Master Chief very well might be one of gaming’s most iconic protagonists given Halo’s popularity. He’s certainly one of my favorites—the silent hero who struggles to repress his personal desires in the face of duty is quite an engaging arc. There’s more nuance to Master Chief than many let on.
There’s plenty of nuance in his design, too. It’s undeniable that we love Master Chief in part because we love Master Chief’s armor. Given the series’ great art direction, it’s compelling to look at how his aesthetic evolved between games.
So, let’s rank all of John-117’s armor designs across the Halo franchise. We’ll be thinking about the general aesthetics, how distinct each design is, and how it iterated upon what came before.
The weakest design might be a bit of a surprise.
Master Chief’s Best Design – Halo Infinite
Master Chief’s newest armor set is easily the best. It’s a direct refinement of his iconic albeit clunky look from Combat Evolved. The vibrant green hue is retained which evokes that first game without looking too flashy or out of place. It’s a sleek modernization, but one that doesn’t stop at simply referencing the first title. This design is a synthesis of all of Master Chief’s previous iterations.
The body armor pieces are detailed similarly to those in Halo 4 and 5: Guardians, and the helmet fuses together the structure and flourishes of Halo 2 and 3. At the same time, there are great new touches, like the bold 117 across Chief’s chest.
Like Halo Infinite itself, this aesthetic represents a clear fusion of Halo’s twenty-year history.
Prior to Halo Infinite, Halo 2 absolutely featured the best Master Chief design. This is especially true when you take Halo 2 Anniversary’s updates into account. That game is just beautiful, as is this Spartan armor. It’s certainly the revision that set the tenor for each design to come. Like Infinite, Halo 2’s design owes itself to Combat Evolved. But by merit of being CE’s sequel instead of a spiritual series reboot, this is more of an iteration than an homage.
Chief is leaner and his armor is better shaped to his body. It’s all a bit less exaggerated and thus looks more functional. But the biggest addition to this aesthetic is the redesigned helmet. Oh, Master Chief’s Halo 2 helmet.
If I had to pinpoint one part of Master Chief’s look that cements his status, it would be this Spartan headpiece. It’s so good that it largely remained untouched even by 343 Industries who upended much of Chief’s aesthetic in Halo 4. The bulky, flat visor from Combat Evolved is gone, replaced with something much more stylish.
It’s up there with the Stormtrooper helmet as one of the most iconic in all of science fiction.
The Halo 3 Master Chief design isn’t bad—it’s just underwhelming. Chief’s visual jump from Halo 2 to 3 is rather small. Bungie opted to simply refine what made the past game’s aesthetic so excellent. The helmet reached peak design simplicity here, although it’s largely unchanged from 2. Chief’s chest and leg pieces are retooled somewhat also, but these are minute iterations.
Why, then, is Halo 3’s Master Chief below Halo 2’s if it’s just the same thing but slightly better? Well, it’s much darker. Yes, Halo 3 began Master Chief’s journey toward overly gray armor. Charitably, it’s olive-colored—but Bungie dropped the saturation way down here. It fits nicely with the Halo 3’s overall more realistic aesthetic, but that’s not necessarily for the best.
Following up Bungie’s genre-defining back-to-back-to-back-to-back shooter masterpieces is hard. Most think that 343 Industries failed. I enjoy all of their games though, especially when they provide a different flavor of Halo action. Controversial as this is, I like 5: Guardians’ Spartan Abilities, for example. But, many couldn’t connect to the new direction.
However, 343 clearly telegraphed an overall series shift with Master Chief’s design. It’s the character’s most radical overhaul. And, you know what—I like it. This armor takes the darker look of Halo 3 Chief and combines it with a level of detail that suits the aesthetic. It’s modern, military, and mechanical; the “M” hat trick of Halo design.
Like Infinite’s armor, it signals something about Halo 4’s design philosophy. This was a fresh start for the franchise.
Halo 5: Guardians
Yeah, this armor has big Halo 3 energy. Like that game’s design, Halo 5’s armor just makes minor alterations to its direct predecessor. Maybe the visor’s tint is a bit different, perhaps the armor is a bit greener under certain lights, and sure little latches are changed, but that’s it.
This one is really just held back by being overly iterative, and thus not as remarkable. And, neither 343 design is as elegant as what Bungie conceptualized. At a minimum, I really appreciate the risks taken with the Halo 4 redesign.
Bonus: Multimedia and Crossover Appearances
I had to throw in at least a few mentions of the other Master Chief designs. There are quite a few compelling ones, like the Master Chief Fortnite tie-in. I’m not much of a Fortnite fan, but that’s a wonderfully executed armor set, nicely adapting the Infinite aesthetic into Epic’s house style.
The Halo TV show on Paramount+ does a nice job with its Chief too. For all its shortcomings, the series does smartly blend the iconography of Halo 2’s armor with the realistic detailing of Halo 4 and 5.
And, I have to mention Master Chief’s official Minecraft skin, because why not?
Master Chief’s Weakest Design – Halo: Combat Evolved
This is going to be a hot take. However, I’m just not big on the execution of Master Chief’s CE armor. It feels misshapen and oddly proportioned… almost like this is Bungie’s first crack at the design, or something. Obviously, without the Combat Evolved look, we wouldn’t have the better designs that followed.
However, both Halo 2 and Halo Infinite retain the spirit of this armor while offering something a bit less cumbersome. While Combat Evolved is probably my second favorite in the series, I’m never pleased with Chief’s look when I replay. I love what it became, but not necessarily where it began.
Wrap Up: Master Chief’s Importance
It’s undeniable that Master Chief sits at the heart of Halo. He has, and likely will continue to be, the center of attention, and for good reason. No matter which iteration of the character is in question, he’s immediately recognizable.
And, his storyline motivates the overarching franchise narrative. Given the ending of Halo Infinite, there’s no doubt that Chief will soon return with a new foe to defeat, a familiar AI at his side, and perhaps a new armor design to boot.
However, this universe is large enough for more protagonists. We can’t discuss iconic Spartan armor without mentioning the designs of Noble 6—the heroes of Halo: Reach. Nor can we discuss impactful story moments without that title and Halo 3: ODST.
There is space for a new Spartan that can carry the face and story of the franchise. While Locke and Palmer couldn’t nail their introductions, I was pleased to see 343 experiment with new, important Spartans. I love Master Chief. But, I hope that one day we can write this same list about someone new.