In my last article, I talked about Halo 4 and it’s lack of interesting and meaningful characters. I felt that the only thing that might save Halo 4 would be Spartan Ops: 10 weeks of episodic content that focus on Crimson Team, a group of Spartan soldiers fighting on the planet Requiem six months after Halo 4. Now, only three episodes in, I think I have come to my conclusion.
Spartan Ops on paper is a fantastic idea. Keeping people engrossed in the narrative months after the original game keeps people excited about the sequel and allows the writers more time to flesh out characters and build their personalities. Each episode starts with an incredibly realistic pre-rendered cut-scene and then provides five levels for you and three other friends to play. The cut-scenes have to be seen to be believed: they truly are pushing on the verge of photo-realism. A number of times I actually couldn’t tell if it was live action or computer generated.
Unfortunately, the incredible technology is wasted on wooden characters and a dull script. Admittedly, a full review of the story cannot be made until the season is over, but the awful character stereotypes and cringe-worthy lines do not leave me with much confidence. The worst offender is Commander Sarah Palmer, Lasky’s right hand woman. Presumably supposed be the new trilogy’s equivalent of Sergeant Johnson, Palmer comes off as a dumb, macho henchman. I find it hard to believe that somebody who constantly refers to scientists as egg-heads, has little interest in anything other then the Spartans and spouts ridiculous macho bro-fist lines at the beginning, middle and end of every mission would be promoted to the commander of the Spartan IV army. Aside from Palmer, we have the obligatory smart but quiet Spartan, the macho, jarhead leader Spartan, the female Spartan and the non-white Spartan. This is as far as their character development has come so far in the story. The only interesting characters are Lasky and Dr. Halsey, who have had much better lines and character arks then most other characters in the whole Halo game saga to date.
…bored from playing the recycled and bland levels…
Hopefully the mystery of the planet Requiem will unravel during the next 7 episodes, but that’s if we are not all bored from playing the recycled and bland levels. There are currently five distinct Spartan Ops levels that we can play through. One is set in the snow, two set in the desert, a fourth set in grassy tunnels and the fifth outside a Forerunner base. At first I was impressed at how the development team were going to create such varied environments each episode, but then I realised that each episode would use the same maps.
In the first episode, I traversed a desert canyon dodging snipers and sticky grenading grunts. In the second episode, I traversed the same desert canyon avoiding snipers and sticky grenading grunts, the only difference being I started from the end of the map and worked my way to the beginning. This trick is used too often in the first three episodes and quickly becomes draining. Requiem is an amazing planet, full of beautiful scenery and strange anomalies, but poor Crimson Team are stationed in the same-old bland environments. To be fair, there are two stand-out missions in the third episode that see you fighting off a Covenant Armada with four Mantises, but these missions aren’t even set on the Spartan Ops maps: they are instead on the recycled multiplayer map Ragnarok.
…a high bar of graphical quality…
It is incredibly hard to create interesting levels and environments on a weekly basis, especially with a game that has such a high bar of graphical quality. 343 Industries should be praised for attempting such an ambitious project, but if we had known that it would just be linear Firefight maps with pretty cut-scenes I’m not sure we would have wanted it. If the narrative doesn’t ramp up considerably in the next few episodes, I fear that only the die-hard fans will stick around to the end of the season, let alone the second.
Spartan Ops, so far, is an experiment that should be praised for it’s ambition, but it’s a perfect example of how episodic content can be handled badly. One week is not enough to create fresh, engaging levels. The Walking Dead: The Game has shown that players will happily wait a month, or even two, in order to get a well-written and fun-to-play episode. Spartan Ops, in comparison, feels rushed. I will keep playing to the end because I really hope it will turn around and become a great Halo story, but 343 aren’t making it easy for me to trust them.