Eric Nylund’s Halo: The Fall of Reach, the video game Halo: Combat Evolved, and William C. Dietz’s novelization of said game, The Flood, were all tremendous hits. The Fall of Reach and The Flood were both Publishers Weekly bestsellers. By July 2003, Halo: Combat Evolved had sold 3 million copies worldwide. Combat Evolved was the killer app for the Xbox console. This clearly wasn’t just another video game. Microsoft and Bungie had a potential franchise juggernaut on their hands, and that meant a sequel.
Halo 2‘s development would be notoriously troubled, but while fans waited for the game as its ship date was delayed again and again, there was Halo: First Strike. Eagle-eyed fans first spotted details for the book in May 2003, although its content was at the time unknown. No less than Microsoft’s franchise development group editor Eric Trautmann would take to Halo.bungie.org’s forum to confirm the book’s existence (although, as the name hadn’t yet been approved by Bungie, told fans that the name was a working title and was going to change.)1
Later details revealed that First Strike was to be a new story bridging the gap between Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. Once again, Nylund was returning to pen this book, but the world in which Nylund was writing was a very different one than just two years before. The Master Chief wasn’t just some guy on a box looking intimidating—he was a character that had been fleshed out and explored. Fans had come to love the colorful cast of characters. They had created fan art, fan fiction, spun theories about just what exactly happened at the end of the game, and where Chief and Cortana would end up. (Proving that time is a flat circle, some fans on Halo.Bungie.org’s story discussion page believed that Cortana would be the big bad in Halo 2, having become corrupted by the knowledge she had gained from the Forerunners.) Nylund was stepping back into a universe at once more expansive, and simultaneously more constricting, than the one he had left.
The good news was that the brutal seven-week deadline of The Fall of Reach had been replaced with a more expansive sixteen-week window, although Nylund would later recall that despite the extra time First Strike was a tougher book to write. There were more expectations, more lore details to keep track of, and certainly a lot of fan feedback to the first two novels, which Nylund took under consideration.2 As with The Fall of Reach, Nylund passed Trautmann sections of the book as they were completed for an editing and continuity pass, with Trautmann sending them along to the publisher at Del Ray. Trautmann would recall the expanded window to complete the novel as “luxurious”.3
More than the previous book, Nylund had to serve two masters with First Strike—fans of the video game, where Master Chief was seemingly the only Spartan in existence and the conflict with the Covenant revolved around a single ship on a distant ring, and the expanded universe fans, who knew about things like ODSTs and insurrectionists and wondered what happened to the Spartans left behind on the doomed planet of Reach. It also had to avoid colliding with the events of Halo 2, whose story was in constant flux. Perhaps for that reason, First Strike spends a large amount of time rewinding back to the battle for Reach and replaying events. In The Fall of Reach, the eponymous planet barely fell in the last fifth of the book; here, though, Nylund gives a much closer look at the doomed defense of the planet from the perspectives of the Spartans left behind.
In particular, First Strike is really the first deep look into the character of Fred, whose perspective the book in fact opens with as he assumes command of Red Team while Chief goes on his mission that ultimately leads to the events of Combat Evolved. Given that Fred essentially becomes the second-most important Spartan character in the series, the groundwork for Denning’s later utilization of the character, and his differentiation from Master Chief, begins here. It’s also the first time we really see just how badly things went on the planet. Nylund kills off or severely wounds ten Spartans in the first 14 pages, and methodically picks off more throughout the novel. At Reach, the myth of the Spartan’s invulnerability crumbles in an instant. Despite the best efforts of Red Team, the generator complex they are defending falls, and with the MAC Cannons in orbit disabled, the Covenant begin to glass the planet. The remnants of Red Team fall back to the Menachite Mountain complex, linking up with their Spartan “mother”, Catherine Halsey, and are left trapped on the planet and presumed dead.
Switching to the Master Chief’s side of the story, First Strike starts right at the very end of Combat Evolved, with Chief and Cortana drifting in the wreckage of Installation 04 after having destroyed the ring to stop the Flood and Covenant. In short order, they pick up a few more survivors: Linda—still in cryo after her injuries sustained in The Fall of Reach—Warrant Officer Polaski, ODST Corporal Locklear, ONI spook Lieutenant Haverson and, most importantly, Sergeant A.J. Johnson. Polaski, Locklear, and Haverson are, described generously, thinly-sketched. But Johnson gets the first touches of shading on a character who would become tremendously important to the universe.
Johnson had been just one of many Marine skins in Halo: Combat Evolved, albeit one with a fair amount of scripted dialogue. In many ways he was perhaps as close to a carbon copy of Sergeant Apone from Aliens as any of the influences that movie had on the development of Halo. But fans loved the character, and so he just didn’t stay dead. And while Bungie would handwave his survival for casual fans in Halo 2‘s opening, it was in First Strike that we get a deeper character element for him (as well as propose a reason for his survival, which would later be significantly adjusted.)
From the start, First Strike makes sure to thread the needle and incorporate elements from the other established lore. Johnson’s love of “flip” music (and everyone else’s distaste), alongside the ODST’s general dislike of the Spartans (thoroughly elaborated on in The Flood), reappear. Cut game content, such as the floating Engineers, also appeared. Not every new piece of information led to major changes, however; the book reiterates the undercurrent of Cortana not being “right” since spending time in Halo’s control room, a recurring story beat that ultimately was one plot thread left discarded in the wider universe; so too is the mysterious Covenant AI aboard the Covenant flagship, Ascendant Justice. Other elaborated or new elements would be more successfully grafted into the fabric of Halo, such as Cortana’s trick of creating copies of herself. The small detail of strangely familiar alien controls, hinting at the later concept of a geas, also returns here from The Flood.
The book also puts in effort to bridge the events of Halo 1 and Halo 2, introducing new weapons like the Battle Rifle, or enemies like the Brutes. Characters who would be important in the upcoming game, such as the Prophet of Truth, Tartarus, and Admiral Hood (here, mentioned as having hair), also pop in for brief cameos, though they take a backseat to the main story Nylund tells.
Through some classic Nylundian space maneuvers, Chief and company board Ascendant Justice and take it back to Reach, where Catherine Halsey, the Spartans, and a few others, including Admiral Stanforth, have survived holed up deep in a UNSC installation. Their survival is down to the Forerunner relic the Covenant know to be in the same vicinity—a crystal with strange space-time effects. The crystal would later have major ramifications for the universe, being explained as a Forerunner slipspace crystal and playing a role in Shadows of Reach and Divine Wind. Within the novel, however, it mostly serves as a macguffin for the Covenant and UNSC to jockey over, and more curiously, as the catalyst for one of the oddest footnotes in Halo history—currently the only real use of time travel in the franchise. Master Chief and company, leaving the events of Halo: Combat Evolved in September 22, 2552, end up back at Reach on September 7, and the rest of the events of the novel take place through to September 13. Why the novel decides to add this temporal anomaly is unclear; Trautmann ascribed it to the tight timetable,3 and presumably it helped fit the events of the novel safely away from the events of the upcoming Halo 2.
In terms of the character growth in First Strike, though, the story is really a tale of Chief and Halsey’s personal journeys. In an interview, Nylund mentioned that he enjoyed writing Halsey, given that she was in some ways closest to his own personality, and that shines through in the character’s focus and change in First Strike.4 Halsey got into the Spartan Project with a dash of mad scientist and focus on “the greater good“, but as she sees the wounds inflicted on “her” Spartans and the crumbling of her grand plans with Operation Red Flag, her utilitarian beliefs begin to crumble. Tired of sacrificing individuals, Halsey abducts Spartan Kelly and heads to coordinates she discovered hidden in files belonging to the dastardly Colonel Ackerson (who shows up in First Strike for a brief scene of being a jerk.) While her overall focus shifting to the survival of her Spartans does not resolve in First Strike, she does set up a moral choice for Chief: whether or not to reveal Johnson’s immunity to the Flood, which would almost certainly guarantee his death at the hands of the UNSC, in an attempt to reverse-engineer this trait. Chief ultimately decides to withhold this information, saving Johnson’s life, and setting the seeds of the rogue soldier above the UNSC command structure that would come to be a major part of his character during 343’s stewardship of the franchise.
Ultimately, the human survivors learn that the Covenant have found the location of Earth, and are preparing a huge invasion fleet at the station Unyielding Heirophant. Master Chief and company manage to plant a bomb on the station, and Whitcomb pilots the Ascendant Justice near the station, luring in and wiping out the Covenant fleet in the resulting explosion. With humanity only temporarily saved, the survivors rush back to Earth to prepare for the next attack, and most importantly getting Chief back on Earth in time for Halo 2‘s cutscene.
In many ways, the tension between Bungie and Microsoft over the expanded universe leaves First Strike often more focused on following up its own established plot threads and running interference for why characters don’t appear in the games, rather than existing for its own story and character. The rebels that Nylund and Microsoft created to justify the UNSC’s military might in The Fall of Reach get a swift reappearance and then ignominious deaths, in an example of plot threads that get awkwardly handled. But Nylund also took time to lay seeds for Ackerson’s shadowy Spartan-III Program, and set up events for his own followup novel. No longer would Halo novels presume that they would be standalone and self-contained—this was a franchise, after all.
It’d be a bit reductive to say that the end result of First Strike is merely “stuff happens and alien ships get blown up”, but that’s mostly what it boils down to. Master Chief and company blow up a Covenant armada and head back to inform Earth of an impending attack, but even in Halo 2 this detail doesn’t factor into the setup, and later fiction would give the Covenant the location of Earth multiple times (even if they didn’t all know it was leading to humanity’s homeworld.) While Chief’s best Spartan friends survive to fight in another Nylund novel, Chief would remain “The Last Spartan” as far as the anyone only playing the games were concerned. Deeper connections to the games would still be a long ways off for Halo novels, but arguably First Strike set the pattern many, many pieces of Halo expanded media would later replicate—humanity finds some Forerunner relic and destroys it to stop the Covenant from getting their hands on it. In the era of the wall of separation between novel and game, this was sometimes the best that fans could hope for. There were some elements Bungie clearly did not like as well, and went out of their way to retcon—after highlighting the issue of Johnson’s Flood immunity specifically in a 2004 interview, Bungie included page in the 2006 Halo Graphic Novel that instead paved the way for that character’s Orion Project origins.
In the same vein as The Fall of Reach and The Flood, First Strike also suffers from coming early in the franchise and establishing elements to the series that would be retrofitted earlier into the chronology of the universe, making them redundant—humanity’s first encounter with Brutes would be retconned, much like the dates of face-to-face encounters with other Covenant species, or the issue date of the Battle Rifle. Halsey’s uncanny ability to tell the Spartans apart despite their identical armor would be dismantled and left superfluous in later depictions, as the Spartans all gained drastically-varied MJOLNIR armor from initial deployment.
As the franchise stretched from its origins to an established juggernaut, First Strike arguably became the defining mold that subsequent novels would adapt from for years afterwards. Like its predecessors, the novel was a critical and commercial success, becoming the first New York Times bestseller of the franchise. First Strike ended up serving as the middle chapter in a loose trilogy of Nylund books, motivating the events of Nylund’s next (and, to date, final) novel in the Halo universe, which we’ll cover next time on Hindsight: Halo.