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By Thomas Wheeler

When it comes to HALO action figures, I typically stick with the armored Spartans. However, I've been known to make the occasional exception, as I recently did with this particular figure.

Cortana is certainly a well-established character in the Halo universe, and there have been figures of her before. But generally speaking, they haven't impressed me overmuch. The Cortana figure for the Halo 4 collection was several steps above her predecessors, so I decided it was time to finally add her to the collection.

Let's have a brief look at the Halo 4 video game, and then a look at the character of Cortana.

Halo 4 is the seventh installment in the best-selling Halo franchise for the Xbox 360. Set four and a half years after the events of Halo 3, Halo 4 marks the return of John-117 as a playable protagonist after three Halo games focusing on different sets of characters. Having been lost in space for five years after the finale of Halo 3, John-117 and Cortana, adrift aboard the wreckage of the aft section of the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn, find themselves near Requiem, the Forerunner shield world first seen in the Legendary ending of Halo 3.

The story of Halo 4 has been described as being heavily focused on mystery, exploration and discovery, as well as being grand in scope and scale. Forerunner elements are featured extensively. The game also shows how humanity and the UNSC have adapted to the post-war world, particularly how they have co-opted Forerunner technology into their military devices and assets. The Covenant returns in the game, in the form of a remnant faction, consisting of Sangheili and their former Unggoy and Kig-Yar subordinates still loyal to the tenets of the Covenant religion. However, the Covenant are taking a backseat to an entirely new antagonist, the Prometheans, an elite class of Forerunner Warriors and their legendary leader known as the Didact, which has been said to be a "threat beyond anything that Master Chief has faced before." The subject of Cortana's ongoing rampancy, a year beyond her ideal functional lifespan, is also thoroughly and prominently detailed in Halo 4.

Unlike Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 4 is designed to be part of a three-game arc from the beginning. In addition, 343 Industries is aiming for more complete connectivity among all of their future media than that of the original trilogy; the Forerunner Saga and Kilo-Five Trilogy novels, and the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary terminals have been stated as "definitely" having "resonant connections" to Halo 4's story. The third and final Forerunner Saga novel, Silentium, is expected to be released on March 19th, 2013. Frank O'Connor noted that Silentium will be released after Halo 4 for "specific strategic reasons" likely referring to the connectivity of the game and the novel. A live action mini-series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, provides a backstory for several characters set to appear in the game; this series consists of five episodes totaling 75 minutes. The Halo 4 Collectors Edition will include a 90 minute extended cut of the series.

Halo 4 begins on July 20th, 2557, four years and seven months after the armistice ending the Human-Covenant War. Cortana, laying silent for years, notices that the ship's intruder alarms have activated and attempts to wake John-117 from cryo-sleep. Cortana notifies him that in his sleep, she rewrote the firmware of his MJOLNIR Mark VI armor, upgrading the HUD, armor capabilities, while giving a new overall appearance. With alarms ringing and the intruders spreading to multiple decks, John slips Cortana's chip back into his neural interface and upon opening a sealed hatch, unpressurized rooms rip him from the deck and send him into the vacuum.

After climbing up an elevator shaft, suddenly, a Sangheili swordsman comes charging at the Spartan. After a brief close quarters engagement with the soldier, he kicks him down the shaft to his death. John questions the AI construct on why his once-formidable allies have attacked them, to which she has no answer. After fighting the Sangheili and their "repatriated" Unggoy subordinates, John makes his way to the aft observation deck, viewing a large Covenant fleet surrounding the Forward Unto Dawn while multiple boarding crafts dock with the heavily damaged aft section of the frigate.

John and Cortana subsequently make a crash-landing on the Forerunner world Requiem, entering the inner planetary shell via an entrance in the Dyson sphere-like superstructure. Recovering a Warthog, Master Chief and Cortana vow to make their way back to Earth in order to find a cure for Cortana's escalating Rampancy. They set out to find a way to contact the UNSC, circumventing the powerful jamming field surrounding the world.

Fighting through numerous Covenant hunting parties, Master Chief is attacked by advanced Forerunner defense drones which Cortana identifies as Prometheans. Evading or destroying pursuit, John attempts to warn the approaching UNSC Infinity of the dangerous artificially-induced gravity field that had caused the Forward Unto Dawn to crash.

After disabling two control nodes, it becomes clear to John that a great threat had once been imprisoned within Requiem. The Didact, the Forerunners' greatest warrior and the individual responsible for firing the Halo Array 100,000 years ago, remains in suspended animation within a Cryptum. Easily disabling John with his powerful abilities, he declares the return of the Forerunners as the galaxy's rulers and saviors. Humanity remains weak and unworthy in his eyes of inheriting the Mantle, a view rejected by his wife, the Librarian. Having always revered the Forerunners as gods, the Covenant quickly swear alliance to the Didact and his armies. The Didact views the Covenant as mere primitives, but permits them to serve his cause, to prevent the ascension of the human race to galactic prominence.

And so the game proceeds from there. I don't want to give too much away, and I'd rather focus more on Cortana specifically in this review.

Cortana, UNSC Artificial intelligence serial number CTN 0452-9, was a "Smart" AI construct, or "Intelligent Agent." She was one of the most important figures in the Human-Covenant war, and served as John-117's partner in various combat missions as well as serving as the A.I. for the Halcyon-class light cruiser UNSC Pillar of Autumn and the Orbital Defense Platform Cairo Station and Charon-class light frigate UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. In addition, she held vital data pertaining to the Halos, including the Activation Index from Installation 04.

Cortana was created using a flash cloned copy of Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey's brain. Twenty flash cloned brains were created, but only one survived; the survivor was used to create Cortana. The neural pathways of the cloned brain were scanned and copied through a process called Cognitive Impression Modeling. She is one of at least two A.I.s that were created from Dr. Halsey's brain, the other being her predecessor, Kalmiya, another smart A.I.

Cortana seems to share her creator's memories, thoughts, opinions, and even values. When she was asked by Dr. Halsey to pick a "carrier," Cortana chose John-117 for his neural compatibility. She is not only a facsimile of Dr. Halsey's mind, but also a replica of her physical form, albeit at a younger age.

Cortana first met John-117 prior to the Fall of Reach, when she was integrated into his new MJOLNIR Mark V armor. Together, Cortana and the Chief passed a test that was devised (Dr. Halsey would have called it "sabotaged") by Colonel James Ackerson. The test included armed ODSTs, anti-tank mines, automatic turrets in the razor field, and even a SkyHawk for an air strike. After the test Cortana was installed into the Pillar of Autumn to run the ship's shakedown and oversee the refit of the ship. Afterward it was planned that she would be replaced with the Pillar of Autumn's true AI, but she was forced to take up this duty herself ultimately. While aboard, she took her revenge on Colonel Ackerson by hacking into his system and blackmailing him, hoping that this would send him back to the front lines. She also developed a deep personal loyalty to John-117 that would only grow stronger over their adventures together.

Cortana's primary mission was to aid the SPARTANs in the infiltration of a Covenant vessel and the capturing of a Covenant Prophet. The UNSC would then try to bargain with the Covenant for a peace treaty.

When the operation was canceled due to the Covenant's surprise assault on Reach the Master Chief was able to fend off Covenant forces at Reach and escaped to the UNSC Pillar of Autumn, while Cortana stayed with Halsey at her excavation site beneath Sword Base. With the Covenant closing in on her lab, Halsey turned Cortana over to the Spartan Noble Team, specifically Noble Six. After fleeing Sword Base moments before it was destroyed, Jun-A266 would escort Halsey to CASTLE Base, while Six, Carter-A259, and Emile-A239 took Cortana to the Aszod Shipyards, where the Autumn was docked.

As soon as Pillar of Autumn escaped the surface and atmosphere of Reach, they jumped into Slipstream Space on a random vector as per the Cole Protocol. However, Cortana secretly inserted coordinates translated from symbols on a rock that Master Chief discovered on Sigma Octanus IV, thinking that they were of some significance to the Covenant.

After emerging out of Slipspace, the two discovered a ring shaped world called "Halo". Unfortunately, Covenant ships had followed them and the fighting continued. Controlling the UNSC Pillar of Autumn's defenses, Cortana managed to destroy four Covenant targets over Installation 04 before the ship's weapons were disabled by Covenant boarders. Following the Cole Protocol, Captain Jacob Keyes, the ship's commanding officer, prepared to abandon ship. Because the Cole Protocol forbade the capture or destruction of any A.I. construct, the Master Chief was charged with protecting Cortana from the Covenant.

The Chief and Cortana used the Silent Cartographer to locate and enter Halo's Control Room, where Cortana was uploaded to Halo's core systems. When the Master Chief asked her how Halo could be used against the Covenant, she hinted that the Halo wasn't what it seemed to be. She also learned that the "weapons cache" Keyes was attacking was really a Flood Containment Facility. She stayed in Halo's systems sending the Master Chief to find Keyes. After the Chief encountered the parasitic Flood for the first time, he was convinced by the Forerunner Monitor 343 Guilty Spark to activate the Halo. During this time, Cortana apparently absorbed as much data as she could about Halo from its control systems.

Cortana and the Master Chief, seemingly the sole survivors of the Pillar of Autumn's crew after the Battle of Installation 04, discovered a small number of other UNSC personnel that had escaped the ring in a Pelican dropship. Knowing that the Pelican wasn't capable of traveling long distances, the Master Chief, along with Cortana and the Pelican's four-man crew, fought their way onto the Covenant flagship Ascendant Justice. Shortly afterward, Cortana took control of the ship. She managed to improve on the ship's weapons and Slipspace capabilities, able to send it to light speed below Threshold's atmosphere. She then returned the survivors to Reach, where the group helped to rescue survivors of the Raid of Reach, including her "mother", Dr. Halsey.

Cortana revealed that she had taken a lot of data from Halo, and the sheer amount of information cut into her processing power and slowed her down. During her time on Ascendant Justice, Cortana exhibited uncharacteristic behavior including anger, distraction, and self-doubt - an indicator that she may have been about to enter rampancy. Dr. Halsey erased some data from her memory to give her more thinking space.

It was also revealed that during Cortana's time on Ascendant Justice, she had captured a Covenant A.I., decompiled the A.I. and copied two of its functions: the ability to translate Covenant speech, and the ability to create imperfect clones of herself. These capabilities, along with her exclusive knowledge about the Halos, made her extremely valuable to the UNSC.

After returning to Earth, Cortana served on the Orbital Defense Platform Cairo, where a ceremony for both SGT Johnson and CDR Miranda Keyes was soon interrupted by the arrival of a Covenant Fleet under the command of the High Prophet of Regret, starting the Battle of Earth. Cortana was given control of the Cairo's Magnetic Accelerator Cannon to repel the invaders, and with the Master Chief's help, she successfully deactivated a Covenant bomb that would have destroyed the station.

Later, after escaping on board the UNSC In Amber Clad in a Slipspace event, they discovered another ring world, Delta Halo. Cortana gave Miranda Keyes access to all information on the previous Halo Ring, and provided intelligence to the Chief, UNSC Marines, and the ODSTs on the surface of the ring.

After the Master Chief hunted down and killed the Prophet of Regret on Delta Halo, he, Cortana, and The Arbiter were captured by the Flood's central intelligence - the Gravemind. However, it did not harm them, instead choosing to use the two to stop the Prophet of Truth from firing the Halo. The Gravemind sent the Master Chief and Cortana to the Covenant Capital Ship High Charity, where Cortana infiltrated the city's computer systems and remained there while the Master Chief followed the Prophet of Truth. She promised to detonate the crashed In Amber Clad's reactors to destroy the city and Halo if the ring was activated. However, she was left behind as a fail safe because she did not want to chance a remote detonation. As Truth boarded the Forerunner Dreadnought in the heart of the city to reach the Ark, Cortana fought with the ancient Forerunner A.I. 05-032 Mendicant Bias to prevent the ship from launching without the Chief on board. The firing of Halo was averted by Miranda Keyes, the Arbiter Thel 'Vadamee, and Johnson, while the Chief successfully boarded the Dreadnought and escaped High Charity, leaving Cortana in the clutches of the true enemy, Gravemind, who had by then, overrun High Charity.

Under the control of the Gravemind and constantly being tortured, Cortana managed to send a message to the Master Chief on Earth, stashing it on an Earth-bound Flood-infected ship that crash-landed in Voi. She succeeded in doing this by creating a message and using the Gravemind's link to that ship to transmit it.

Cortana continued to appear to the Master Chief, who successfully recovered her from the Flood Hive that was High Charity after it crashed on the Ark. While the Chief reassured her, Cortana knew that she had taken irreparable damage in some places. Along the way, the Master Chief had several visions of her seemingly in pain. Surprised that the Chief had against all odds rescued her as he promised after the First Battle of High Charity, Cortana managed to gather herself and produce the Index from Installation 04, which she had kept. With it, Cortana was able to activate the newly constructed Installation 04B, which fired prematurely, causing it to destroy itself and heavily damage the Ark in the process.

The Slipspace portal collapsed as the Master Chief, Thel 'Vadam, and Cortana attempted to escape through it, cutting the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn in half. While 'Vadam, who was on the bridge, managed to return to Earth safely, the Chief and Cortana, who were in the hangar, were left drifting in space. Cortana activated a distress beacon, but knew that it could be years before they were found. As the Master Chief prepared to go into cryogenic sleep to await rescue, Cortana confessed to him that she would miss him.

Four years, seven months, and ten days after UNSC Forward Unto Dawn was split into two. Cortana woke the Master Chief from cryogenic sleep, and we commence the events of Halo 4.

Cortana had a witty and playful personality and a small sense of cryptic humor laced with some sarcasm. She had neither arrogance nor false modesty about her immense capabilities, and her statements about her abilities have an objective perspective that human beings typically cannot achieve. She did get bored often and easily. In fact, it is said that seven seconds of inactivity for an A.I. is excruciating. She has genuine, not merely programmed, loyalty to humanity and the UNSC, but exhibits devotion to John-117 beyond that which her programming or mission requires. She seemed to be most loyal to him and is willing to help him with any task he requested of her. After she found out exactly what happened to the Master Chief as a child, she decided to protect him from further harm to the best of her abilities without compromising her mission.

Cortana also believes that she is the best qualified to watch out for John-117 and knows that he could get another AI to replace her, but believes that no one will ever look after him like she will. In Halo 4, when asked why she is helping humanity, she tells him "I'm not doing this for mankind," indicating that all she is doing and has done is for the Chief.

As Cortana is an A.I., she has no physical body. She can communicate through comm systems and project a holographic image of herself from appropriate projectors, such as Holotanks. Her chosen avatar appears to be a nude female human, roughly in her early twenties, with purplish/bluish skin, shoulder length purplish/bluish hair cut shorter at the back, and blue symbols scrolling down her body. In Halo: Fall of Reach, Cortana is said to resemble her creator, Dr. Catherine Halsey as a young woman, with a similar attitude "only unchecked by military and social protocol."

Cortana was designed to infiltrate computer systems and she is excellent at the task. She has become so intelligent that she understands Covenant technology far more than her makers and in some cases, the Covenant themselves. Cortana can be transferred among various computer systems. In Halo: Combat Evolved, she needed a Data Crystal Chip to move in and out of various networks, including John-117's MJOLNIR armor. In Halo 2, she merely needs to be touching another system to access it; however, this is most likely a product of John-117's upgraded armor. Quite strangely, in Halo 3, she reverted to the data chip; this was probably because John-117's armor was badly damaged during the fall to Earth that it reverted to a back up system, which also explains its different shield.

She is also very good at planning missions for the Chief, including the destruction of Halo. In Halo: The Flood, the Chief comments that he's not sure who's better at blowing things up: him or her.

Another ability that she developed is a limited teleportation ability on Installation 04. She learned how to teleport on Halo while in its control systems, but as she couldn't access Halo's power grid, she couldn't perform this task very often. She did teleport once with the Master Chief by drawing power from his fusion pack saying that she was sure it wouldn't cause permanent damage to his power pack or shields, but both agreed that this should only be done once.

Another of her abilities is the ability to clone herself. She got this from a Covenant A.I. she destroyed and dissected.

One of Cortana's other abilities is that she has the ability to control a variety of starships and stations and act as their AI even though that isn't her primary purpose. Cortana has acted as the AI of the Pillar of Autumn, Cairo Station, the Forward Unto Dawn, the Gettysburg and even the Covenant flagship Ascendant Justice. Despite it not being her purpose to act as a shipboard AI, Cortana is extremely good at it, with Captain Keyes being so pleased with her performance during the Fall of Reach, he ends up being glad he never got to initialize the Pillar of Autumn's true AI.

So, how's the figure? Very nicely done. That description of her as a "nude female human" is accurate as far as it goes, but in case you're wondering what they're selling in the action figure section of the toy departments these days, about the only place where Cortana would be considered centerfold material would be in the TRON universe. Given her coloration and the painted details on the figure, she looks about as "nude" as a tights-wearing female super-hero.

Cortana stands just under 5 inches in height, and is at least partially made from translucent blue plastic. This is especially evident on her lower arms and legs. Her face is superbly sculpted, as is her hair. One bit of trivia I turned up is that Cortana's face in Halo 4 was modeled after international model Paisha Coffey. How accurate the figure is to this I couldn't say offhand, but it's not an unattractive-looking face, and the hair, sculpted as a separate piece, has a level of detail that I'm generally used to seeing mostly from the Four Horsemen's work for Mattel and not much of anywhere else. Facial details such as eyes, eyebrows, and such, have been painted with astounding precision.

Most of the figure is a light metallic blue, with darker blue imprintings on the body. The imprintings are interesting. They're designed to look technological, and in this, they succeed, but to some degree, they almost look anatomical. Of one looks at the figure's back, there's an imprinted design that resembles a spinal column.

Of particular note are Cortana's hands. They're very delicate, transparent sculpts, but each finger is separate from the others, and the detail level even includes sculpted fingernails. Most impressive.

Similarly, her feet appear to be bare, and even include toes and toenails, although the toes are not separate from one another like her fingers.

Articulation? Okay -- here's where we come up a little short. Cortana is somewhat pre-posed, jutting her left hip out slightly, her head very slightly angled, and she really doesn't move much. She is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivels, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, and legs -- and the leg articulation, given the angle, really doesn't amount to much.

Strictly speaking from an action figure standpoint, this is a little disappointing. On the other hand, Cortana is an AI construct. While I have not played the Halo games (being generally awful at video games and not owning an Xbox), I would surmise that doing a lot of running around in holographic form isn't really part of her job description. The fact that the figure's arms are vastly more poseable than her legs might be reflective of the character's activity level in the games. I also suspect that McFarlane Toys didn't want to break up the figure any more than necessary.

Cortana does come with a fancy, high-tech display base -- which is a good thing since given how close together her feet are, she's not very adept at standing up on her own. I would imagine that this base is representative of the device that allows her to manifest her holographic human form. It's nicely detailed, mostly a metallic turquoise in color, with a transparent base on which Cortana can stand. The center looks like it should turn, but it doesn't.

So, what's my final word? I'm glad I got this figure. Although I do very much enjoy the various armored Spartans, and they are certainly virtually the entirety of my Halo figure collection, Cortana is nevertheless a major player in the concept, and this is easily the most impressive version of her I've ever seen. A bit more articulation would have been nice, but given the type of character the figure represents, I can mostly understand that limitation. And certainly it's an excellent looking figure, nicely sculpted and superbly detailed. If you're a fan of Halo, then you really should bring Cortana into your collection.

The HALO 4 figure of CORTANA definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!