The design and painting style here were heavily inspired by Isaac Hannaford's artwork (which I think fits very well with the tone and style of this book, more so than a lot of Halo fiction these days). While this illustration is not 1:1 with the text on any particular scene, it was inspired by the EVA raid above Etalan, and the dude in the foreground is supposed to be Johnson with his M99 Stanchion rifle. The use of the Black Daggers in the book's supporting cast was a very nice way of featuring the ODSTs and I always like seeing Spartans interacting with traditional special forces in a way that doesn't explicitly favor one side (as that's also something I've also been trying to incorporate into my own fanon).
I personally prefer using the unaugmented special forces since they don't have fancy implants or bioengineering on their side - simply the power of raw testosterone, motivation, and firepower to keep them going. I find the idea of normal Humans doing incredible things one of the core concepts of Halo. People don't need to be superhuman to do superhuman things.
I've been trying to mend that gap that I admit I have contributed to with a strong push back against 343i's writing decisions and artistic approaches. It's a slow roll so far as often times dissenting or differing opinions are often seen as hostility for the sake of "hating that one thing," but I'm feeling optimistic. The more quality fan work that gets out there, the more I see people starting to slowly come together.
I hear you, and I've long held similar sentiments in regards to 343i's portrayal of Spartans. It seems as though they can no longer be parts of a larger cast but every character has to be a Spartan as if that's the only thing that can keep them narratively relevant (which is best exemplified by what was done to Buck and his squad). It's not just that Spartan-IVs are favored, Spartan-IVs are pretty much the only significant presence in a story, and other forces are presented as inconsequential or worse (as in Spartan Ops).
The very idea of the Spartans being their own military branch (which I'll never cease taking issue with) breeds this kind of exceptionalism that distances them from scenarios where they could be interacting with ODSTs and other traditional forces in ways where both can meaningfully contribute to the outcome of an op. It's ironic that the Spartan-IVs, who are supposed to be most rooted in military tradition due to their backgrounds, and would likely have least issue working with other forces, actually seem the most disconnected from the rest of the UNSC in terms of their organization and culture (instead coming off more like the Avengers or X-Men).
As for the fan side of things, I've also noticed these weird partisan lines where you have people narrowly fixating on one faction or set of characters. Having favorites is of course fine, even I have mine, but the kind of fandom wars and debates that happen between these groups (e.g. Spartans vs. ODSTs, Spartans vs. Elites, etc.) are something I've never really gotten, or engaged in for that matter.
I agree about criticism being seen as senseless hate but yeah, it does seem like there might be a gradual change happening. I do hope 343i are able to incorporate that change on all levels of their process and not just the superficial trappings, however. As for myself, I've mostly focused on making art of the things I like and ignoring those I don't care for. I've engaged in a fair bit of criticism as well but I've kept that mostly separate from my artist persona.