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REVIEW: HALO 4 MASTER CHIEF
By Thomas Wheeler

It generally impresses me that any concept can come along in this day and age of massive, multi-media entertainment, and really make any sort of lasting impact. When one considers the continued popularity of characters and concepts that have been around for quite some time, be it Batman, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Star Trek, or whatever, and the degree to which any of these concepts carry over into a wide range of media forms, whether TV series, movies, comic books, video games, and of course, action figures -- that anything can enter into this field, where most newcomers and even some entries that have been around for a while find at best mediocrity, and many outright fail, and rise to a substantial level of popularity and concurrent longevity -- I think that says a lot for the concept.

Such is the world of HALO. First introduced a little over ten years ago, this concept has gone through multiple highly-popular video games, which are the core of the concept, as well as novels, comic books, Mega Bloks construction sets, and a wide range of other products, including action figures.

Recently the newest entry in the video game series, HALO 4, was introduced, and brought back the primary protagonist of many of the Halo games, Master Chief himself. Naturally, he was part of the first assortment of action figures from McFarlane Toys, and I subsequently brought him into my collection.

I'll be honest -- I've never played any Halo video game. Apart from not owning an Xbox, I'm pretty awful with video games. But that doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the concept, or the artistry and technology of the game's visuals, and certainly I enjoy the action figures. Just ask the several dozen very assorted Spartans hanging out on a table here in my home, sharing space with some Transformers Classics and a few Cobra Swamp-Vipers.

Let's have a look at the story of Halo 4, and a bit of history on Master Chief himself, and then see what his newest action figure incarnation is like.

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 will continue the story of John-117 (Master Chief) and Cortana left abandoned on the remains of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn. The two survivors drift toward the mysterious world of Requiem and the ancient evil within.

Halo 4 is the first game developed by 343 Industries, the management team in charge of the Halo franchise, and will be published by Microsoft Studio. The official tag line for the game reads: "Set in the aftermath of Halo 3, Master Chief returns to confront his own destiny and face an ancient evil that threatens the fate of the entire universe. Halo 4 marks the start of a new trilogy that begins with its release in 2012." So I guess we can look forward to a Halo 5 and 6 at some point.

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.

Narrowly escaping the collapsing command center, the Chief and Cortana returns to the planet's surface only to find their warning to the Infinity came too late. The warship crashes more than 70 kilometers away, with a massive force of Covenant and Prometheans closing on their position.

Evading capture, John is successful in regrouping with a group of SPARTAN-IVs and Marines led by Commander Thomas Lasky. Recognizing the Chief immediately, Lasky asks John and Cortana to clear a landing zone so that Infinity's ground forces can fall back to the ship which has fallen under siege. Commandeering a Scorpion tank, John leads the attack to the crippled vessel alongside Commander Sarah Palmer's Spartans. Using the UNSC's latest weapon, the Mantis exoskeleton, John rallies a force of nearby Marines and regains control of the ship's interior. After reinitializing the secondary MAC guns and missile batteries, the tide turns in the UNSC's favor. Two CCS-class cruisers and dozens of dropships are destroyed in the artillery barrage, while the Didact's Cryptum is forced to retreat.

With a momentary lull in the fighting, John is called to a strategy meeting with Andrew Del Rio, Captain of the Infinity. Skeptical of the threat of the Prometheans, Rio orders an immediate attack on a Forerunner gravity well generator preventing the ship from leaving. A strike force of Spartans led by John is deployed along with a Mammoth-class ultra heavy ground vehicle supporting the attack. Facing daunting odds, the UNSC is able to defeat a large armored strike force of Covenant and Prometheans and they disable the gravity beam. Before reaching his objective, John is confronted with a vision from the deceased Librarian, who warns him of the Didact's true plans.

In ancient times, the human race was once a great interstellar empire -- and isn't that something of a shocker. Fleeing from the Flood and destroying any world tainted with their presence, they came into contact with the Forerunner ecumene. Ignoring their warnings about the dangers posed by the parasite, the Forerunners led by the Didact defeated and imprisoned humanity upon their homeworld. Weakened by the struggle, the Forerunners were easy prey to the resurgent Flood. Despite this, the Didact planned to use the Composer, a device capable of transferring organic consciousness to software format to escape the Flood's infection. But the process was flawed, and the humans used as test subjects were corrupted, becoming fit only to function as the AIs of Promethean war-frames. This failure necessitated the firing of the Halo Array. Opposing the Didact for her own reasons, the Librarian provides John a gift: a medical treatment to counteract the Forerunner's devolution of the human genome, and a means to resist the Didact's plan to enslave the human race once again.

Regrouping aboard the Infinity, Captain Del Rio dismisses the threat of the Prometheans and prepares the ship to depart the system. Defying direct orders, John takes the increasingly unstable Cortana and departs the Infinity. Armed with a Pelican gunship provided by Commander Lasky, John launches several attacks on support pillars providing the Didact's Cryptum with shields and power, with the goal of preventing him from leaving the planet and attacking Earth and other colonies.

This attempt ultimately proves unsuccessful, as the Didact leaves Requiem aboard his vessel, escorted by a flotilla of Covenant ships. Stowing away aboard a Covenant ship, Master Chief pursues the Forerunner to Ivanoff, a UNSC research base orbiting Halo Installation 03 where the Composer is kept. Dr. Sandra Tillson, a lead researcher aboard the base, helps guide John to the artifact amidst a swarm of Covenant attackers. Despite reaching the artifact first, the Didact is successful in obtaining the Composer, tearing it out of the station's hull with a gravity beam. Testing the weapon, the Composer burns the crew of the station to ash, assimilating their knowledge to power additional war machines. The Master Chief survives, thanks to the genetic enhancements provided by the Librarian.

With the Composer in the Didact's possession, the Forerunner is poised to deal a deathblow to the UNSC, and by extension humanity. Racing back to Earth aboard a Broadsword fighter stowed on the outer hull of the Didact's ship, the Master Chief is surprised to find the Infinity and a UNSC fleet waiting for him. Flying below the Forerunner vessel's shields, John is able to destroy the ship's point defense guns, allowing Infinity to bombard its hull. Entering through a breach in the armor, John fights his way to the Didact's location.

Despite their best efforts, the Didact begins to fire on Earth with the Composer, annihilating New Phoenix, URNA. Armed with a HAVOK portable nuclear device, John confronts the Didact once again. While John is unable to hurt the Forerunner with conventional attacks, Cortana, nearing the end of her life, disables the Didact's armor and immobilizes him with hard light bindings. With the last of his strength, John uses a pulse grenade to destroy the Forerunner's armor and detonates the nuclear bomb manually.

With the last of her power, Cortana is able to teleport John away from the vessel before it was destroyed and meets with John for one last time inside a bubble of hard light. Overcome with emotion, John remarks that he was supposed to have protected her. Cortana insists that they were supposed to protect each other, and did. Using her hard light body, Cortana is able to actually touch John for the first time, which she says that she's been waiting to do for a very long time. Smiling and seeming at peace, Cortana welcomes John home, and then fades away completely, dying. The Master Chief drifts in space amidst the debris of the Didact's ship for a time before being recovered by a UNSC search-and-rescue team. Later, John speaks with Lasky about the loss of his closest friend and companion. Aboard the Infinity, John rejoins Palmer and the other Spartans, preparing for their inevitable next battle, and his MJOLNIR Mark VI armor is removed for the first time in years -- no doubt for a good cleaning.

The Didact, seemingly surviving the destruction of his ship, gives a speech in the battle's aftermath, swearing his vengeance against humanity will continue, and he will see the Forerunners return to power at any cost. Meanwhile, a UNSC team investigates the city of New Phoenix, where the Composer's energy beam was directed; although the infrastructure of vehicles and buildings are completely untouched, its former human inhabitants are gone.

While their defeat at Earth proved a set back for the Promethean/Covenant alliance, it did not result in their defeat. Months later, the Infinity returns to Requiem with a complement of Spartans, determined to reclaim the planet.

The Halo 4 game was released in November 2012 to great acclaim, and as for that live-action mini-series which is hopefully available at some point on DVD. I've been saying for years that a live-action Halo movie would be an instant blockbuster at the box office, but attempts have always come up short, usually during legal negotiations. I still think it needs to happen, but this is something, anyway.

As for the character of Master Chief, he is the most visible symbols of the Halo series. Originally designed by Bungie artists including Marcus Lehto, Rob McLees and Shi Kai Wang, the character is a towering and faceless cybernetically-enhanced supersoldier; he is never seen without his green-colored armor and helmet. Downes based his personification of the Chief on an initial character sketch which called for a Clint Eastwood-type character of few words.

In the games, the Master Chief never speaks during player-controlled gameplay, making him an almost silent protagonist. Even during cutscenes, the character generally speaks sparingly. Bungie concept artist Eddie Smith described the Master Chief as "pretty much the consummate professional. He does his job, walks off, doesn't even get the girl, he's that cool he doesn't need her." The Master Chief is usually depicted as calm, quiet, and wryly cynical.

Despite the Master Chief's excellent combat record, many in the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), the military unit to which he belongs, are shown to distrust him. Antonio Silva, a UNSC trooper, exemplifies this attitude, and considers the Master Chief the freak product of an experiment that should never be repeated. Although the Chief resents Silva's dishonor to his fallen comrades' memory, he is also loyal to the chain of command, and remains quiet.

The Master Chief has a close relationship with the artificial intelligence construct Cortana, who he meets just prior to the fall of the human colony Reach before the events of the first game. Cortana was created as a game design requirement to guide the character as the Chief throughout the game world, but she became an important aspect of revealing the Chief's humanity.

During a briefing scene in Halo: The Flood, the Chief is described as tall with short hair, serious eyes, and strong features. Master Chief stands about seven feet tall and weighs 1,000 pounds in armor; without it, he stands six feet, seven inches tall and weighs 287 pounds.

A prequel of Halo: Combat Evolved, the 2001 novel The Fall of Reach, reveals much of the character's history. Master Chief, originally named John, was born in 2511 and first lived with his family on the human colony planet Eridanus II. Large for his six years of age, and approximately a foot above his school peers, he is described as a typical boy with brown hair, freckles and a gap between his two front teeth.

In 2517, John and dozens of children his age are covertly taken from their homes and replaced with clones to hide the kidnapping. The original children are brought to the planet Reach, one of the UNSC's bastions, to begin intense physical and psychological training to become "Spartan-II" supersoldiers. They are assigned new identification numbers instead of last names; John becomes known as John-117. Approximately eight years later, John and the other children are biologically and cybernetically augmented and enhanced. These procedures have substantial risks; only John and thirty-two other Spartans survive.

After the Spartans' first successful operation, John-117 is briefed on the threat posed by the Covenant, a theocratic alliance of alien races, and witnesses the utter devastation wrought by a single ship. In 2552, the Chief and Spartans return to Reach, where the UNSC High Command has developed a last-ditch plan to capture a Covenant High Prophet, who they hope could be used in order to barter a truce. Master Chief's armor is upgraded, and he first encounters the artificial intelligence (AI) Cortana during a training mission. The Covenant arrives and invade, despite the best efforts of the Spartans and other UNSC forces. Aboard the spaceship Pillar of Autumn, Cortana plots a random course of escape. Seemingly the last Spartan alive, the Master Chief enters cryonic sleep along with the Pillar of Autumn's crew. And from there we head into the various games.

So, how's the figure? Very nicely done, really. I have several earlier versions of Master Chief from McFarlane Toys' long-running Halo collection, and this is certainly an excellent addition to the line.

This may be stretching a point, but some companies seem better suited to certain concepts more than others. I don't think McFarlane Toys would be a good match for, for example, Power Rangers. But the grim-and-gritty world of Halo seems to work well with McFarlane Toys' overall style.

Although it's been stated that Master Chief's armor has received certain upgrades after his rather lengthy cryo-sleep, it's also obvious that it hasn't quite been upgraded to the same levels of, for example, the current Spartan Warriors. Master Chief's armor seems to fall somewhere between what it looked like when we last saw the character in Halo 3, and the "modern" armor of the current Spartans in Halo 4, as exemplified in the action figure line by the Spartan Warrior figure, whom I picked up a while back (see separate review).

Master Chief has his iconic helmet. His armor is a very dark olive green in color. On the figure, at least, this is the darkest olive green I've yet seen used on the character. His helmet is notable for having an angled brim that juts out forward, almost like a cap, and a gold visor over the eyes and much of the face. This has made the character as recognizable as video game characters who have been around distinctly longer. And especially with all the high-tech military-type video games around these days, that's saying something.

Master Chief's Spartan armor is highly detailed, and quite segmented. He is wearing what appears to be a rather armored black undersuit, with the dark green armor sections secured to it in proper locations. The armor covers much of his torso, his arms, and his legs. His hands, although they have an armor plating on the back of them, are gloved, but the gloves are mostly black. Even so, they appear to be at least partially armored.

Studying this figure, this is perhaps the most intricately-detailed Master Chief/Spartan figure I've ever seen. This makes sense, as progress continues to be made in just how detailed a computer animated character in a video game can be. For Halo's tenth anniversary, McFarlane Toys produced a special figure of Master Chief as he looked in the first game. And they clearly had some fun with it, as the angles of the polygons that comprised the character in the game were brought forth onto the figure, resulting in a very angular-looking figure, right down to the gold visor.

Such is not the case with the Halo 4 Master Chief. Any angled details are part of the armor design, and not a result of the limitations of the technology of the time. Carefully sculpted lines, details, seams in the armor, protective ridges, and who knows what else encompass the entirety of this figure. You can give yourself eyestrain trying to discern it all, and it's all so precise that I do find myself wondering to what degree McFarlane Toys employed computer-aided design or sculpting on this figure. It's that neat and precise.

Really, the only glitch on the entire figure is a deliberate one, a tiny little bit of sculpted battle damage on one side of his chestplate. Personally, I could've done without this.

Accenting the armor, sort of, are some silver painted "scuffs" in the dark green sections. While I normally dislike such weathering or battle-damage, it's certainly common knowledge that the Halo games present a very rough environment, and this sort of thing is bound to happen, and you're not really going to have that much of a chance to rest, pound the dents out, and break out the touch-up polish. It's said that at the end of this game, Master Chief removes his armor for the first time in years, to rest and prepare for the next battle. Maybe for Halo 5 he'll have a fresh paint job.

And, for that matter, this figure is otherwise so dark, that the silver scuffs actually add a few bright spots to the figure that he otherwise wouldn't have had, apart from the gleaming gold visor. And at least there's not much in the way of scuffs on the helmet.

The painted detailing is as neatly done as the sculpting is precise. One thing I've noticed lacking, however, is that on figures from previous Halo games, there's been tiny little imprinted details, little triangles or angled bars of yellow and black. There have also been some tiny little recessed segments painted in bright blue, which I've always taken to be representative of small lights on the armor. Those details are absent here, and I sort of miss them, They were always very well done, and added just a little bit of accent to the figure.

However, this might not be on McFarlane Toys' shoulders. It may simply be that the character designs for the Halo 4 game eliminated these elements. So I'm not holding the toy company responsible for this one.

Articulation of the figure is superb. McFarlane Toys has reworked some construction elements from their earliest Halo figures, through Halo Reach and now to Halo 4. Most especially the leg design at the hip has been streamlined, and as a result, sincerely improved. On the whole, Master Chief is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, including a swivel, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, including a swivel, ankles, and the fronts of the feet.

Many of the articulation points work well with the armor design of the figure, so they're not too glaring. Master Chief stands 5-1/2" tall -- a good height, if not especially compatible with much of anything except itself. I would call the armor design in general "future military", and arguably more plausible than some science-fiction armor designs I've seen. In other words, the Spartans are not Clone Troopers. This is something I could see being developed, if the technology and money were there to do it. It's one of those science-fiction futuristic things that looks like it could and should work, but we're just not QUITE there -- yet, anyway. An impressive overall design as such.

Master Chief comes with a very nicely made and detailed blaster rifle. As with the armor, it's something that looks plausible, as if it's something that might actually be invented -- someday. We're not talking Star Trek phasers here. More along the lines of the sort of weaponry used by the Colonial Space Marines in the movie "Aliens".

Somewhat conspicuous by its absence is any sort of small grenade, which used to be standard equipment with these Spartan figures. These little spherical objects were small enough that I always cautioned that they would best be placed in a Ziploc bag lest they get lost in the carpet. Maybe too many of them got lost in too many carpets and McFarlane Toys decided to drop them. It's not too big a deal, though.

So, what's my final word? I'm pleased to see Master Chief back as the central character of a new round of Halo games, even if it's not terribly likely that I'll be playing those games. Certainly the concept retains its popularity, and that's impressive in and of itself. And McFarlane Toys has done a really excellent job with this newest, Halo 4 incarnation of the iconic character from the concept.

If you're any sort of Halo fan, you'll be extremely pleased with this newest version of the popular character of Master Chief.

The HALO 4 figure of MASTER CHIEF definitely has my highest recommendation!