Attention Spartan! Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to watch an approximately five minute long cut scene before barreling through five missions every week. It’s all for the greater good… and easy experience points.
I’m talking about Spartan Ops, 343 Industries’ episodic co-op series for Halo 4. On Monday, we reached the midway point of the first season with the release of Episode 5, Memento Mori. The series follows the aftermath of the campaign, featuring Master Chief with the UNSC Infinity and her contingent of Spartan IVs returning to the Forerunner shield world of Requiem. The only problem is that the Covenant splinter group led by Jul M’Dama is also there, along with a seemingly endless supply of Prometheans.
Plotting a disconnected course
The cut scenes of Spartan Ops dovetail nicely with the Halo books Ghosts of Onyx, Glasslands, and The Thursday War, as Dr. Halsey returns with the aforementioned Jul M’Dama, who is now the main adversary. Much like the campaign, though, the problem with this setup is that not everyone has read the books and won’t understand the history of these characters or the Spartan program as a whole. For example, little is done to explain why this Covenant splinter group is on Requiem and fighting humans to begin with (it can quickly be summed up as civil war between the Arbiter’s followers and those that still believe the Forerunners are gods, but M’Dama’s background is more complex).
While the plot was enough to hold my interest with the new and returning characters, there’s an odd disconnect between that and the gameplay. The cut scenes follow the Fireteam Majestic of Spartan IVs while you and your online comrades are part of Fireteam Crimson. The missions from the first two sets of episodes felt like they had little to do with the over-arching plot and served mainly as an introduction.
Luckily, hings picked up in Episode 3 as Crimson began actively pursuing a Covenant terrorist and performed a rescue mission. The missions then peaked as the squad “chased” but never saw Jul M’Dama through multiple locations around Requiem leading to the recovery of “the Didact’s gift.” The Episode 5 missions then went back to the feeling of disconnect until the final mission dealing with the mysterious disappearance of one of Majestic’s members.
This disconnect between the missions and the cut-scenes is only exacerbated by the constant reuse of levels from the campaigns and multiplayer. While it makes perfect logistical sense that 343 Industries would use the same assets for Spartans Ops as the UNSC science teams “explored” the areas that Master Chief had been, seeing the same maps three or four times but from slightly different angles and with different enemies unfortunately breaks any sense of immersion.
While it is cost and time prohibitive for 343 Industries to create all new maps for each of the new missions, this is something that will have to be addressed with the Spartan Ops series as it moves on.
Truth and consequences
Another pitfall of Spartan Ops is that there appears to be no consquence to death other than sitting out for approximately five seconds and possibly losing a power weapon you were holding. Besides that, the game continues on and you’ll drop right back in with your squadmates. Oh, and you’re still pretty much guaranteed to get the maximum amount of experience points for the mission (usually in the 5,000 to 6,000 point range).
The lack of any sort of detriment to death and the constant experience points results in players replaying missions for the sole purpose of XP farming. Want to find out where all the players that passed SR-50 level are? You’re more likely to find them in Spartan Ops than in multiplayer, where you aren’t guaranteed the same amount of points every match.
Room for improvement
I know you are probably thinking, “Wow, he must really hate Spartan Ops with all these complaints!” Actually, I point these problems out because I do, in fact, like Halo 4 co-op missions and want to see them improved. While I do still miss Firefight, Spartan Ops is a capable replacement that needs fine-tuning. The banter between Roland, the UNSC Infinity’s AI with a WWII pilot fashion sensibility, and the other Spartan IVs is growing on me and both the plot and quality of the missions has picked up since Episode 3. The revelations in Episode 5 carry directly over from the end of the campaign and it concludes in a classic “What will happen to our heroes next week!?” movie serial cliffhanger.
Spartan Ops is at its best when the designers find a way to throw a boatload of Covenants and/or Forerunners at you and your three partners while providing all sorts of explosive goodies and power weapons to use against them within the framework of a story. There’s just something satisfying about blowing up a cluster of Elites, Grunts, and Jackals with the rocket launcher after they drop out of a transport vehicle.
If the Spartan Ops team at 343 Industries can fine-tune the problems mentioned above and consistently provide a varied experience from week to week, this bold experiment of episodic gaming wrapped in the full retail release of Halo 4 should pay off. For now, unfortunately it is full of untapped promise.
- Release date: November 6th (Episode 1), November 13 (Episode 2), November 20 (Episode 3) November 26 (Episode 4), December 3 (Episode 5)
- Genre: First-person shooter
- Platform: Xbox 360
- Developer: 343 Industries
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- Rating: M
- MSRP: $59.99 (Halo 4)