Halo 4 Spartan Ops preview: getting what you pay for

Buzzwords like "platform" get tossed out a lot these days with major franchises. In business terms, it refers to the notion that a game can keep doling out content well after its release. Halo 4 wants to be more than a game, it wants to be a content hub that will be relevant for months and maybe even years to come. The main tentpole in 343's attempt to transform the game into a "platform" is the new Spartan Ops mode--a replacement for Halo Reach's Firefights, featuring a series of discrete missions organized into 10-week seasons. Each mission is like an episode in a television series, only if that show released five episodes a week instead of one. That adds up to 50 episodes a season, and it's all free.

Can 343 keep up the quality of Spartan Ops without it seeming forced?

Spartan Ops definitely has a lot of potential. These aren't cheap one-offs--each mission features fully-voiced dialogue housed in elaborate cutscenes. For 343, they offer an opportunity to tell stories in the Halo universe that go beyond the bounds of a typical story campaign. For fans, it's a chance to get together with friends and blow new things up on a weekly basis. Everyone's a winner. That being said though, the early growing pains are apparent. Overall, the missions are pretty solid, but the quality can be kind of uneven. They can be played alone, but 343 Studios has come right out and said that they are balanced for multiplayer, and it shows in the level design and the enemy distribution. It feels a little limited at times, but by the fifth mission, the levels are definitely trending upward. Here's what jumped out at me about three of the missions. Land Grab: Land Grab and Sniper Alley both feel like score attacks. Land Grab in particular isn't the most complicated of missions. Basically, 343 Industries saw fit to throw a bunch of vehicles into an open valley and let players go crazy. If you're playing with a friend or two, both can be really fun. But neither is what you would call "rich" in terms of either design or storytelling. The Challenge: I'm not a fan of this mission. Playing it with friends, it was pretty nondescript. Basically, you walk around a large complex and shut down jammers while being hounded by Promethean forces. It's not terrible with friends. I'm not sure it's possible to beat alone using the default loadout though. It's absolutely loaded with two of the most annoying enemies in the game--flying shield generators and robo dogs. They swarm, they're hard to take out, and there are hardly any worthwhile weapons to be found. This mission needs a turret or a Fuel Rod Gun in the worst way. Core: The fifth mission in the initial set. This is where the Spartan Ops missions start to get interesting. Set around a volcano, it features both Covenant and Prometheans, as well as a wide variety of weapons. There are turrets to pick up, and a Fuel Rod gun too. The level design is interesting, and there's a sense that the narrative is picking up as you find and defend an artifact. Core is easily the best of the initial five. BOOM video 14131 In some ways, it feels as if 343 Industries has bitten off more than it can chew. Five missions per week for 10 weeks, after all, is a lot of content. In addition to the actual design, there's balancing, story development, and voice recording to worry about. For that reason, I worry that Spartan Ops missions will continue to be uneven in terms of balance and overall quality. When you're just cranking out missions like that, it's tough to keep to Halo's generally high standards. Is it a good replacement for the Firefight Mode featured in previous Halo games? Depends on who you ask. There is a certain appeal to sitting around and gunning down waves and waves of approaching foes with your friends, and it's a little sad to see the mode cut from Halo 4. On the other hand, Halo has never really been about glorified tower defense fights, has it? Halo has always thrived on its story as much as its multiplayer. In that, Spartan Ops succeeds by mixing the franchise's time-tested narrative elements with the co-op challenges that made the other games fun. With that in mind, there's a lot to like about Spartan Ops at this early date. Just the opportunity to use my multiplayer Spartan in a story mission is pretty fun. On top of the scoreboard, there are a variety of in-mission challenges to complete, most of them of the "Kill 40 Elites" variety. If there are no friends around, Spartan Ops offers random matchmaking. After going on a few runs with the Spartan Ops missions, I've come to the conclusion that they are a well-paced, sometimes challenging addition to Halo 4's core content. That they are completely free is just icing on the cake. It's still early--and 343 definitely has some mission balance issues to work out--but indications are that Halo 4 is set to make good on its promise of being a robust platform for new content.
Be sure to check out Kat's review of Halo 4, and a look at how accessible the game is for new players.