Microsoft is a tease. The slowly unraveling thread of information about Halo 4 has so far yielded near naught on one of the game's major selling points: the return of the one and only M. Chief. (That's short for Master Chief, mind you, not Mr. Chief. Although that's also acceptable.)
Microsoft's E3 2012 press conference kicked into action with a frenetic, kickass trailer detailing Halo 4's single-player campaign, but since then we've heard nothing on the game's narrative elements. (It has all been about competitive multiplayer.) That is about to change--the publisher finally allowed us a sneak peek into its efforts with story. No, not with the single-player campaign. That's obviously something they're saving for later. But we did get a chance to see how storytelling will work in the second part of Halo 4's multiplayer component: Spartan Ops.
For clarification, Halo 4 will ship with two multiplayer elements: War Games, the competitive multiplayer, and Spartan Ops, a weekly episodic narrative-driven cooperative multiplayer. Spartan Ops will take on the role of a second campaign, with a separate storyline and separate protagonists. The campaign will follow the story of Majestic Squad, a Spartan squad from the UNSC Infinity on the planet Requiem (those of you who finished Halo 3 on Legendary will know what this is about).
Through a weekly series of cinematic episodes, each episode containing five linear story missions, this second campaign will be playable both as single-player or cooperatively with up to four players. (Spartan Ops also supports matchmaking, just in case you misplace all your friends.) The best part? You don't have to pay extra: access to Spartan Ops is included with Halo 4.
OK, now to the fun stuff. We were shown the fifth mission in the first episode of Spartan Ops (for clarity, Microsoft is currently working on just one season of Spartan Ops). By the way, this was all hands-off, so we won't be able to talk much about how the game feels to play, but hey, it's Halo, so you should already have a pretty good idea. In the mission, our team was charged with gathering information on a Covenant archaeological structure on Requiem. 343 Industries made it clear that none of what you'll see in the single-player Master Chief campaign will repeat itself, either in Spartan Ops or in the competitive multiplayer.
After encountering a pesky squad of Covenant (standard Grunts and Elites), our team cleared the top level and encountered a couple of Forerunner shields. Once fired upon, these triggered a call to arms for the Forerunner troops, who apparently don't like anyone touching their stuff. What you can expect from these bad guys is faster, angrier versions of the Covenant enemies, with a slight orange tinge. First there are the Crawlers--small, pack-hunting creatures that can scale walls and ceilings and look like overgrown sewer rats. These guys are easy to kill on their own (one or two shots does just fine), but watch out if they come at you in a pack. (Oh, and they attack by shooting weird orange lasers.)
The team suddenly realizes that the Crawlers are materializing too quickly--they're being spawned by something. Enter another Forerunner enemy: the Watchers. Watchers are tactical enemies that act like AI support for the Forerunner troops. They take the shape of what looks roughly like a giant flying motorcycle and hover above the fight, ready to spawn more enemies. Taking Watchers down is a priority; otherwise you're going to be facing a never-ending battle. However, they're smart: they learn your shooting tactics and react in different ways once you try to take them down a second time.
Finally, one of our team picks up a new Forerunner weapon. Called a scatter shot, this is kind of like a shotgun (powerful at close range) but with more firepower and a cooler-looking body. These are handy against the Knights--another type of Forerunner enemy that physically look like Elites but way more badass.
After a drawn-out fight dealing with these three kinds of Forerunner enemies, our team finally manages to dispense of the last one and achieve its objective: the obtainment of a Forerunner artifact that will be taken back onboard the UNSC Infinity for closer observation.
A note on the difficulty levels in Spartan Ops: 343 Industries stressed that all players in the game must play on the same difficulty level. Which, when you think about it, is only fair.