Microsoft Studios

Halo 4’s Spartan Ops tries for magic, but players can too easily see behind curtain

Halo 4’s Spartan Ops tries for magic, but players can too easily see behind curtain

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Spartan Ops

The first objective of “Catherine,” the third episode of Spartan Ops, is “Eliminate the target Elite.” After the repetitiveness of Episodes 1 and 2, this could have been a refreshing chance to do something other than “push buttons, kill everything.” Could have, because halfway through the mission, the target Elite vanishes, and the heroes of Crimson Fire Squad are once again put on clean-up duty.

Spartan Ops is full of such illusions, which comes from masking simple multiplayer game play and objectives with what sometimes feels like the illusion of story. While that unique blend is becoming more appetizing, it’s not quite to where it should be yet.

A story with character

Spartan Ops’ story has improved with the current episodes. Episode 3 brings Dr. Catherine Halsey aboard the Infinity, and she is a fascinating character. Most everyone else can be reduced to stereotypes – the dudebro soldier, the hard-ass commanding officer, the nerdy tech analyst –  but Halsey is a well-rounded individual who is harder to pin down. You want to know more about her, and that’s a great way to get players hooked into the story.

The downside is that you rarely get to interact with or see Halsey. Instead, you’ll still be running through maps, two of which are new to Spartan Ops, listening to Sarah “Eggheads” Palmer. Yes, she still says that word, and yes, she’s still incredibly irritating. At one point, Spartan Miller warns you of enemy fortifications, to which she sarcastically responds that she needs to discuss Miller’s incessant need of informing Crimson about what’s shooting at them.

Right, because being told about the enemy is what’s annoying. That’s the problem here, not the listless, dead voice of a commanding officer who isn’t written or voiced like she cares about what’s happening. As previously mentioned, the problem isn’t merely annoyance; Palmer tells you not to care, and it’s hard to figure out if you’re supposed to enjoy the story or just go kill-crazy. The amazing cinematics and developing story say one thing while the game play and Palmer say another.

On the upside, Spartan Ops looks like it may begin to answer questions about the Librarian, the Promethans, and the relationship between humans and the Forerunners. Bonus: you won’t even need to dig through novels to get to the information!

The magic of multiplayer

In some ways, Spartan Ops is like watching a magician. They tell you about a far-off mystical land, full of wondrous treasures and magical artifacts. They produce an item such as a box, an animal, or cloth, and tell you, “Oh no, this isn’t some ordinary object, this is special. This is magic.”

Meanwhile, Spartan Ops tells you about a far-off planet, full of mystery and ancient technology. The Forerunner robots that patrol the planet are called Prometheans, and one character wonders aloud what mythical fire they might be able to pass to us as the original Prometheus did. Then, the mode presents ordinary levels; some ripped from campaign, some from War Games. It wants you to believe these are no ordinary levels, but something special, with a purpose.

If the magician is good, you fall for it, if not, you see the strings. Although the mode has improved since Episodes 1 and 2, you can still see Spartan Ops’ strings.

In “Didact’s Hand,” the fourth episode of Spartan Ops, the exact same thing that happens in the previous episode is repeated not once, not twice, but three more times. You are sent in to kill one, specific target, only to have them continually escape, leaving you to wade through horde after horde of enemies, chasing after an objective that never feels closer. It feels like Lucy pulling away the football, over and over.

One critical complaint of Halo 4‘s campaign was that it could feel like running from USB port A to USB port B. Shooters have never been known for being particularly diverse in their objectives, but it would be nice if when the objective is “eliminate target X,” the route to completing that goal isn’t always kill everything, since the target will be one of the last few standing anyway.

The game doesn’t need as many options as something like Dishonored or Deus Ex, but the story’s objectives are both transparent and forgettable when every level tasks you with the same mission. You definitely know you’re playing a game mode, and 343 is trying to hide that.

While hiding the part of Spartan Ops that feels like a game isn’t inherently bad, 343 Industries needs to get better at pulling the wool over our eyes if they want to hit the middle ground between engaging narrative and fun, co-op game play. As Michael Caine says in The Prestige, “You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”

Fool us, Spartan Ops.