This is the final week of my SpOps revisits. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that there will be a Season 2 as of yet, so this is likely going to be my last article about SpOps until Halo 5 comes out. It has to be a good article, and I’m not entirely sure I can deliver. I don’t like SpOps. It has some good moments, but there’s just a lot of repetition and redundancy in the gameplay. I don’t know what the designers in charge of development had in mind when they sat down and decided that, yes, this is what Spartan Ops is, and this is how it will play.
Last week, I had said that Episodes 8 and 9 were inconsequential. This isn’t entirely true. It’s mostly true, but there are only two key points that have any relevance. The first is that Madsen received a map after looting Gek’s corpse in the Episode 8 cinematic. This map was handed to Doctor Glassman, who is using it to discover the secrets of Requiem. It’s actually kind of cool, because Glassman was a worthless character before, but now he gets a chance to be useful. I’ll be touching on this some more later. Anyway, at the end of Episode 9, Crimson discovered another map, and when combined with Glassman’s map, it becomes a super map to all of Requiem.
Too bad Requiem is about to fall into a star.
The Infinity is locked into orbit around Requiem because of the artifact Crimson discovered at the end of Episode 1. As we learn in the Episode 8 cinematic, the artifact is a “Slipspace anchor.” There are two more artifacts on Requiem just like it, and deactivating those will free the Infinity. The good news is that Glassman’s super map will show us the way to the artifacts. The bad news is that one of the artifacts is trapped inside of a rock.
Luckily, said rock is in front of the Harvester we shut down in Episode 6. Harvesters are Covenant digging machines, so this works out in our favor. However, you might recall that we shut the Harvester down in Episode 6. We can’t turn it back on again.
In the first chapter of the episode, we’re tasked with reactivating the Harvester. There is a shield blocking the way, so we can’t get inside. We need air support, but there are anti-air cannons nearby. It’s actually a very straightforward mission: kill everything and use big explosives to destroy big targets. There aren’t even any buttons to press until you get inside the Harvester!
Inside the Harvester, there are captured scientists. They’re supposed to reactivate the Harvester. To free them, we must first kill everything, because that’s how SpOps rolls. Once every Covenant soldier is dead, we can deactivate the shields keeping Science Team captive. Here’s the thing, though: there are two consoles, one on either side of the Harvester. There are also two shields, one on either side of the Harvester. Logically, you’d think you could just disable one shield using the console on the corresponding side. If you want to retrieve your prisoners or add more to the cell, then having one console deactivate one shield means that there is one shield for you to keep guard on. Requiring both consoles to be deactivated to bring down both shields just introduces a security hazard; you need twice the guards to ensure no one escapes. Honestly, it’s as though the mission designers realized we hadn’t pressed enough buttons in this chapter. They have a button-pressing quota to meet, dontcha know.
The second chapter reminds me of everything I hate about SpOps. There’s a lot of needless back-and-forth running. Warrens is a visually stunning location. It’s just a shame that every time 343i uses it, they fill it with Prometheans. The thing about fighting Prometheans on Warrens is that it’s a very large, open area. There’s not a lot of cover, which means you can go from zero-to-ass-reaming amounts of Prometheans instantaneously. They will shoot at you because you have no cover. Then they will teleport next to you, where you have almost no maneuvering space. They’ll get a few cheap shots off and then teleport back to where they were. It’s an awful setup. You are being assaulted from every which direction. There’s really not much you can do except kill one or two and then die. Repeat the process until you’ve whittled their numbers down to something manageable.
Truth be told, I hate the Prometheans. It’s neat that 343i managed to add three new enemies to Halo, and have them be distinctive. Well, I guess crawlers aren’t that much different from the ranged Pure Forms in Halo 3. Watchers are flying adversaries who can shield their allies; they can throw grenades back at you; they can resurrect dead knights; they can summon crawlers and cannons. They can also shoot at you relentlessly. You never know what a Watcher can do (or is capable of) until it starts doing it.
That’s what makes the Prometheans so frustrating. The only thing that indicates which type of Promethean you’re fighting is a bunch of indistinguishable spikes and some glowing headgear. Neither of these affects the silhouette, so you really can’t tell what you’re looking at unless you look at the details. Combat is not a good time to force your player to notice the details.
Honestly, I would rather wake up in a pool of my own cold liquid shit than fight Prometheans. They are more frustrating to deal with than the stench of feces. Fighting them is less enjoyable than washing the stool out of bed sheets. They are less visually diverse than a man covered in his own shit. Prometheans are terrible, and 343i needs to make some serious changes for Halo 5 before I ever call them a good enemy.
Let’s move onto chapter three before I have an aneurysm.
Seize the Power is one of my favorite missions in all of Spartan Ops. You get Spartans to accompany you. They’re just marines with shields, but that makes them more durable than ordinary marines. There are warthogs and mongooses, so you get to ride around with them. There are rocket launchers you can equip them with. You get to have a rolling death squad with rocketeers. What’s not to love? It’s Halo; it’s The Silent Cartographer; it’s Assault on the Control Room; it’s Metropolis; it’s The Storm; it’s The Covenant; it’s Uplift Reserve; it’s Tip of the Spear; it’s the mission where you drive around and your passengers ruin the Covenant’s day.
And it all ends with you jumping a warthog onto a Lich. You blow the Lich up, just like you’d do to a Scarab in Halo 3. It is the most badass mission to happen in all of Halo 4.
I only have two complaints about this mission. The first is that the music used is rather boring until you land on the Lich. There’s a missing rhythm to it, so it doesn’t convey that you’re sweeping back and forth to clear out the Covenant. The music used here is generic filler, instead of something that would fit the scene better.
My second complaint is that the driving section, beginning with the arrival of the Lich and continuing until the actual jump, goes on for too long. Part of this may be due to SpOps’ default design philosophy: throw waves of enemies at the player until we say stop. Part of it may be due to the generic music. It might also be that there’s a lot of driving involved to deactivate the shield at the top of the spire. No matter the reason, there’s just a bit too much driving.
When we return to the Harvester in the last chapter, we plug the Lich’s power core into the Harvester. What I don’t like about this whole thing is that we have a very small power source. It’s smaller than the container Noble Six carries at the end of Halo: Reach. Yet, this core can power a Lich. It can power a very powerful plasma drill. It’s an amazing find! The UNSC could use this technology. If it were plugged into a Spartan’s power armor, the shielding would become impenetrable.
After the Harvester is reactivated, the music, and possibly the ambience, cuts out. We begin to leave the Harvester thinking, “okay, so some Prometheans are going to teleport in now.” They don’t. Everything is as still as the grave until Spartan Miller tells us to go into the giant hole we just made. As we delve into the tunnel, the music switches to a generic eerie track—because silence isn’t eerie enough—and some Prometheans spawn.
Spartan Miller has always aggravated me. Palmer did too, in the earlier episodes. They tell you everything that you need to do. They are your eyes, your ears, and your brain. I hate it. They give you no autonomy. However, I also understand their purpose. If you go into War Games matchmaking, you’ll find that 90% of players don’t use a headset. If you’re playing in Spartan Ops (in a matchmade group) and you don’t have a headset, then you can’t communicate with your team. Spartan Miller fills that role by telling everyone what he or she needs to do, where to go, which buttons to press, and marking targets as done for the sake of headset-less players.
Let’s get back to the last combat sequence, because this is SpOps so you’re not allowed to go more than 20 seconds without shooting something. There are a bunch of Prometheans guarding the artifact. Whatever, they’re dead now. The artifact that we’re looking for looks like the artifact we originally recovered. After it’s deactivated, Requiem starts misbehaving. It’s already starting to be ripped apart by gravitational forces. Now, the gravity starts fluctuating. The first thing that happens is we are launched into the air, and then slammed back into the ground. We’re yanked every which way. It’s a cool sequence, but I have to wonder: shouldn’t the Pelican that’s flying around outside be trashed right now? What an end to SpOps that would be! Crimson dies on Requiem. We never mattered anyway.
Something has been bothering me since Episode 3. When we’re first introduced to Halsey, she’s being brought in on a prisoner transport. The transport is already inside the Infinity before Lasky gives them clearance to land. The scene could have started with Lasky on the bridge, and then cut to the hangar when it arrives. And what does Halsey do when she arrives? She looks at a datapad and announces that the artifact is tapping into the ship and communicating with Requiem. Where did she get that datapad from and how has no one else noticed this?
In Episode 6, we see that Spartan Thorne has been found. We looked all over Requiem for him, but he is discovered in Sniper Alley. I have to ask: why did it take Infinity so long to find Thorne? We know about Sniper Alley; we’ve been there on multiple occasions. The Master Chief discovered the Librarian there, but it seems everyone on the Infinity has totally forgotten about the campaign. Furthermore, why couldn’t Infinity see Crimson until we woke up?
In the next Episode, Infinity is boarded. In the entire Episode, you will only encounter ten Marines. There aren’t any Spartans. The ship, in general, is devoid of human life. The UNSC Infinity has a crew of 17,000, and we see only ten Marines. Not only that, but how did the Covenant ever get on board in the first place? The Infinity has only four apparent hangar bays, and not even one is closed. How did the Infinity fail to detect the dozens of Phantoms leaving Requiem on an approach vector?
In Episode 8, we discovered that the Forerunner artifact is acting as a Slipspace anchor. How long has this been working? Why didn’t Halsey notice this during her time studying the artifact? Most importantly, how has the bridge crew not noticed the anchoring until the Prometheans invaded? You could argue that the anchor was remotely activated by Jul ‘Mdama, but then that just raises further questions. The bridge crew, if not Roland himself, should have noticed the anchor immediately after activation. Lasky should have been informed of it long before he ever gives the order to pull away from Requiem.
When I first played through “Glassman,” the last chapter of Episode 8, I remember thinking that it was really cool to see Glassman figuring out Forerunner tech. It was so refreshing to see that we were taking total control of a Forerunner structure. However, I couldn’t place my finger on why until I looked at the whole picture. Part of that picture is that, in Episode 9, we lost control of that structure. That’s just how it goes in SpOps. We take control of a location one week and get our people set up, and then next week we’re taking that location back.
Infinity can’t establish a permanent base on Requiem because their people have a mysterious tendency to be abducted. I’ll venture a guess to say that’s because there are never enough soldiers assigned to stand watch. In the very first chapter of SpOps, Infinity’s marines are implied to be bad at their jobs. In Episode 2, we see that, yes, they are very bad at their jobs. Yet Infinity keeps assigning these buffoons to guard duty when they’re not even fit to act as doormats.
The problem is so simple when you just step back and look at it: the UNSC is incompetent. There’s no other possible explanation. It’s no wonder Halsey defected to the Storm Covenant.
I really have to wonder how 343i is going to bring this mess together for Halo 5. The Master Chief won’t have Cortana. Her neural network was created from a clone of Halsey’s brain. I highly doubt that the UNSC can replace Cortana since Halsey is working with Jul ‘Mdama. I also have to wonder if we’ll see Halsey working with the Didact; he’s not dead, and he hates humanity now more than ever. If we do, will we see the Master Chief having to gun down the closest person he has to a mother? I doubt it, because Jul ‘Mdama, Halsey, and the Janus Key are all SpOps storylines. Chasing Jul and Halsey across the galaxy in a race to recover Forerunner tech is perfect for SpOps, too. What could be better for episodic content than visiting a planet and scouring it for artifacts?
Overall, I think Spartan Ops is something 343i should expand upon. They’ve touched on some really great moments so far. Episode 2 was incredible. Episodes 4 and 5 were pretty good. Episode 6 showed promise. Episode 7 took us into Infinity, which was cool albeit lackluster. Episode 10 had a proper five-act structure, making it the best episode Season 1 Part 2 had to offer. 343i played with music, ambience, and our expectations to make scenes that were mysterious or unsettling. There are many interesting gems in there.
The biggest problem they have is their filler content. There are many missions where nothing interesting happens. We kill some Covenant, some empty promises about setting up a base are made, and then we’re back there next week to kill some Covenant and make empty promises about getting the base up and running again. Part of this problem is that they reuse every map they have. The Infinity map was only used for Infinity, but it was designed as a reusable asset; if you consider Infinity to be a loop, then the map was designed to be playable going forward and backward. It’s a problem because it’s difficult to design an interesting encounter that way.
When you have an encounter space designed for the player to just go from A to B, much can be done with the architecture to create proper pacing and unique encounters. When the player has to go from B to A later, then there has to be a secondary layering of that architecture to ensure that the trip back isn’t repetitious. Lastly, reusing the environment means that, in going from A to B again, the encounter has to be substantively different in order for the player to recognize it as a wholly separate encounter. This is why playing on Sniper Alley was always such a chore, but playing on Cauldron was never tedious.
Another thing that 343i did to make Season 1 Part 2 a bit more diverse is they hid areas. The first place we see in Episode 6 is Lockup, but we don’t see all of it. In Episode 9, chapter 4, we return to Lockup. At the end of it, we go through a door and find an area that looks rather reminiscent of the amphitheatres in Halo 2’s Metropolis level. That’s an entire encounter space tucked away, and we only see it used twice. Then we see a second hidden encounter space in the chapter that follows. Apex has a huge, open encounter space hidden at the top of the mountain and it’s used for a fantastic large-scale vehicle battle. The Harvester map has a mysterious shrine buried behind a rock wall, and opening the way plays a big part in leaving an impression. These hidden spaces were designed for very specific encounters and it paid off.
Season 1 Part 1 had 8 locations, but most maps were recycled from either campaign or War Games. Only Refuge and Cauldron were created specifically for SpOps. Season 1 Part 2 had 7 locations, but only Control and Tempest were recycled from campaign or War Games. However, since there were hidden encounter spaces, Part 2 effectively had 10 locations.
This is why I think the story with the Jul/Halsey and the Janus Key would make for great SpOps material. I don’t like that Halsey defected. It’s uncharacteristic of Halsey to be so shortsighted. However, the Infinity hopping around the galaxy, chasing after them, is a promising gameplay hook. It means more locations that are diverse and less reason to return to a given place. The designers can focus on delivering a specific encounter (or set of encounters) if we’re visiting a place with the sole purpose of retrieving an artifact. That will make the map, and thus the chapter, stronger. It would reduce the amount of filler. It would mean that the pacing of each chapter—each Episode—can be carefully crafted to create meaningful story advancements.
I have mixed feeling about Season 1 of Spartan Ops, but I am looking forward to where it can go from here.