For the longest time, as we showered Spartan Ops with praise as this incredible package of free downloadable content that will hit your Xbox 360 every week for ten weeks and come with a CG-short feature that you watch and five missions that you play --based on and inspired by that week's short feature--, in the back of my mind I always thought there was going to be some kind of trapdoor to the whole thing. Like the playable missions are going to be super short, or somehow truncated or have limited access to weapons or vehicles or something like that.
After running through two and half mission of an early Spartan Ops package, I'm thrilled to report that this thing is the real deal. That half mission came about because, in a recent playthrough of the entire Halo 4 experience, we accidentally loaded up a third Spartan Ops mission that wasn't supposed to be shown. If 343 Industries, as Microsoft's new stewards of all things Halo, was playing us the whole time then I've been happily suckered.
You're a human assigned to a squad aboard the UNSC ship Infinity and you're sent down to Requiem (the main planet where the magic happens in H4) on missions that are communicated by radio and that play a part in the larger struggle between humans, Prometheans and the Covenant. Other than not being Master Chief with all of his power and weapons and abilities, we didn't notice anything different when we mounted up with four other human players in a fleet of Warthogs and Ghosts for vehicle-based Spartan Ops mission. The missions we saw were all objective based where we're given sequences of radio instructions from commanders aboard the Infinity that has going places and doing stuff like uploading some kind of satellite communications or taking out some defense installation. Whatever the objective was, there would be resisting Prometheans and Covenant all along the way and even more, extra tough, bad guys around that button that must be pressed in that underground bunker or on that security tower.
It feels like objective-based Halo combat to me and not a thing was missing. The half mission we saw had our squad on foot assaulting a Promethean position that was secured by what seemed like dozens of Watchers. We go into the intricacies of battling Promethean enemy types elsewhere, but on foot, those things are a pain in the ass even with three buddies helping you out. They change the vertical game in a way that swarming Banshees or those cricket looking things from the much maligned Halo: ODST never could.
One of my favorite elements of Spartan Ops is how each mission toys with the amount and types of gear you have available. In the vehicle level there are Warthogs everywhere and the Covenant attack in vehicles that you can then jack to create essentially an all-vehicle battle. There are turret positions scattered throughout the map as well so that you never feel like cool items are scarce. On higher difficulty settings, though, this dynamic will surely change somehow. On the mission that had us battling Promethean Watchers, lots of high powered weapons like the Inferno Cannon and the Spartan Laser were available even though those are terrible ways to deal with Watchers. Great for Promethean Knights but terrible for Watchers. The point is, getting cool weapons and gear scattered throughout a map like it's some kind of overdone multiplayer match, but in a cooperative, objective-based game type is very satisfying. Plus it's free and new stuff will be coming every week for a couple of months. All together, the folks at 343 Industries tell us that Spartan Ops will have the quality and quantity of content that you'd expect from an entire co-op campaign mode.
The official line on the Spartan Ops concept for Halo 4 is that it's some kind of "television series you can play." Lofty promises like that have raised the quality of many games and many forms of entertainment over the years, but in the case of Spartan Ops nobody is going to sell it short by describing as exactly what it is: the best model for downloadable content in video games.
At least it will be for gamers like you.