When William C. Dietz was approached by Bungie to write a novelisation of Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that he had never played, he was initially reluctant. However, after going away and playing the game a few times, as well as reading the preliminary novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, he decided to take up the challenge. Following the book’s release, it received mixed reviews from critics – some said that it didn’t deviate enough from the games, some said that Dietz’s presentation of the character of the Chief wasn’t consistent with previous author Eric Nylund’s, and most said that the novel is rather repetitive – often consisting of little more than descriptions of gunfights repeated over and over again. Now that the release of Halo: Combat Evolved is but a distant memory, it is interesting going back and re-reading this novel for two reasons – first, I have not read this book since I was a child, and second, the book isn’t anywhere near as bad as many people have made it out to be.
In fairness, I am a massive fan of Halo, so perhaps the book appeals to me in ways that it would not for a casual reader. Also, there are some issues with the book that gripe me – the presentation of the Covenant, for example, is radically different from how they are presented in Halo 2, but that is hardly the author’s fault. In fact, many of the best parts about this book are actually segments that Dietz fought to have included – initially Bungie didn’t want a Covenant subplot, but Dietz felt (rightly) that it would add more to the narrative. The representation of events going on during Halo: Combat Evolved that the Chief was not present for is also particularly good, and the characters of Major Silva and Lieutenant McKay are particularly well-written. Other highlights of the book include Yayap, who provides some comic relief but is a strong character nonetheless, and the depiction of Captain Keyes and Wallace A. Jenkins’ horrific assimilation by the Flood, the former of which was adapted for one of the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary terminals.
Arguably the most engaging character is Zuka ‘Zamamee, an Elite who makes it his mission to hunt the Master Chief throughout the majority of the book. Interestingly, this subplot places Zuka in many of the locations that the Chief himself visits throughout the campaign of Halo: Combat Evolved but either too early or too late to actually encounter the Chief himself, save for a few encounters that don’t go well for the Elite – all the while, Zuka is being tailed by his unwilling assistant Yayap, who is perhaps the most developed Grunt character in the entire Halo franchise. There are also several one-shot Covenant characters that appear for only a chapter or two, which Dietz essentially uses as fodder against either the UNSC or the Flood, with varying degrees of effectiveness. An example of how this doesn’t quite work appears quite early in the novel – an Ossoona named Isna ‘Nosolee, who boards the Pillar of Autumn during the opening chapters and boards Captain Keyes’ lifeboat as the Autumn is evacuated, only to be shot in the head by Keyes during the descent. Whilst this is an interesting addition to the novel, it seems to set up a plot point that goes absolutely nowhere, as Keyes and his team are later captured anyway. The reason for this is that Bungie only accepted Dietz’s proposal to have a Covenant subplot in the novel on the condition that he kill every Covenant character that he introduces in the book, so that Bungie would not have to include them in any media that would follow.
This highlights one of the weakest elements of this novel, in that the fact that everyone has to die at the end of the novel – in a similar manner to Halo: Reach, the knowledge that eventually all the characters will die except for the Chief somewhat reduces the tension throughout. Still, that is perhaps this books most prominent weakness aside from an over-dependence on military dialogue and constant action sequences, which in all aren’t particularly bad – the book is a novelisation after all, and to complain that a book that retells the same story as the game doesn’t deviate enough from the story of the game is not a fair criticism.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is the depiction of the Flood, particularly through Private Jenkins and Captain Keyes who undergo the horrors of infection but still retain a glimmer of consciousness despite their ravaged bodies being host to the Parasite. Dietz’s depiction of how the Flood picks apart the memories of their victims is truly harrowing to read, particularly since readers of the previous book Halo: The Fall of Reach will have a particular connection to Keyes as a character that we didn’t really get from Halo: Combat Evolved, with many players finding Keyes’ habit of getting himself captured very frustrating. The finale of the book from the perspective of Major Silva and Private Jenkins is poignant and really shows just how close the Flood were to getting off Installation 04, making the tension of the Chief’s final run all the higher since the stakes are raised from the depiction of these events in the game.
Overall, Halo: The Flood is an effective novelisation, but perhaps not as strong of a narrative as Halo: The Fall of Reach and Halo: First Strike. It is an absolute must-read for Halo fans, particularly those who are intimately familiar with Halo: Combat Evolved, but is probably a stretch too far for non-Halo fans, to whom many of the game’s extended descriptions of weapons, vehicles and locations would mean absolutely nothing. Dietz’s strongest plot threads include the side plots involving Zuka ‘Zamamee and the Flood, with the story of Melissa McKay and Major Silva being an interesting inclusion but ultimately futile. The best way to read this book is by listening to the Halo Soundtrack alongside it, playing the songs that feature in the various levels to give atmosphere to their accompanying chapters, as the book does capture the spirit of the game and that is perhaps the biggest contributing factor to its success.