Why Halo 4’s Spartan Ops Matters: The Story After the Story

Welcome back to Why It Matters! Today we examine the Spartan Ops mode in Halo 4 with all of its highlights and disappointments, as well as what it ultimately means to gamers.

As one of the biggest and most powerful companies on the face of the planet, Microsoft gets a lot of flak for lacking in innovation and not taking risks. This may be true for some of their products, but not for video games: from the launch of the original Xbox console in 2001, Microsoft has spent a lot of time, money and energy in creating some groundbreaking experiences such as Xbox Live, achievements and Xbox Live Arcade. There are some safe choices as well, but credit must be given to a company that repeatedly tries ambitious and financially risky propositions such as early broadband Internet adaption, large internal hard drive and eccentric games such as Fable (morally driven powers and appearance) and even the original Halo which was converted from an RTS to an FPS and featured a lot of unconventional choices  for a shooter such as a lot of vehicle based action, orchestral score and plot with heavy elements of mysticism.

It may not be as revolutionary as those iconic and now standard feats, but the Spartan Ops mode in Halo 4 does represent the possibility of a significant shift in the way that video games tell a story through an author driven narrative. Episodic content has become en vogue in recent years as downloadable titles have gained traction with games (especially on mobile devices) and the standard storyline or campaign mode has been around forever, but rarely in the same game and never on this scale.  The closest has been Half-Life 2, but Episode 1 and 2 are really expansion packs in the same way that Blue Shift added additional narrative to the core game, but also stood alone as a separate experience. Spartan Ops is a different beast, one that has been deliberately interwoven into the fabric of the core game. It is not necessary to play in order to experience the latest chapter in the legend of the Master Chief, but 343 Industries has taken great care and spent significant resources on the idea of seasons of story content released in episodes on a weekly basis not only to keep fans engaged with the game, but also to give the designers the opportunity to incorporate feedback into later episodes.

The latter point is key for the long term success of Spartan Ops, which has ranged from mildly entertaining to thoroughly lackluster after the first 7 episodes. Split into a pair of halves, the first 5 episodes of Season 1 have been a profound disappointment that combined irritating narrative presentation that consists almost entirely of a Spartan commander barking orders with cliched dialogue, heavily reused maps and enemy drops that are both obvious and unfair. The missions aren’t fun, they are a lengthy grind that yields little XP rewards and even less enjoyment as I slogged through them with a shrinking group of disenchanted friends. The second half is uneven, at best. The 2.2 GB optional download offers new settings that add variety to the action and shifts the narrative away from the grinding commander to the relatively redeeming character Thomas Lasky, who acts like more of  an ally than a disenchanted spectator. It doesn’t fix most of the problems from the first half of Season 1, but it does alleviate a lot of the pain points.

The Spartan Ops mode has been an ambitious idea with deeply flawed execution so far, but there is something really worth building on here. 343 needs to become comfortable in asking gamers to download content for each episode to avoid significant redundancies in enemies and levels, and commit their full story and universe design team to creating episodic experience with the narrative richness of the core campaign. Whether it comes from an extended internal development cycle or reaching out to Halo Universe contributors such as Greg Bear, there are a variety of sources that can create supplementary content for the world of Halo that should be engaged. Microsoft and 343 Industries are clearly committed to creating Halo experiences that endure, both as a method of long term gamer engagement and a disincentive to trade in the game after experiencing the highlights; the success of this mode of gaming matters significantly for both enjoyment and business reasons. I hope they commit to future iterations of Spartan Ops with an increased commitment of time and resources, to develop it into the compelling, core experience that I know it can become.

And while we’re at it, please bring back Firefight! It was a bit repetitive in Halo 3: ODST and arcade structured in Halo Recon, but there’s a really fun core experience in that mode and I would love to see the 343 team take on it.

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