Halo 5: Guardians

The Man Behind The Visor: Master Chief's Story

We've taken a good long look at the story of Master Chief, the Spartans, and the Halo saga.

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"He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe."
- John 1:7

The first thing Catherine Halsey sees of Elysium City is how the mighty skyscraper reaches far above the clouds. Her shuttle has travelled far through a galaxy in conflict, deep into the outer colony worlds inhabited by man, in order to find this beautiful urban paradise on the planet Eridanus. The brilliant researcher leaves her ship with her military escort, Lieutenant Keyes. They have arrived there to inspect a talented individual - a possible candidate for Halsey's top secret Spartan project. The individual is called John, a seemingly ordinary 6-year old with short brown hair and freckles. As Catherine and Jacob visit his pre-school in Elysium City he plays king of the hill with his classmates and they observe the ease with which he throws down the other children from off the hill.

John has plenty of friends here, and he is in love with the girl next door, Parisa. He has two parents who love him above everything, but they aren't aware that UNSC (United Nations Space Commando) have taken an interest in their son. John may have his own dreams and aspirations, but those will soon be taken from him by Dr. Catherine Halsey. Noone can possibly know that this young boy at the top of the hill will one day grow up to be the saviour of mankind. And mankind's last hope.

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John and his best friend Ellie Bloom sit under a star filled sky and ask themselves whether there is intelligent alien life. Neither of them were prepared for the truth.

The year is 2525, three decades ahead of the events in Halo: Combat Evolved, when mankind first came in contact with intelligent alien life. An alliance called The Covenant declared holy war on mankind. At that time John was just 14 years old, but he was already a fully trained, highly lethal war machine. His brutal origins and tragic journey to hero is covered in the novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, published just ahead of Bungie's first game on the original Xbox. The book is one of the most essential parts of the Halo saga, but in spite of this millions of Halo fans have missed out on this part of the story (that should change soon, it has been turned into a three-part mini-series that will be available - at first at least - to those who pick up a limited edition version of Halo 5).

The Fall of Reach has never been as current as it is today, as characters introduced in the book will join Master Chief as playable characters when Halo 5: Guardians sees release on Xbox One. That's why we thought it advisable to retell the story of the beginnings in this article. This is the story of John-117 and his 74 brave brothers and sisters. Of how they killed and died for eachother. Of their lost innocence and constant self sacrifice. Of the childhood they were deprived of, and the future they gave mankind. This is the story of Master Chief and his Spartans.

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John, born on March 7, 2511. Dead on December 7, 2517, only six years old. That's the official story at least.
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The years was 2517. Even if the Covenant threat was still unknown it was a time of terror and conflict. During mankind's golden age thousands of distant new worlds had been colonised, but the resources in the outer colonies reverted back to support Earth and UNSC. Something that was questioned by the colonists, a civil war broke out and split the galactic empire in two. After years of war and destruction UNSC were desperate. They wanted to win the war before too much was lost. They enlisted the infamous research division ONI and Dr. Catherine Halsey to develop the next generation of super soldiers to help them win the war.

After a few failed experiments Halsey took inspiration from the Spartan warriors of ancient Greece. From an early age they had to endure ruthless training to shape them into the bravest warriors ever seen. Halsey's troops had to be as young as the original Spartans in order to adapt to the training that awaited them. Their age would also facilitate the experimental augmentations required to realise the skill and potential sought in the future warriors. The young scientist worked out a list of 150 suitable candidates across the galaxy. 150 6-year olds meant to unite mankind once again, and lead us to a new golden age.

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The civil war between UNSC and the insurgents in the outer colonies is described in the novel Halo Contact Harvest.

ONI only approved the use of 75 test subjects, and the Halsey let luck decide the ultimate selection. Along with Jacob Keyes she visited the children, one after another, and asked them to flip a coin. They were told to pick heads or tails, and through this method they learned what candidates had a gift that could not be trained, luck. The children who guessed correctly "won", and were picked for the Spartan project. That's why Catherine Halsey approach the young boy named John at the schoolyard in Elysium City. She introduced herself, asked him if he liked games. John explained he loved games, since he always won. He felt that chess was a little boring as noone seemed capable of challenging him, and ball sports had been removed from PE as the other children were incapable of competing with his strength and speed.

Catherine gave him an old coin and asked him if he wanted to play a different game. The coin was still high up in the air as John caught it with his hand. Without peaking he yelled: "Tails!" Of course, he called in correctly. But not even as a 6-year old he left things to coincidence. With lightning fast reflexes he had caught a glimpse of which side was facing up as he caught the coin. I wasn't luck - it was pure skill - and as a reward he got to keep Dr. Halsey's coin.

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John impressed Dr. Halsey, and there was no doubt he would be become one of her greatest Spartans. Within a month he and 74 other children had been taken from their homes by ONI.

The chosen children were then kidnapped by ONI. In the cover of darkness they were taken from their beds and taken to the military planet Reach. To keep the truth of their inhumane actions hidden the recruits were replaced by defective clones. These so called flash clones suffered from neurological and physiological disorders that ensured their deaths within a couple of years. John from Elysium City passed away on December 7, 2517 and his parents, friends and next door neighbor Parisa would never see him again. On Reach the real John and 74 other 6-year olds learned the truth. They were never to return home again. Halsey didn't want to lie to them as learning the truth later would lead them to hate her in the future. In spite of worried looks from the recruits none of them cried - they were clearly made of the right stuff for this sort of project.

And then on September 24, 2517 the brutal Spartan training began. John and the others were woken from their bunkbeds at 05:30 by Franklin Mendez - one of the most experienced instructors of the UNSC. Their first training sessions began with 100 repetitions of sit ups, squats followed by a 3 kilometer run to the "playground" - a maze-like obstacle course suspended in the air. On top of the structure there was a bell. The children were divided into teams of three and tasked with ascending the to the summit and ring the bell. The last team to do so went without supper. The competitive John made it up first and looked down on the other children struggling with the course. He saw how they helped eachother and slowly but surely made their way up together. At the end all the children had rung the bell except for John's two teammates - Samuel-034 and Kelly-087. John lost for the first time in his life, but won an important lesson about teamwork and comradery. A lesson he never forgot, and that within a few years helped make him the official leader of the Spartans.

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Concept art from the Halo movie that was meant to be based on Halo: The Fall of Reach.

The exercises Mendez constructed often featured a twist meant to teach the Spartans something important and to always expect the unexpected. He became the closest thing the children had to a father figure as they grew up on Reach, but it was with clear instructions from ONI that he brought them up to be the toughest soldiers in the army. He kept forcing them to apply themselves fully. He pushed them to their mental and physical limitations, over and over again, and beyond them. Those who had problems keeping up were motivated by a few whacks with the shock baton. When not training they were educated to a high level in fields such as mathematics, natural sciences, and history. But strength, speed and intelligence was all that was taught. Discipline, honour, and respect were fundamental pillars in the code Mendez taught the children. They learned the differences between right and wrong, and that Earth and her colonies was above anything else in the galaxy. Their own lives meant nothing in comparison.


The months passed and many of the children adapted remarkably quickly, but in spite of the instructors always having the upper hand it wasn't easy teaching the future Spartans. On occasion the odd child rebelled, threatened the staff and tried to escape from Reach. These were sedated and disciplined. John conducted himself exemplary during the first years, except for the incident when a few instructors tried to confiscate the coin Dr. Halsey had given him. He broke several of their fingers, but others in the UNSC also felt the wrath of the children. The elite soldiers of Tango Company were outclassed by the children in all simulations, and at that point they were only 12 years old.

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The three most influential people in the life of a Spartan. From the left: Franklin Mendez, Dr. Catherine Halsey, and the artificial intelligence Déjà, who trained them at school.

After 8 years of training on Reach all the children had turned 14 and reached puberty. Phase one of the project was over and the results exceeded Dr. Halsey's expectations. The journey, however, was far from over. The darkest days of the project awaited. This second phase consisted of five bio-chemical and bio-mechanical augmentations that were applied to the young Spartans. The highly trained soldiers were through surgery and injections to be turned into flawless war machines, superior in strength, endurance and speed. Increased muscle mass, reinforced bone structure, the ability to see in the dark, and three times faster reflexes were on the menu, but the side effects were just as extreme.

The Spartans risked blindness, skeletal degeneration, grotesque growths, reduced sex drive, heart failure and Parkinson's disease. Not to mention the extreme pain they had to endure. It felt like being injected with napalm. Their bodies burned and was broken down, just to be rebuilt again. The side effects were so severe that 30 of the 75 young Spartans later died. Another two committed suicide. 32 innocent 14-year olds who had all been a part of John's family since that first day on Reach gave their lives for something they were still unaware of. A funeral service was held so the survivors could bid farewell, but the bodies were frozen in the hopes that they could one day be revived. Twelve other Spartans were so severely handicapped by the process that they were unable to complete their training.

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The very dangerous second phase was not mandatory. The Spartans themselves got to decide whether to go through with it, all but one did.

The results for those who have made it through phase two were overwhelming. Combined with their competitive instincts, intelligence, and near telepathic co-operation the procedures had turned Halsey's Spartans to an invincible force on the battlefield - and they would only improve as their bodies adjusted to their new abilities.

Sam-037, the strongest of the Spartans, could easily carry four times his body weight. The lightning fast Kelly-087 once reached a record speed of 62 kilometers an hour, and her movements were impossible to follow with the naked eye. Once she had started running she was impossible to pass. She became a blur capable of dodging fired bullets. Another female Spartan, Linda-058, was highly skilled with her sniper rifle. At one point she shot two enemies with two bullets in such quick succession that not even John could tell which one had been hit first.

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Blue Team on their first mission in the asteroid field surrounding the planet Eridanus.

John-117 and his Spartans were finally finished with their training and ready for their first mission. John was made leader of Blue Team, consisting of his best friends Sam and Kelly, as well as Linda and Fred-104. Blue Team was sent to the insurgent bases in an asteroid field, and on sight they easily killed hundreds of rebels and captured their leader. In just a few hours they succeeded where UNSC had failed for decades. Dr. Halsey's Spartan project was a massive success. But the Spartans and the whole human race soon face a new threat.

During the course of three millennia a holy alliance has evolved between numerous alien races - The Covenant. They have all recovered advanced technological artefacts on their homeworlds - relics of a might race called the Forerunners. These predecessors have been lost for more than 100,000 years, but the Covenant worship them as Gods. They are of the opinion that they have ascended to a new existence, and the objective is to follow them. That got them started looking for those who came before and all that they had left behind, and this holy mission took them to the planet Harvest in the year 2525. They expected to find thousands of Forerunner relics, but instead they found one of mankind's outer most colonies.

It was at this point that the Covenant Prophets and leaders realised that the relics they had been seeking was humans. Mankind had been left behind by the Forerunners to one day inherit their responsibilities as protectors of all life in the galaxy. If the truth was revealed to all the races within the alliance the Covenant would tear itself apart and an ancient empire would fall. The Prophets therefore sold the Covenant on a lie. They said humans were their enemies, and that the eradication of mankind was the will of the Gods. The population of Harvest didn't have any chance to prepare for the massacre that awaited them. The war between mankind and the Covenant had begun, and the Spartans had finally found a worthy adversary.

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The strategy game Halo Wars plays out at the start of the war against the Covenant as UNSC tries to regain control of Harvest.

But if John and his fellow Spartans were to have a chance against the new threat they would need tools to match their abilities. The answer was Mjolnir - an armoured suit named after Thor's mighty hammer. The highly sophisticated exo-skeletons were so powerful that only Spartans could make use of them. Normal marines fractured arms and legs when they tried them on as a result of the forces involved. Even John injured himself as his achilles tendom ruptured as he aided by the suit reached a top speed of 100 kilometres an hour.

Inside of the Mjolnir suits their abilities were further improved. Naomi-010 defeated a Brute with a single punch that broke the spine of the beast. Adriana-111 used a Mongoose as a hammer. She gripped the handle bars, hoisted the vehicle in the air and brought it down on three defenseless Grunts. The Spartans drove back the Covenant time and time again, and it wasn't long until their enemies began to fear them. The Covenant referred to them as demons, but even among UNSC soldiers the Spartans achieved almost mythological status. A lot felt uneasy next to the 2.5 metres tall, one metric ton war machine. John almost came across as alien as the enemy with his emerald panzar and golden visor. The armour became his shell. He spent more time inside of it than outside, and as a result his skin turned very pale. The battlefield was his new home. He felt most at ease when his life depend on his own skills. That's when they were winning. Each and every time.

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John suits up with his Mjolnir for the very first time.

When things were at their darkest the UNSC began using Spartans as propaganda, to raise morale among civilians and troops. ONI ordered the Spartans killed in action to be reported as missing in action - this in order to create an illusion of immortality. John and the others knew the truth, after all they had already lost 32 brothers and sisters. And they would lose more. Sam-037 was the first Spartan to fall to the Covenant. With each lost Spartan John woved to become even stronger. He took full responsibility for the death of his friends as their commander. Between the years 2525 and 2552 he had taken part in more than 200 battles with the Covenant, and been rewarded with every possible commendation, with the exception of the one reserved for prisoners of war. He had been promoted to Master Chief Petty Officer.

But unfortunately it mattered little that Master Chief and his Spartans defeated the Covenant on the ground as mankind was outclassed in space. The monstrous spacecrafts of the enemy were equipped with plasma shield that the regular weaponry of the UNSC could do little about. Wherever the Covenant went they left death and destruction behind. The destroyed all the human worlds they came across with their enormous plasma cannon. The heat generated set forests ablaze in uncontrollable infernos. Lakes and seas evaporated and the ground melted. After a few days of bombardment the atmosphere was full of ashes and soot, and from space the planet appeared as a smoldering ball of glass. The blood bath drove humans from the outer colonies back to Earth, and soon there would be nowhere left to run.

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A UNSC ship flees from a planet turned to glass. Survivors were forced to make blind jumps in order to avoid leading Covenant followers to other colonies.

In 2552 hundreds of human worlds had been wiped out by the wrath of the Covenant - among these John's home planet of Eridanus. Soon they would find Earth, mankind's cradle and the war would be over or as good as. Mankind needed a plan, and Catherine Halsey provided UNSC with a desperate last resort. All the remaining Spartans were to gather on Reach and board the ship Pillar of Autumn. Together with the captain of the ship, Jacob Keyes, they were to take control of one of the enemy cruisers. Keyes would direct the ship back to the Covenant homeworld, and there the Spartans were to kidnap one of their leaders. The Prophet would be held ransom while the UNSC negotiated a truce. The risky mission was named Operation: Red Flag, but an important component of the plan was still missing. Dr. Halsey need to create an extremely advanced AI, clever enough to crack the navigational codes of the Covenant.


All artificial intelligence was rendered based on existing human brains, and since the organs used were destroyed in the process the donors had to be deceased. This time it required a highly intelligent donor, and Dr. Halsey could not find anyone more suitable than herself. Through flashcloning she created 20 copies of her brain that lived in small jars of water. Only one of them, called H-1, lived up to the high demands. The newborn AI presented itself to Catherine in the shape of a purple coloured female avatar and it picked a name for herself - Cortana. She was then given the task of picking one Spartan who was to be her handler, and as we all know she picked John-117, Master Chief. Everything was in place for Operation: Red Flag.

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Dr. Catherine Halsey introduces Master Chief to Cortana.

But on July 25, 2552, just days prior to the launch of Operation: Red Flag, Reach was attacked by a massive Covenant armada. The most important battle of the war started and the Spartans had to defend their home. This battle has been portrayed in books, comics, and the game Halo: Reach. The desperate battle of Reach showed us how the Spartans never gave up, not even when all was lost. Most of them perished, among them expert sniper Linda-058. She took a plasma charge to the back of her head, but John couldn't let her die. He carried her body to Jacob Keyes' ship, Pillar of Autumn, and put her into cryo sleep. John stayed by her side as the planet was already lost. The ground had already begun to turn into glass.

John and Captain Keyes were ordered to flee Reach with Cortana. The AI and the information she carried simply could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Their protocol dictated they made a blind jump to random coordinates in order not to lead the enemy back to Earth., but instead Cortana used coordinates John had found on a mysterious Forerunner artefact. This led the Pillar of Autumn, and the Covenants who gave pursuit, to the majestic ringworld, Halo. And the rest as they say, is history. It was on Halo that Master Chief grew into the hero he was destined to become. This is where he discovered The Flood and stopped the Covenant from activating the weapons of the installation. He saved all life in the galaxy and took one more step to shoulder the fallen mantle of the Forerunners. He destroyed the ringworld and drifted along with Cortana in the cold, empty space waiting to be recovered. He was afraid of what had come to pass at Reach, with Dr. Halsey and the Spartan. He could very well be the last one alive.

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Seven colossal ringworlds were built by the Forerunners. Together they were designed to eradicate all life from the galaxy in order to starve the plague that is The Flood.

What he didn't know was that a few Spartans had survived Reach. Fred-104, Kelly-087, and Dr. Halsey hid from the Covenant in a massive cave system for more than a week. Kelly suffered burns on 72 percent of her body, but she managed to recover. John made it back to Reach, and he brought the Linda's cryo chamber with him that he had recovered among the debree from the ringworld. He was reunited with Halsey and the Spartans. The doctor performed surgery on Linda's frozen body and managed to wake her from the dead, and together they made their way back to Earth. What they didn't know was that the Covenant would soon find their planet by accident.

The rest of the story of Master Chief is told in video games, where his personality and motives may not be as clearly defined as in the novels. He is often criticised as a one dimensional and flat character in the games. He is the strong, silent type, something that is a perfect fit with the gameplay and the player is meant to feel like they are Master Chief instead of a great atmosphere and breathtaking environments. It's the same basic narrative technique perfected by Valve with Half-Life, but having read everything there is to know about John's past it is a personality that fits him. Frank O'Connor, franchise development director for the entire Halo franchise, has said his actions are more important than his face and his personality. We should therefore not ask what he looks like or what he is like as a person, but instead ask ourselves why he is who he is.

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Players who have not engaged with the expanded universe can look forward to an animated adaptation of The Fall of Reach that is being published when Halo 5: Guardians launches.

From the beginning being a Spartan was not something popular, everyone else in the military hated the children and called them freaks. In spite of this John and his comrades respected the military chain of command. They followed orders, focussed on the mission at hand ignored all the psychological pressures that would have seen lesser soldiers fold. Master Chief has endured atrocities, but perhaps the worst thing is that he has always accepted what has happened to him as what is right. He understands that there wouldn't have been a mankind to fight for if it hadn't been for his training and the inhumane experiments of the Spartan project. It may have begun as brainwashing, but today John is fully aware of what he wants and what he and the remaining Spartans represents. Mankind's last hope.

John's personality is therefore a good fit both with his background the gameplay. Cortana was also created as a tool for the developers - she was meant to point the player in the right direction and progress the narrative when needed. The relationship between the two was rather neutral at first, but this relationship has been further developed over latter Halo games. John, a brainwashed super weapon, and she, a collection of ones and zeros. Neither of them is truly human, but they complete eachother. It's a near symbiotic relationship. In Halo 4 John fights against the clock to save Cortana's life, and all of a sudden it is longer the story of an anonymous soldier who has to keep information out of the hands of the enemy. Instead it's about John-117 and his desperate attempt to save someone close to him. Halo 4 is a dark chapter in the saga of Master Chief, and as you may remember Cortana sacrifices herself to save him at its conclusion.

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John-117 (Master Chief) and his three fellow Spartans - Linda-058, Kelly-087 and Fred-104. Blue Team returns in Halo 5: Guardians - an almost religious reunion for Halo fans.

When we last saw John he was back on Earth grieving the loss of Cortana. He considered what it means to be human - something she taught him through 40 years of war. Clearly he is no longer the ice cold super soldier he was when he first sat foot on Halo. He is a man who doesn't seem to want to carry without Cortana at his side. At this point we don't know a whole lot about the plat in Halo 5: Guardians, but it seems her death has lead to him leaving UNSC to pursue his own cause. Where this path takes we don't know, but he's not facing Covenants and Forerunners on his own this time around as he is joined by Kelly-087, Linda-058 and Fred-104. The three surviving Spartans from Blue Team.

What awaits John and his three siblings in Halo 5: Guardians remains to be seen. The game appears to be the darkest chapter thus far, and we have never had as many unanswered questions ahead of a Halo release previously. Hopefully this article had shed some light on John's past as his future appears more uncertain than ever. Come October 27 will hopefully learn some of the answers as John and the Spartans arrive on the new generation of hardware as there is still plenty left of the story of Master Chief.


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