Spartan Ops in Halo 4 can trace its roots back to Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight game mode. In Firefight, up to four players would band together and defeat increasingly difficult waves of Covenant. Players were granted life based on an arcade-style lives system, and once everyone died the game was over.
To call Spartan Ops the newest iteration of Firefight would be an understatement. Spartan Ops takes the short, combat-centric focus of Firefight and combines it with story elements. Spartan Ops takes place 6 months after the events of Halo 4 and is a continuation of the story. The goal of Spartan Ops is to keep players coming back to Halo 4 week after week, so all of this extra story content is broken up into episodes. Each episode begins with a pre-rendered cinematic (aren’t they all?) and is broken up into five missions—or chapters, if you prefer.
Players giving Spartan Ops a try will find themselves in the role of Crimson Team, who then end up being sucked into every major development. It turns out the Infinity is a very small ship, despite being over three miles long and having over 800 decks.
Of the ten episodes made for Spartan Ops, five are currently available. I’m not a big fan so far.
Let’s start by talking about the environments. There simply aren’t very many locations. Some locations are ripped directly from campaign, such as The Gate coming from an encounter early in the second mission. Some locations, such as Two Giants in Episode 3, are just multiplayer maps; Two Giants is Ragnarok, the Halo 4 remake of Halo 3’s Valhalla. Other locations were designed specifically for Spartan Ops, and the strength of these locations changes depending on which direction you’re heading.
Every Spartan Ops chapter will task the player with traversing the whole of the map. There is a lot of backtracking involved and what should be cleared space is quickly repopulated. Sometimes, you won’t have to backtrack, but you’ll end up revisiting the location anyway for some other arbitrary objective. Why pad out the mission by having us backtrack through an area we’ve already cleared and fight newly spawned enemies? It’s just a huge time sink.
I started Spartan Ops by playing solo on Heroic difficulty. I died repeatedly. I later revisited it and played on Normal, and though I didn’t die nearly as often, I still found it incredibly challenging for a single player. I have since bumped the difficulty down to Easy; it’s not a walk in the park, despite the name. Legendary is tuned for four players, so Easy must be tuned for a single player, right? Additionally, since Spartan Ops takes place after the events of Halo 4, it must be expected that players are familiar with playing Halo at this point.
Even on Easy, chapters in Spartan Ops either take too long to complete or are too short to be satisfying. For example, Episode 3 Chapter 1 took me over half an hour to complete, and you’re given a tank to steamroll everything. Later, Episode 3 Chapter 3 took me just under 9 minutes to complete. In fact, Chapters 3 and 4 take place in the same location, and I initially wondered why the two weren’t combined. When I played Chapter 4, I noted that it just dragged on for far too long, so combining the too-short Chapter 3 with the too-long Chapter 4 would have created an even longer abomination.
Except, Spartan Ops wasn’t designed for just one player, despite the back of the game case stating: “Spartan Ops: an episodic storyline that delivers ongoing co-operative or solo missions and surprises that build upon the Halo 4 campaign.” The game mode is designed for four players, no exceptions, so the number of enemies and toughness of enemies is tuned to be suitable for four players. Easy and Normal pushes back on a solo player not because the enemies are stronger than the player, but rather because they have strength in numbers.
On a general level, each Chapter takes about 20 minutes to complete, sometimes more, sometimes less. This means each episode of Spartan Ops provides an average of 90 minutes of content, and at ten episodes for this season, we’re probably looking at fifteen hours of content total—twice as much content as campaign itself! I’m only up to Episode 4 and my play time is sitting at 5.5 hours.
This wouldn’t be so bad if everyone could actually play Spartan Ops. In terms of play time, Spartan Ops is easily worth about two-thirds of the total Halo 4 package.1 Anyone without access to Xbox Live Gold is unable to play Spartan Ops; your first thought would be that, yeah, it makes sense because you need to be able to receive the unlock data from 343i each week. This is not the case! You are literally unable to start a chapter in Spartan Ops without a Gold subscription (or just an internet connection to confirm it), even if you have already played the chapter in the past. On the other hand, new copies of Halo 4 come with a 14-day LIVE Gold Trial, which will be more than enough time to play ten episodes come mid-February; until then, new copy-holders wishing to play now will have to settle for having access to whatever happens to be available at the time plus the next two weeks’ content.
There are a few characters returning from campaign, such as Sarah Palmer and Commander Lasky. Lasky doesn’t have as big of a role here as he did in Campaign, while Palmer’s role is stepped up from having a single line to commanding the Ops from the Infinity. New to Spartan Ops are Roland, the Infinity’s AI, and Spartans Dalton and Miller. Outside of the pre-rendered cinematics, the only lines spoken by any character just gives Crimson a new objective, warns them of enemy deployment, and dispatches ordnance or evac transport. This is a shame because we don’t get to find out more about these characters. In the cinematics, we learn that Palmer is a hard-ass who can get the job done, but she still has a sense of humor.
Overall, Spartan Ops sounds like a good idea, but is terribly executed. It’s like a television show in its first season and the writers don’t know what they’re doing with it yet. If you look at each location as a set, this comparison seems even more apt.
With episode 6 of Spartan Ops delayed until late January, we’ll be taking a look at Spartan Ops in further detail starting with Episode 1. Given that Spartan Ops is structured around the idea that nigh-endless combat is good and the story is poorly tacked on, it’s likely those Episode reviews will amount to “we played Spartan Ops so you don’t have to.”
UPDATE: You can find our Recaps linked for your enjoyment below:
- Multiplayer is excluded because the dynamic nature of online play, user engagement, and ongoing matchmaking support all make it very difficult to quantify how much time can be spent playing. ↩