Microsoft Studios

Halo 4’s Spartan Ops is caught between a story expansion and Firefight, and loses our interest

Halo 4’s Spartan Ops is caught between a story expansion and Firefight, and loses our interest

You won’t find the much-beloved Firefight mode from Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach in Halo 4. The mode has been replaced by Spartan Ops, an episodic set of challenges released weekly, free of charge. Episode 1 shipped with the game, while Episode 2 was released today. Together, they reveal Spartan Ops to be the biggest weakness of Halo 4.

David Ellis, designer of Spartan Ops at 343 Industries, said in a pre-release podcast that, “If you were a fan of Firefight traditionally, whether it was ODST or Reach, you should love Spartan Ops. We think this is the mode you’ve been asking for, just by playing and participating, you’ve been asking for this mode whether you realize it or not.”

Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor likewise stated on NeoGaf that Spartan Ops is deigned to scratch the itch of Firefight. Spartan Ops attempts to evolve the Firefight of yesterday by melding it with the campaign of today, and the mode is weaker for it. Neither element is as strong as it is separately, so the appeal is lost. Why play this when there’s so much more satisfying multiplayer to be found in War Games?

If she says ‘eggheads’ one more time

Spartan Ops’ biggest draw is the promise of an ongoing story. Although it’s a more bare-bones plot than the campaign, there definitely is story involved. Episode 1 was bland, as it focused on the competition between fireteams Majestic and Crimson. Episode 2 gives more context to events, although the goal of “go here, push this button” remain largely unchanged.

The cinematic introductions to each episode are beautiful. I watched the intro to Episode 2 a total of four times, just to pick out details and admire the animation. Unfortunately, every time I watched, I had to hear Commander Sarah Palmer. This would typically be a pleasant experience, considering the Commander is voiced by Jennifer Hale, but the writing is awful.

About every ten seconds, Palmer calls scientists “eggheads,” and makes it quite clear she doesn’t care about what Infinity is doing or why. She’s there to blow shit up, and blow it up good. Minor spoiler: In Episode 2, scientists researching Forerunner tech have disappeared. One fellow soldier wonders aloud what happened to those scientists, and Palmer shuts him up with a definitive “That’s above your pay, Miller.”

That is the closing sentence to Episode 2. It’s not riveting or exciting, it’s not a cliffhanger. It’s trite, clichéd writing. Palmer is the most visible character you hear from during Spartan Ops, and it’s unfortunate that she comes across as being so two-dimensional. She could just as easily be searching for unobtainium on Pandora, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

The campaign offers character and pathos with its writing, but you’ll find none of that subtlety here. Not only is the lack of motivation annoying, but it conflicts with the goals that 343 has instituted for Spartan Ops. Palmer is basically saying “Don’t care about what’s happening, just kill and push buttons.” It’s true that you basically do the same thing in campaign, but there’s always reasons to go to the next terminal, push that next button, observe your surroundings. Here, a character in the game is explicitly telling you not to care. This may be explained in later episodes, but after two episodes there are no hooks to keep the players’ interest.

This looks familiar

Four of the five chapters in Episode 2 take place on the same maps as in Episode 1, and all of the maps are recycled from the campaign. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Enemy placements and type change, which shows the versatility of 343’s level design. By Episode 2, you’ll have played through some of these areas three times, but your strategy needs to shift to deal with new threats. In Episode 2’s chapter titled “Gargarin,” I discovered an entirely new area of the map I had neglected when I played through in Episode 1.

Firefight in ODST and Reach likewise took place on maps from the campaign, but narrative is much less forgiving when it comes to going over old ground. Firefight embraced competitive as well as cooperative play by giving scores to each individual player. Scoring made you want to succeed, not just as a team, but as an individual. In Spartan Ops, everyone fights for the same objective, and what matters most is getting to, and pushing, that button. You don’t get called out or praised in any way for your individual efforts, and that hurts player enthusiasm as well as replay value.

Since Spartan Ops has you pushing through a map and progressing from objective to objective, this also means that it abandons Firefight’s design of holding a base defensively against an endless horde. Firefight became increasingly difficult as waves progressed, adding advanced enemy types and skull modifiers. Spartan Ops simply tasks you with defeating the enemies before you and moving to the nest group. Things do get harder as you go along, but not in the same way as in Firefight.

It may seem unfair to compare this apple to that orange, but 343 explicitly meant for this mode to replace, and improve on, Firefight. Instead, fans of that mode will be disappointed while fans of story and character will likewise be disappointed by the lack of reasons to stay interested.

343 needs to turn Spartan Ops into a compelling narrative with some seriously improved writing or a competitive co-op challenge that inspires players to take risks and go crazy. Right now, 343 is trying to have some of Column A and Column B, and the result falls short on both fronts.