with its predecessors. This remaster is beautiful, so here are some comparison shots for you to gawk over.
So what does this say in terms of trailer making? Did this trailer do a good job of selling the game? Frankly, nostalgia was more than enough to do this on its own and the trailer maker capitalized on it. Heck, the entire second half of the trailer is jam-packed with stuff that’s going to bring back great memories for old players. They showcased many different weapons (heavy machine gun, needler, assault rifle), game modes (BTB, CTF, TDM, Firefight) and vehicles (ghosts, warthogs) during the gameplay sections. Whether it’s jumping through the air carrying the flag for your team or executing the Covenant with a plasma sword, they’ve shown it. Every shot was carefully chosen so that people feel some degree of familiarity with what they’re watching.
This leads us back to our original question. How do you make a trailer for a game that people know? There’s no right or wrong way. Often times when piecing together a trailer we can toy with the narrative, play with the viewer’s expectations, and even tease certain mechanics that make the game unique. There’s so much time put into discussing what we can and can’t show in order to best leave the viewer wanting more. In the case of this Halo: Reach trailer, we know the story, we know the characters and we know all about the multiplayer experiences. We only care that it’s the same Halo, but better. This trailer does a great job at showcasing these unique Halo experiences and by paying homage to the original trailers, anyone new to the series will still be left with something impactful. Touche’ trailer makers. I’m now fifty dollars poorer.