On October 27, one of the most iconic names in first-person shooterdom makes its return when Halo 5: Guardians releases worldwide, exclusively for Xbox One. But are you a series newcomer who’s completely clueless about the difference between a Forerunner and the Flood? Worry not; the Master Chief was, too, at one point!
So, why has Halo hooked fans so thoroughly over the past decade-and-a-half? A big factor is the chemistry between stoic, no-nonsense leading man the Master Chief and Cortana, his A.I. companion who’s equal parts sassy and resourceful.
The overarching story is also intriguing in its own right, however, and we’ve put together a primer that spans Halo: Combat Evolved through Halo 4, to let you know exactly where the Master Chief stands going into Halo 5: Guardians. Now, this contains a copious amount of spoilers throughout, so you really have two choices: You can either pick up Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Xbox One – which includes Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3, and Halo 4 – or you can read through the following and get up to speed on everything before Halo 5: Guardians. Or, heck, you can do both!
Halo: The Beginning
The year: 2552. The location: space. Humanity faces the otherworldly threat known as the Covenant, an alliance of alien races that has slaughtered billions of humans over the course of nearly 30 years of the Human-Covenant War. The United Nations Space Command (UNSC) is the last line of defense, and through the SPARTAN-II program, humankind has a fighting chance against the Covenant, thanks to a collection of genetically enhanced super-soldiers that seem more machine than man at times.
As Halo: Combat Evolved begins, the cruiser Pillar of Autumn has just fled a Covenant attack on the human colony planet of Reach. When the ship makes a slipspace jump as part of its escape maneuver, it stumbles upon a ringworld – the titular Halo. Thankfully, the ship just happens to have the legendary Spartan known as the Master Chief (otherwise known as John-117) on board. Under orders from Pillar of Autumn Captain Jacob Keyes, the Master Chief evacuates to the Halo, his A.I. partner Cortana in tow (or, more properly, stuffed into a data chip and inserted into his armor). Cortana explains that the Halo is a creation of the Forerunners, an ancient race of beings that were incredibly advanced in technology over a hundred thousand years earlier.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Covenant have unleashed a devastating menace in the course of their current combat – the Flood, a collection of relentless, parasitic organisms that has only one goal: Feed on any sentient life and infect them. The Master Chief encounters 343 Guilty Spark, the A.I. monitor of this Halo installation who tells the Master Chief that he must activate the Halo to annihilate the Flood.
Cortana points out that this will destroy humanity (and every other form of life in the galaxy) as well, so the Master Chief sets out to destroy Halo before it unleashes its fury – using the Pillar of Autumn to self-destruct seems like the best course of action. The Master Chief tracks down Captain Keyes to obtain authorization, but he’s already been infected by the Flood. In death, however, Keyes provides the path to victory for all humankind.
Halo 2: Combat Evolves Again
As Halo 2 begins, the Master Chief is commended for a job well done, alongside Sgt. Avery Johnson. But that glory is short-lived, as the Covenant soon unleashes an attack on Earth, eventually penetrating the planet’s defenses and landing in New Mombasa, Kenya. The Master Chief repels this attack and pursues the Covenant’s High Prophet of Regret alongside Sgt. Johnson and Commander Miranda Keyes, daughter of Jacob Keyes, eventually arriving at yet another ringworld: Delta Halo.
Halo 2 also gives players the chance to see the inner workings of the Covenant for the first time. Thel ‘Vadam, the Covenant Elite who failed to protect the Halo ring the first game, is branded a traitor and heretic, but given a chance at redemption as the Arbiter. Of course, this also means a death sentence, considering the unconscionably dangerous nature of his missions, but he’ll ultimately be revered among the Covenant as a martyr.
Battling across Delta Halo, the Master Chief disposes of the High Prophet of Regret, while the Arbiter finds himself betrayed by Tartarus, leader of the Covenant Brutes. The Master Chief and the Arbiter ultimately meet in the tentacles of the Gravemind – the seemingly omniscient Flood intelligence – who explains that the Covenant’s so-called “Great Journey” that would come with the activation of all Halo installations is nothing more than suicide. To that end, the Gravemind demands that they stop the Covenant from firing Delta Halo.
The Master Chief is transported to the Covenant capital of High Charity and pursues the High Prophet of Truth, while the Arbiter winds up on Delta Halo, where he must confront the Covenant Brutes who have betrayed him and his kind. From there, everything goes haywire: The Flood crashes the UNSC ship In Amber Clad into High Charity, while the Arbiter confronts Tartarus on Delta Halo. Meanwhile, Miranda Keyes manages to initiate a fail-safe on this Halo – meaning that every Halo location across the galaxy can now only be activated from a mysterious location known as the Ark.
After dealing with all that, there’s only one thing on the Master Chief’s mind: He’s going to finish this fight.
Halo 3: Finishing the Fight
When we first see the Master Chief in Halo 3, however, he’s made landfall back in East Africa, after a terrific fall from outer space. When he comes to, he’s surrounded by Sgt. Johnson and the Arbiter, who alongside Miranda Keyes and the rest of the UNSC, are plotting to take down the High Prophet of Truth. Before they have time to execute an effective attack, however, the Prophet of Truth opens up a portal to the Ark; the Master Chief and his crew have no choice but to follow.
Everything comes to a head at the Ark, complete with an unprecedented amount of backstabbing and double-crosses. The Prophet of Truth kidnaps Johnson, since only a human can actually activate the Halo installations. Keyes dies attempting to sacrifice herself and Johnson and prevent a galaxy-wide catastrophe, but the Prophet of Truth forces Johnson to initiate the activation of all the Halo installations across the galaxy.
Meanwhile, the Flood makes an appearance, but now as an apparent ally of the Master Chief and the Arbiter. The Gravemind tells the duo that only they can stop the Prophet of Truth together; the Master Chief deactivates the Halo installations, while the Arbiter unleashes his own brand of stabby justice on the Prophet.
With that, sanity finally seems to reign, but the Gravemind unveils a double-cross of his own, hoping to spread the flood across the galaxy and eventually forcing the Master Chief to activate a replacement ring of the Halo destroyed in the first game, in order to finally defeat the Flood. Turns out, 343 Guilty Spark doesn’t like this idea, however… and he goes crazy and kills Sgt. Johnson. The Master Chief blasts away Guilty Spark and activates the Halo, but as he and the Arbiter make their escape in the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn, only the front half makes it through the portal – the half with the Arbiter. The Master Chief and Cortana are trapped in deep space, and will presumably be floating there for quite a while without any way to call home.
After his heroic deed out in space, the Master Chief is ready for well-deserved cryo-sleep, however, and he leaves Cortana with a message: “Wake me when you need me.”
While we waited for the Master Chief’s return, however, we got two side stories that illustrated just how much humanity needs John-117. Halo 3: ODST focused on the New Mombasa battle in Halo 2, while Halo: Reach was a prequel that showed the Covenant’s attack on Reach just before Halo: Combat Evolved.
Halo 4: A New Architect
The Master Chief ultimately awakens with a new developer, 343 Industries, at the helm. He’s also got a new mission: save Cortana, who’s starting to deteriorate after eight years of service (all smart A.I. constructs usually only last seven).
To do this, the Master Chief needs to track down Dr. Catherine Halsey – creator of the SPARTAN-II program and Cortana – on Earth. Of course, this being Halo, nothing’s quite as simple as that.
Indeed, we pick up with them stranded in deep space, where they stumble upon the UNSC Infinity – a ship that’s detected their distress signal years after Halo 3. Here we’re introduced to a new artificial world called Requiem, and new foe known as the Didact, an ancient Forerunner warrior who views humans unworthy of the so-called “Mantle of Responsibility” (the ability to shepherd and protect life throughout the galaxy). In fact, the Didact wants to enslave humanity with a machine known as the Composer, which turns flesh-and-blood beings into A.I. constructs.
Thankfully, the Master Chief happens to come across an ally with powers comparable to the Didact – the Librarian, who happens to be the Didact’s wife. She explains the history of the human-Forerunner relationship, and gives the Master Chief some genetic enhancements that prevent the Composer from having any effect on him. Good thing, too, because the Didact unleashes it later in the game.
Back on the Infinity, the Master Chief is ordered to hand over Cortana, who’s growing increasingly haywire. He essentially says that if they want her, they’ll have to take her by force – and he instead takes Cortana with him to confront the Didact. Ultimately, in a bittersweet ending, Cortana sacrifices herself in order to rescue the Master Chief, bringing to end one of gaming’s greatest partnerships… maybe.
Halo 5: The New Guardians of the Galaxy
So, with Halo 5: Guardians just days away from release, much of the story remains an enigma. Is the Master Chief truly missing? Has he been killed in action? Is he a traitor? Is Cortana truly gone forever? All (or at least some) of that will be answered when Halo 5: Guardians hits Xbox One on October 27. As you can see, Halo’s story often goes in some pretty unexpected directions… and we can’t wait to see what’s next.