There are few characters as famous in gaming as Spartan John-117, more commonly known as Master Chief, the so-called “Last Spartan” who saved humanity in its darkest hours. While those who experienced Halo 5: Guardians got a taste of Chief’s past thanks to the presence of his old Spartan-II comrades Linda, Kelly, and Fred, Guardians doesn’t dig into Blue Team’s history and how they came to be the armor-clad warriors recognized across the globe. Well, brace yourself folks — this tale is a heavy one, even for a series like Halo.
As you’ll recall from our last lore dive, Sergeant Avery Johnson was part of Project Orion, a last-ditch effort by the United Nations Space Command to quell the human Insurrectionist rebellion. Though the first iteration of the project failed to produce a definitive win, Doctor Catherine Halsey would lead a renewed effort against Insurrectionists by harnessing not soldiers, but children — particular children with the right genetic markers and statistical compatibility given an invasive enhancement procedure. Each would be abducted from their home after preliminary analysis, replaced with flash-cloned duplicates who would die shortly thereafter, the children’s parents none the wiser.
The first of these was none other than John, at that point just a headstrong lad eager to pick a fight. Halsey personally tested him, both through distant observation and challenging him to a game of chance. Though she felt it prudent to be the first in the program to acquire a candidate and set the protocol going forward, this brief emotional attachment proved a discomfort as Halsey knew what lay ahead for her Spartans.
Before they were even augmented, SPARTAN-II candidates were put through rigorous trials at the age of only six. By age eight, several candidates had died over the course of their training, whether from accidents or just the strain of meeting the standards demanded. It was during this time, despite the dire circumstances, that John would make several close bonds — his best friend Sam, as well as lifetime friends Kelly, Linda, and Fred. They not only naturally meshed as a team, but were quick to correct each other whenever taking a misstep. Blue Team became a natural unit that all other Spartan candidates followed, both literally and by example.
As they were taught military strategy, the future Spartans of humanity were enchanted by tales of their Greek namesakes. One united army, however small, standing together through it all. This would carry over into their training. Most notably, John and Sam led their entire unit to capture a UNSC dropship and bring everyone home, overpowering two UNSC officers despite still being only children. It earned John his first promotion, Squad Leader, a role he fit well.
Unfortunately, the augmentation process left over a third of the surviving Spartan candidates either dead or crippled for life. Despite its being entirely out of John’s hands, this reality shaped John into the man who’d cling to hope at putting an end to the war around him. That guilt never truly left him, and it’s why across the series Master Chief has tried so hard to aid and protect all he can, despite impossible odds.
The early days of SPARTAN-II deployment were a success, Halsey herself hoping that a swift end to the Insurrection would abstain her from judgement for all the dead children left in her wake. Blue Team were immensely effective in their engagements, but as soon as the Insurrection was crippled, the Covenant appeared. Blue Team hadn’t even earned their MJOLNIR Mark-IV armor by the time the Covenant’s attack on humanity had begun. Harvest’s fall was a harrowing warning to the UNSC, but no one was prepared for the dogmatic fanaticism on the horizon.
Though it was Johnson who technically first engaged the Covenant, it was Blue Team who would make a critical first strike and, regrettably, endure the first Spartan casualty in the war. During a daring mission to plant a nuclear warhead aboard a Covenant warship, Sam’s suit was punctured, leaving him unable to depart into the vacuum of space. Worse still, Sam’s suit was breached trying to protect John from enemy fire, returning the favor for when John had saved him in the past. There was no other way out, forcing Blue Team to abandon Sam to detonate the bomb and buy the rest of the SPARTAN-IIs time to regroup with their newly acquired armor.
For the next 27 years, the Spartans would serve as a primary asset, a “scalpel” to cut to the heart of the Covenant. It was around this time the UNSC finally had enough intel to bring together its remaining undeployed SPARTAN-IIs for a surgical strike led by Captain Keyes to kidnap a member of the Covenant leadership, a Prophet. To further even the odds, John and his comrades were introduced to fan-favorite AI Cortana, proving an instant asset to the team… for very unfortunate reasons. Mere minutes from departing the Reach naval base on a mission to end the war, Operation: RED FLAG was cut short due to the sudden appearance of a Covenant invasion fleet.
Over a thousand Covenant vessels poured out of the depths of space, overwhelming one of the UNSC’s greatest strongholds. As fans who’ve played Halo: Reach know well, the Covenant invasion was precise, encompassing, and unrelentingly brutal. Every blow the UNSC matched was returned a thousand fold, including against the Spartans under John’s command. Of his friends, Fred and Kelly were deployed to planetary defense, thought lost until recovered after the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. Many of their comrades were even less lucky.
The more ambiguous fate is that of Linda. After she and John’s squadmate James fell from Covenant fire, the pair linked up with Avery Johnson aboard a station containing navigational data to Earth. The trio and Johnson’s squad managed to purge the data, but with a dead station, someone had to clear them a way out. Depending on if you’re reading the comic or novel, Linda is either shot in the back of the head by a plasma pistol burst or stabbed through the stomach by a Sangheili plasma sword. Either way, Chief is left rushing to the Pillar of Autumn with Linda bleeding out in his arms, joining Keyes in a hasty retreat as Reach’s situation turns from dire to absolute horror.
This does lead to something of another canonical conflict, given that Halo: Reach implies that Noble Team delivers Master Chief and Linda already to the Pillar of Autumn while in cryo, and Cortana’s presence is allegedly delayed. Unlike with some franchises though, Halo’s stewards have seen to tweak and rectify this over time with updated reissues of the novelization and an official video adaptation of the non-conflicting parts of the comic. Plus, at the end of the day, this is the kind of inconsistency that’s understandable given the fall of Reach has been depicted in over four different mediums handled by differing teams.
What is significant though is that this is why you see a second cryo chamber in Halo: Combat Evolved and why it initially shows the occupant as flatlined. It wouldn’t be until after escaping Installation 04 that Chief and Cortana would reunite with their squadmates, but that’s a story for another time. As it stands though, for such a generic lead, I have to give credit to Bungie’s scribes for crafting such an interesting origin not only for Master Chief but the SPARTAN-II program as a whole. It’s unapologetically dark and honest about the moral ambiguity at play.
As I said, it’s been adapted several times, and they’re all valid ways to experience different perspectives on the birth of the Spartans. That it still informs how these characters are written years later is all the more impressive. It’s one thing to have a fascinating origin story, but to actually use it well in works from that point onward is truly praiseworthy. It’s not a coincidence more devoted Halo fans will outright tell you that the expanded fiction is where the real story is. No knock against the games, but by comparison, they’re more cinematic set pieces tying it all together. And if there’s one thing we’ve still got more to talk about, it’s how Halo tied two of its other biggest stories together. Stay tuned — we’re not finished with our journey with Blue Team quite yet.