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Halo 5: Guardians introduces huge missions, and intimate stories

We fought one of the Covenant's largest weapons, and got to know the squad.

Halo 5: Guardians asks a difficult question at its outset: is the Master Chief, Halo's longtime protagonist and iconic leading man, really a good person?

"Hunt the Truth," a fictional podcast series created as a prelude to Halo 5's release, revealed skeletons from John 117's past that call his true nature into question. Not only are there rumors about his mysterious upbringing, and involvement in a lethal incident with fellow soldiers -- he's also gone AWOL since Halo 4's ending.

This suspicion sets the stage for a unique dynamic: you can play as the aforementioned super soldier and his fellow Blue Team members, or you can play as Jameson Locke and Team Osiris, the squad assigned to chase the Chief down.

"I think Locke gives us an interesting opportunity as an outside perspective, to look at the Chief and question some of his motivations," Halo 5 lead Josh Holmes told me at a recent demo event. "When Chief decides to journey off on his own with Blue Team, it asks the [United Nations Space Command], 'Why is he doing this?' Locke is ultimately the person called upon to find those answers.

"And Locke will come to his own conclusions, even though things will change over the course of the story."

If Halo 5: Guardians is one extended chase scene, then the universe is our crowded city street. I played through two missions, and they took place in vastly different environments: a lonely Office of Naval Intelligence facility, and a desert landscape on Sanghelios, the home planet of Halo's bipedal Elites.

And these missions dwarf any others in the franchise. Halo: Reach succeeded by placing us amid raging battles, and Halo 3: ODST's open world departed from the linearity of previous campaigns--but Halo 5's scale is something more.

My trek through Sanghelios as Sergeant Locke highlighted that scope right away. I stood on a cliff with the rest of Fireteam Osiris overlooking a canyon below us. And then came one leg; then another; and then a third. Up from the gaping maw came a Kraken, one of the Covenant's largest weapons. It reminded me of the Scarabs in Halo 2 and Halo 3, hulking behemoths eight stories high, complete with plasma cannons and squads of alien pilots.

But the Kraken was bigger than three scarabs combined. And as Holmes said, it's bigger than some entire sections of Halo 4's single-player campaign.

In fact, the Kraken occupied so much of the map that I assumed it was just part of the background. But it wasn't -- a call came over the radio, and destroying the goliath became our main priority. So we jumped into nearby fighter ships, destroyed a dozen turrets on the Kraken's upper deck, descended into its bowels, and destroyed it from the inside. This encounter lasted 10 minutes.

"With four playable Spartans on each team, we really had to increase the enemy count, and the number of situations you might find yourselves in," Holmes said. "It's challenging from a design standpoint, but it became one of the driving forces of our campaign direction."

Despite the other mission's lonely corridors, there was a grand sense of scale there as well. As I traversed the ONI facility's darkened hangars as Chief and the rest of Blue Team, Jackal snipers leapt from platform to platform, Grunt hordes poured from the shadows, and Elites drained our shields with sustained plasma fire.

But amid all of this interplanetary conflict, there's an intimate thread, an emotional dichotomy between the scale of its fights and the relationships of its characters. Blue Team is worried about Chief, and the toll his job has taken on him. They check up on him, ask if he's okay, place a calming hand on his shoulder before the mission begins. He's 46 years old at the end of Halo 4, and he's been fighting for most of his life--you get the feeling the term "rest and relaxation" doesn't mean much to him.

"There's a contrast between these two groups," Holmes said. "Blue Team has known each other for years, and already have chemistry. Fireteam Osiris is newly formed, and still getting to know one another. You'll see that in cutscenes and in-game dialogue, that they're still trying to find themselves, this motley crew of different personalities."

The juxtaposition between these developing relationships and the battles they're placed in didn't feel forced, at least not in the two missions I played. Halo 4 told an endearing, emotional story between Chief and Cortana, and as 343 Studios' second original Halo title, I'm interested to see if that will carry over in Halo 5's final release, and extend the longevity of the already prolific series.