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.
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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.