Halo 4's Episodic Experiment Reaches the Mid-Season Mark

Chris Watters looks back at the first five episodes of Spartan Ops and highlights what went right, and what went wrong.

When Halo 4 launched on November 6, it debuted a new cooperative gameplay mode called Spartan Ops. Delivered in weekly deployments, each episode includes a short CGI film and five playable scenarios called chapters. Set six months after the main campaign, these episodes chronicle the exploration of the Forerunner planet Requiem by the officers, scientists, and Spartans stationed aboard the UNSC starship Infinity.

As of now, five episodes are available--the first half of the planned 10-episode season. It has been a bumpy start for Spartan Ops, as it has sometimes struggled with dull pacing and predictable design, but recent developments in the story and departures from the normal mission structure have given the novel series some intriguing momentum.

To understand why things are looking up for Spartan Ops, we need to look at how it started out. As I wrote in my review of Halo 4, the opening cutscene was a nice introduction to Infinity's new mission. We meet a squad of Spartan IVs and glean important details about each one from their idle conversations and their introduction to the boss Spartan, Commander Sarah Palmer. The cutscene teaches us what the Infinity is up to, gives us a glimpse of humanity's best soldiers gearing up for combat, and drives home the fact that this is a whole different battlefield in one memorable flourish. When the Infinity casually smashes through a Covenant capital ship as if it were merely a passing tumbleweed, you know this isn't Master Chief's struggle against the alien threat. The stage is nicely set for a new conflict, one in which humanity has some weight to throw around.

Unfortunately, once you start playing the actual chapters, this heady feeling of power dissipates. It's not that you aren't a powerful Spartan; you can have a lot of fun threshing your way through your enemies or struggling against tenacious foes, depending on your skill level and the difficulty setting. It's just that the missions themselves are routine. Clear out the Covenant, and smash things at these few checkpoints. Scientists are trapped in this building; shoot all the bad guys nearby. Press a few buttons, kill a lot of enemies, and make it to the extraction point.

From a plot perspective, these scenarios establish the Spartans as part of a workaday military operation, doing what needs to be done so the investigation and exploitation of Requiem can proceed apace. Sensible? Yes. Exciting? Not really. The waves of Covenant and Promethean enemies feel predictable, a bit too much like what you've encountered before in the campaign, and because these stand-alone outings can be completed in around 10 minutes, the experience feels disjointed.

In the campaign, you had a clear narrative impetus to press onward, as well as the thrill of new environments awaiting you. In the second episode, the narrative remains disconnected from the action. A new artifact stirs things up on Infinity, resulting in a comedic moment from Palmer and the dramatic departure of Infinity's chief engineer, Dr. Glassman. It raises an interesting question (what actually just happened to him?), but the chapters don't shed any light on these events, returning instead to a forgettable series of rote rescue missions.

Only the second week and they're already recycling environments? This is a gut punch to the novel idea of new weekly content…

The second episode also dashes any eagerness you may have had to see new areas: four of the five environments here were also used in the first episode, albeit with different enemy deployments and different follow-the-checkpoint routes. Only the second week and they're already recycling environments? This is a gut punch to the novel idea of new weekly content, and it might cause you to reflect on the fact that Spartan Ops required only a 1.5 gigabyte install from the second Halo 4 disc. Is that all just videos? Will I ever see another new place in Spartan Ops?

Well, if you've played some War Games, the answer is no, there are no new environments awaiting you. Spartan Ops uses six original maps (a few of which are repurposed from the campaign) as well as two maps from the competitive multiplayer mode (Complex and Ragnarok). These last two first appear in episode three, and it's initially odd to be fighting AI aliens where you are used to blasting fellow Spartans. Fortunately, this feeling soon falls away, thanks to some bolder scenario design. Clearing out a dusty bowl area bristling with Covenant and bringing down Banshees and Phantoms with your very own Mantis mech are some of the most invigorating combat endeavors Spartan Ops has yet offered. With more vehicles and an increased enemy presence, the pressure is intensified and the experience is noticeably better.

Episode three is also where the story of Spartan Ops takes a turn for the awesome with the arrival of Dr. Catherine Halsey, the infamous director of the Spartan program. Weathering epithets that include "war criminal" and "old lady," Halsey wastes little time deploying her steely intelligence and sharp intuition to make her presence felt, despite the fact that she is in custody. She is one of the most fascinating characters in Halo lore, but she doesn't just improve the story by adding her personality. The way the Infinity crew members treat her tells you a lot about their individual personalities as well. Dr. Halsey's influence elevates the tension and intrigue aboard the Infinity, making episode three the point where Spartan Ops starts to show some real narrative vigor.

Meanwhile, down on the surface, we discover that the vanished Infinity engineer is now in the custody of an Elite named Jul 'Mdama. His crew of vicious-looking Sangheili worship the Didact and believe that they can harness the powers of the Forerunners by accessing the Librarian (hence the engineer's usefulness). This plotline manifests itself in the chapters as missions to hunt 'Mdama and his second-in-command, Parg Vol. It feels a bit manufactured (how did we come to know all this stuff about this Covenant terrorist?), but the chapters here once again benefit from some divergence from the norm. You start one scenario by teleporting into the middle of a Covenant squad, and the final chapter is a juiced-up brawl between you and tons of Covenant forces fueled by abundant UNSC ordnance and a handful of Ghosts.

Dr. Halsey's influence elevates the tension and intrigue aboard the Infinity, making episode three the point where Spartan Ops starts to show some real vigor.

Episode five marks the point where Spartan Ops really seems to have hit its stride. Revelations about an artifact retrieved from the planet, the exposure of Halsey's secretive communications, and the drastic actions taken by one Spartan leave you speculating wildly and eagerly anticipating the next episode. Perhaps more significantly, the chapters themselves almost all represent a serious shift in mission design.

Rather than simply following checkpoints and plowing through hordes of enemies, you must now defend key structures that can be destroyed, and scientists that can be killed. You can fail the mission and be forced to start again from the beginning. In a mode that lets you die as much as you want with little to no penalty, this is a big change. Sure, you can still die, but your temporary absence gives the enemy more time to hammer your precious cargo. It forces you to approach combat differently; now you must control a certain space in addition to strategically dismantling the enemy forces. The result is a more tense and more exciting struggle.

It's a welcome shift and one that is hopefully indicative of new objectives to come in the second half of the season. By introducing meaningful variety in the mission types, Spartan Ops carves out a more appealing niche for itself and no longer feels like so many fragments from the campaign cutting-room floor. With the dynamic Dr. Halsey in the story mix, the stakes are raised and many other characters come to life. The trailer for the second half of the season shows a few glimpses of things to come, teasing the possibility of a flight-based mission and a Covenant invasion of Infinity. These tidbits are nice, but you need only look at how far Spartan Ops has come in a few short weeks to get excited about its future.

Written By

With his Apple IIGS as the spark and his neighbor's NES the fuel, Chris Watters' passion for gaming caught fire early. Y

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Discussion

3 comments
Kabbalistica
Kabbalistica

I finished the campaign a few times and stopped playing it. Good game, but I didn't bother with the episodes. Looking forward to Halo 5 on the 720. :)

tgwolf
tgwolf

Okay, seriously guys, Halo does NOT have a story, MUCH less one worthy of syndication or the big screen...

daBrokenFace
daBrokenFace

I sometimes play spartan ops, but only to level up faster.  If it were to give any less xp, I wouldn't even touch this recycled trash. 

WvProud
WvProud

I almost quit playing after episode 2.  The whole thing was boring like Watters said- push a button kill people, push a button and get extracted.  Then things got a lot better. Looking forward to the next 5.  

McNeelyJ39
McNeelyJ39

my issue with spartan ops is that you can't get a group together on xbox live from previous chapters.  But you can do matchmaking for the most recent chapter...wtf?

 

Otherwise it has been interesting but not as great as it has been touted to be.

jekyll
jekyll

The Sparan Ops thing adds nothing for me; it's boring and repetitive. All that was really different in each episode was they increased the number of times you thought you were done and then they said "drop ship, clear them out so we can come get you!" And having it set up so an 80GS achievement was impossible to get until four weeks after purchase is just lame.

Mifflinite45
Mifflinite45

Is it just me or does there tend to be a lot more lag in Spartan Ops than in War Games?

BlueTurtz
BlueTurtz

I would MUCH rather have a revamped firefight like from ODST i loved firefight in ODST it was fresh and new and spartan ops felt that way in the first couple missions but then you realize its exactly like campaign where in Firefight you HAVE to stay alive and you only get 7 lives. 

BlueTurtz
BlueTurtz

I hate how the maps are all recycled from campaign and multiplayer, you go back to the same areas. The first episode was great because it was mostly fresh, apart from playing those areas briefly in campaign, but now it feels all the same old same old. I won't be buying spartan ops stuff once season 1 is over

buttslamify
buttslamify

As a replacement for firefight I actually like it a lot, the videos and story are a great addition.  I do think it could be better but I trust 343, 1-5 were a good start though.

ThereWillBeNPCs
ThereWillBeNPCs

I can guarantee anyone that there will be a mission with an elephant and everybody in the party is just gonna have a fun time shooting at hordes of enemies while riding. It's gonna be like Compton drive by's, only in the future with aliens. 

istuffedsunny
istuffedsunny

Is this free or have we already reached the era when games are divided into short chunks to be sold separately? It starts with sidequests and in 10 years you'll be buying games by the level.

GORDONA3RIP
GORDONA3RIP

i actually love spartan ops very much i just with they would stop reusing locations and have fresh ones every week but i absolutely love the weekly episodes the missions themselves and i love jennifer hale. 

BLAS1AN
BLAS1AN

Its basically a horde, survivor or firefight type mode with cinematic cut scenes. Looks like the cut scenes detract from what it really is to people.

Taz_12_Dave
Taz_12_Dave

There always seems to be so much disappointing feedback on game add ons and games in general that to me seem really good?  The bad always seems to out weigh the good.   

Soleride
Soleride

this has nothing to do with Spartan Ops but does with Halo 4 would it not be nice to receive a bonus experience for the amount of matches you play in a row like chain experience ?

Alucard_Prime
Alucard_Prime

I really enjoyed Spartan Ops actually. There was no story whatsoever in firefight, so the fact that there is one in Spartan OPs is a big step up, even if it doesn"t compare to the campaign story. 

SlyMC182
SlyMC182

It is free, and it helps me to raise my SR level so I can not complain to much. I think the story presented in the cut scenes is fairly interesting so far, and you get to see characters you would not see much of otherwise, so for me if it gets better it is still a no lose situation. I would like to see the return of  Firefight mode alongside of Spartan Ops. I play it all of the time in Reach and before that in ODST. And if anyone is interested the back-story of Jul Mdama the leader of the Elites seen in the cut scenes is explained in the Halo extended fiction novels by Karen Traviss, Halo Glasslands and Halo The Thursday War. His motivations for continuing the war with the humans even after the Covenant has fallen and a peace treaty is in place are never explained in the cut scenes, the novels tells of his extreme hatred of humans and why he is trying to reignite the war with them, it also reveals a lot more information about Halsey and what happen to her after the fall of Reach and it adds new light into the building of the warship Infinity and even a little bit about the Spartan 4 program and the remaining Spartans 2 and 3. They may be worth a read if you are a big Halo fan. 

dzaric
dzaric

The story in Spartan Ops is so bad its insulting. I literally feel like im being dumbed down as a person going through it, which is a real contrast to the excellent story in the single player.

billlabowski
billlabowski

They're boring, I just watch the cut-scenes and wait til the next week. 

ZeoV9
ZeoV9

we want firefight and spartan ops to co-exist

 

Shika_Stoner
Shika_Stoner

It pretty much went down how I expected it to. First couple episodes would be kinda bland but would let them lay down the ground work.  But now that they've started to hit their stride the good stuff will keep coming.

gamingnerd121
gamingnerd121

I don't even have Halo 4, so i can't comment on the gameplay of these episodes. I did however, watch the cutscenes in 1080p. It looks like it has potential.

markcusdd
markcusdd

I want firefight! Spartan Ops sucks!

trihard09
trihard09

 @tgwolf Yea, you're right. There aren't six previous Halo games focused on a central story/universe. There aren't 10 separate Halo novels. There aren't 8 separate Halo comics/graphic novels. There isn't an anime suite called Halo: Legends. There isn't a recent web live action series called Forward Unto Dawn.... Yea, you're right; Halo has nothing to offer story wise...

lowkey254
lowkey254

Do you meen a random group or your friends? I've played the previous chapters with friends without issue.

whackyq
whackyq

 @istuffedsunny

 its interesting to note that, if you don't have a gold membership, you can't even access the spartan ops menu, its just static and tells you to go get the membership. Which probably means, even if you have gold memb, then it expires, you probably won't be able to go back and play the ones you already "have"...just a guess though, given how the menu system works.

 

This is why we need firefight...Spartan Ops doesn't really come with the game, it comes with a gold membership lol.

whackyq
whackyq

 @GORDONA3RIP

 nothing can go wrong with femshep around. Too bad she went AWOL episode 5 haha hope she comes back.

BlueTurtz
BlueTurtz

 @Taz_12_Dave No, zombies is the best part of black ops 2, odst's firefight was the best addition to halo since forge and you don't see people complaining about the cod casting being shit in black ops 2 do you

virusqg
virusqg

 @Soleride so a bunch of ten year olds who have nothing better to do all day can trump the few old farts that have work and wives to  please? hahahah no thank you

davidsworld3
davidsworld3

 @Gizmofather

 Go back too school kid, and then get you'r underwear pulled over your head for being an idiot...or have it stuffed in your mouth. Yes thats better.

Hellhound30x
Hellhound30x

 @dzaric not to mention playing the same levels over, and over, and over, and over, and over again... blah! I quit Halo 4.... 

grey_fox1984
grey_fox1984

 @billlabowski Consider the possibility that some of the missions you opted not to try might be less boring- this whole article is actually about that.

Decessus
Decessus

 @markcusdd I've mostly enjoyed Spartan Ops, but I would like to see Firefight return as well.

McNeelyJ39
McNeelyJ39

 @lowkey254 i mean matchmaking...i don't have many friends playing halo 4 when i'm playing it.

BlueTurtz
BlueTurtz

 @whackyq  @istuffedsunny I was wondering where firefight was when i got the game i expected it to be in there. And i was very dissapointed it wasnt in there. Spartan ops' recycled maps pale in comparison to odst firefight

Finsie
Finsie

 @whackyq  @istuffedsunny Yep, that's exactly how it works.  I don't have Gold for my account because I think it's a waste of money, but I used the 14 day trial that came with Halo 4 and played episodes 1 and 2.  Now that the 14 day trial has expired, I cannot access any of the episodes.  What's worse is that all 5 episodes are on the disc, and have been from day 1, but I cannot access these.

whackyq
whackyq

 @virusqg  @Soleride

 I have nothing against the 10 year olds playing Halo 4 (its their parents who are kind of neglecting the M rating...not that anyone cares), but the 10 year olds with MICS omg they frickin SCREEAAAMM and SHOUUUUTTT...I considered pulling out my mic entirely and just muting everyone, but then it would've made me feel bad about spending like 20 dollars buying it in the first place...

dzaric
dzaric

 @Hellhound30x Well im not going to quit Halo 4, the rest of it is great, its just Spartan Ops that i cant stand. For example like the last episode: The guy touches the artifact and gets transported somewhere, and the only thing i could think about was....WHY IN THE FLYING FUCK WOULD YOU TOUCH IT WHEN YOU SAW THE SCIENTIST DEUCHEBAG TOUCH IT AND DISSAPEAR?!

billlabowski
billlabowski

 @grey_fox1984 I'd rather not waste my time. Especially with a game that has a 55 FOV and struggles at 720p. I'll stick to the cut-scenes...

gamingnerd121
gamingnerd121

 @billlabowski

 True, it's not even in 1080p. Maybe we can move the tech forward enough to get that next gen.

gamingnerd121
gamingnerd121

 @Decessus  @markcusdd

 ODST was actually the first game i completed. Firefight was enjoyable, and the Endure achievement left a satisfying feeling when i got it.

whackyq
whackyq

 @McNeelyJ39  @lowkey254

 Did 4 get rid of Campaign matchmaking as well? I remember trying to find it but couldn't...

 

hmm...the times of watching random people leap off the ledge to air-assassinate the one elite for the achievement is gone =(