Halo 4’s Spartan Ops season 1 is finished – here’s where the mode went wrong, and where it succeeded
When Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops was revealed in spring of last year, it was often portrayed as a revolutionary merging of story and multiplayer game modes. The premise sounded lofty: take the sandbox level design and objective-based progression people enjoy from the campaign, mix in waves of enemies and multiplayer support, and to top it all off, create a story that makes sense not only in-universe, but that supported four players.
Now that the first season of Spartan Ops has come to a close, let’s look at where the ambitious mode paid off, and where it stumbled.
Love Halo 4‘s plot or hate it, you can’t deny the jaw-dropping beauty of the game’s CG cutscenes, crafted by Axis Animation. Every episode of Spartan Ops was well-directed, animated, and rendered, even in the less action-packed sequences. From the wrinkles on Catherine Halsey’s face to the energy sparks from Promethean weaponry, everything looks flat-out gorgeous.
Writing, however, was a bit hit-or-miss. I lamented early on that Spartan Ops’ existence as a narrative and as a game didn’t always align, as characters would sometimes blatantly tell players to not care about story, but to just go shoot aliens and push buttons. Sarah Palmer in particular came across as an annoying and shallow talking head, who couldn’t even come up with decent insults. While she dropped the “egg heads” shtick in later episodes, she never quite developed into a well-rounded character that was fun to watch or pay attention to.
Palmer wasn’t the only offender of good writing. Dialogue between Spartan Miller and Infinity’s oddly smart-ass AI, Roland, sometimes got so out of hand I was waiting for Miller to put his hands on his hips, cock his head to the side and say, “Rolaaaaaand!” Cue laugh track and exit music.
While Halo 4‘s campaign asked us difficult questions and showed a surprisingly complex relationship between Master Chief, the UNSC, and Cortana, Spartan Ops seemed fine in doling out the usual roles of Commander Badass, Rookie Hero, Straight Man, Comedic Relief. Only Dr. Halsey stood out as truly notable.
The plot itself was slow-going at first, but Episodes 6-10 cracked the whip and sped things up. Frank O’Connor told The Guardian at E3 2012 that the team wanted to foster “water cooler conversations,” and while the first half stumbled in this area, Spartan Ops’ return gave players plenty to talk about. Every plot advancement in Spartan Ops’ back half was significant and enjoyable, whether it was Halsey’s escape, Lasky’s orders, the Librarian’s gift, and the final cliffhanger, which featured a genuinely surprising twist and betrayal.
Gerg Murphy, senior designer on Spartan Ops, said in a Halo Waypoint interview that the mode was originally designed as a more arcade-like experience, comparable to Firefight mode from Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
“Some missions would be get an item (like a bomb) to the bomb spot, kill the leader, capture the item, etc. But it was more arcadey and meant to be replayable,” Murphy explained. “Each map would have the same four or five types of missions. When you played them, it would randomly pick four missions on four different maps, and your party would play through them.”
Murphy described the original vision for Spartan Ops as “generic,” but it’s hard to say the final version didn’t fall under the same descriptor. Almost every chapter of Episodes 1-5 amounted to kill all enemies, push a button, rinse, repeat. Several missions felt padded out with unnecessarily long encounters which spawned wave after wave of enemy, long after fighting them felt fun or challenging.
Again, this is an area which showed marked improvement in Episodes 6-10. A major contributor to the back half’s success was the new round of maps. IGN spoke to David Ellis of 343 back in January about the mode’s return from hiatus, citing the new levels as a major improvement. Ellis explained that the Spartan Ops team had more resources to utilize for the second half of season one, which allowed the team to create bigger, better maps, and take more risks.
While plenty of missions still required you to squash any and all resistance, fewer levels relied on it, and several chapters gave you fresh, new objectives, like defending your ride home, sealing off doors to stop invaders, or disarming nukes. One episode even gave you not one, not two, but three Scorpion tanks to play with. That’s just good old-fashioned blow-up-y fun.
Even though Episodes 6-10 re-used maps far more than we would have liked, they were far more fun – and functional – than what we were given in Episodes 1-5. Several were created specifically for the mode, which helped make it helped it identify as something unique, not just a lazy slapping together of the game’s campaign and multiplayer. If Spartan Ops was a baby, Episodes 6-10 marked its first steps, where the mode could stand on its own. Consider Ellis to have made good on his word.
The lack of Firefight mode did not go unnoticed by Halo fans. It’s not hard to find several threads on official Halo forums – or anywhere else on the Internet, for that matter – arguing over the differences between the survival mode of yesteryear with Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops.
Ellis said in a podcast that Spartan Ops was the mode players have been asking for, but it sure doesn’t seem that way. Gone are the reliable spawn points, scaled encounters, waves of enemies assaulting a base, limited lives pool, skulls, and scoring system. These were all things that people cited as a main reason they enjoyed Firefight, so it seems incorrect to say it’s what the fans wanted. If I had to wager a guess, I’d think players wanted a choice. As it stands at the close of season one, it doesn’t appear as though Spartan Ops has won over the Firefight crowd.
On most counts, Spartan Ops made good on its promises. It wasn’t the revolutionary blend of multiplayer and campaign game play many hoped for, and it often came across as a gimped co-op campaign, albeit a lengthy one with good story progression.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the price of free, and Spartan Ops made a significant turn around in Episodes 6-10, most likely due to the increased manpower and resources. Given even more time, even more developer focus, it’s possible for Spartan Ops to become something amazing.
Until then, remember Spartan Ops as a fun, if flawed, experiment.