Halo 5: Guardians’ story shows Master Chief at his most vulnerable

Hands-on with Halo’s new campaign mode

There’s always been a sorrowful resilience to Master Chief. Halo’s faceless supersoldier is capable of extraordinary feats of combat, but at the expense of his emotional well-being. He's been through a lot: fought a few intergalactic wars, staved off an ancient biological threat that would have wiped out every living being in the universe, and lost a few dear friends along the way. His duty as a soldier has remained his only foundation throughout.

(Caution: Halo franchise spoilers below.)

In Halo 5: Guardians, due out October 27th for Xbox One, we’re starting to see the cracks in John-117’s armor. The campaign mode, which I played for a few hours at a press event in San Francisco last week, sets up a story in which Master Chief is looking for fragmented pieces of himself just as much as he is searching for the next fight. It’s a refreshing move that builds on developer 343 Industries’ previous major entry in the franchise, 2012’s Halo 4, in which the Chief was humanized in ways the original Halo trilogy didn’t have the capacity or time to achieve.

The storytelling is part of a longer, more delicate process of weaving in the elements of the expanded Halo universe. The goal is to turn the Halo on our television screens into the vibrant, sci-fi epic it’s been for years to those willing to dive deep into the franchise’s novels and comic books. Microsoft and Bungie, Halo’s original creator, split back in 2007. And since then, in-house studio 343i has set out to prove Halo is more than a vapid shooting game.

343 industries is out to prove halo is more than a vapid shooting game

Doing that has meant putting Master Chief in a position of weakness, and Guardians only intensifies the characterization. Chief is still silently suffering from the death of Cortana, his one true (and artificial) companion, in Halo 4. His teammates worry he’s now falling into depressive breaks from reality marked by an unending hunger for battle. This puts 343i in an interesting position, having to preserve the inherent power fantasy of militaristic shooter games while crafting a narrative about flawed and struggling human beings.

After all, one of Halo’s defining traits has been its creators’ refusal to tie titles to gaming’s annual churn, like that of Call of Duty. Instead, the aim has always been creating a story and a universe that both feel alive. This time, however, the focus is on breathing life into the seemingly lifeless Master Chief.

Evolving the combat

The biggest change players will find with Guardians is the game’s dedication to four-player cooperative play. No longer are you trekking solo through alien mountainsides or weaving a lonely path through never-ending spaceship hallways. Everything about Guardians’ two set-piece-heavy story missions I played, totaling about two hours of play time on normal difficulty, were designed to take full advantage of four soldiers working together in expansive environments. The Chief, in this context, is no longer a one-man army, but a functional part of a unit. He needs others soldiers as much as they need him.

Guardians introduces the Chief’s oldest friends for the first time. The group, called Blue Team, is the original team of Spartan-IIs the Chief fought alongside prior to the series’ first entry, Halo: Combat Evolved. Once reserved to Halo’s novels and comics, Blue Team is now front and center and players can assume the role of either the Chief or one of three other famed Spartans. Players will also switch between the Chief and Fireteam Osiris, led by newly minted Spartan Jameson Locke who hunts the Chief after he’s deemed AWOL.

Master Chief is no longer a one-man army, but a functional part of a unit

Environments now seem bigger and more varied than in any Halo game to date. There are multiple pathways and innumerable aerial vantage points to create firefights that feel more realistic than the standard hallway mazes of older titles. In the first mission, while playing as the Chief, we snuck deep inside a covenant ship, set its reactor to meltdown mode, diffused some defenses with aerial Banshee combat, and escaped a giant explosion.

Notably, you do not have to play this mode with other live humans. 343i has crafted a more intelligent and responsive AI system for the campaign that lets you direct your teammates with combat and location orders. You can also ask for help when you’re downed by enemy fire. The revival system, new with Guardians, adds an interesting dynamic to team play, as enemies make it increasingly difficult to bring teammates back.

Guardians makes an effort to try and convince players they're embodying superhumans

One of the biggest complaints from hardcore Halo fans is that the franchise’s narrative canon presents one vision for how a 7-foot-tall genetically augmented supersolider fights and the game presents … well, a lamer version of that. Guardians makes a concerted effort to try and convince players they're embodying superhumans thanks to new ground pound, shoulder charge, and assassination animations that let you do more than pop out of cover and fire a gun. Stringing together a variation of these melee moves alongside some well-placed shots and a few grenade throws is exhilarating.

And Guardians wouldn't be a true Halo game without spectacle. In the second two missions I played, assuming the role of Spartan Locke, we trekked through an arid landscape while a skyscraper-sized crawling spaceship called the Kraken climbed in and out of view. Later in the map we took to the skies, grappled with turrets and enemy spacecraft, and boarded the Kraken, tasked with taking it out from the inside. The experience was a reminder of what makes the tried and true Halo formula so great: giving players a variety of different avenues to tackle a giant problem. Only this time, it’s exceedingly more complex with three other consistent team members for every mission.

More than machines

Playing Guardians, I’m reminded of the most poignant moment of Halo 4, found in a sliver of dialogue in its ending. The game concludes not with a victory celebration, but a chilling realization that something about Master Chief is profoundly broken after 30-plus years of combat.

"You don’t talk much, do ya?" asks Commander Thomas Lasky in the game’s closing cinematic, after a UNSC rescue team finds the Chief floating, alone, in the middle of space after Cortana’s death. "Chief, I won’t pretend to know how you feel and I’ve lost people I care about, but never anything like what you’re going through."

"Our duty as soldiers is to protect humanity, whatever the cost," Master Chief replies.

"You say that like soldiers and humanity are too different things," Lasky fires back. "Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people." The Chief remembers hearing the same lecture from Cortana. It’s one of the rare moments in Halo when you realize that there’s more to it than pulling the trigger and blowing stuff up.

I felt the same pang of character-driven connection when, in my campaign play-through of Guardians, the Chief has a surreal vision of where he thinks Blue Team must travel next. He comes to, kneeling on the floor and gazing at his teammates with an air of confusion. Is Master Chief still humanity’s hero, or is he slowly losing his edge, perhaps even his mind?

343i is dedicated to making us care about the Halo universe, even if we’ll only play the Guardians campaign once or twice before placing our attention on multiplayer afterwards. We haven’t yet had a chance to sit down and play through the campaign mode in its entirety. But the game, more than any other title in the franchise, appears focused on exploring Master Chief as a human being. And that’s a step in the right direction.

Halo 5: Guardians is an Xbox One exclusive coming out on October 27th.