Spartan Ops was a transmedia event. A player wouldn't have to have read every piece of Halo expanded universe material to understand what was going on in their gameplay, but if they had they would be treated to moments of recognition and a huge step forward in the life of the woman who may be the series' most pivotal character.
Some spoilers under the cut.
Spartan Ops paired cinematic cutscenes with sets of weekly missions that introduced new characters and locations to Halo 4. It more than doubles the size and scope of the game that is available offline. The animation is beautiful, almost photorealistic, with some of the best fight scenes in the Halo universe. The missions were a lot of fun, with some beautiful maps, and I found myself enjoying finding which strategy worked best in each landscape. I grew to love some of the characters and feel like we'd really gone through an adventure together.
The main characters are customizable, with one to four players engaging in missions that tie in to the story. The gameplay can get repetitive, especially when the number of maps is limited, but it's consistently entertaining.
Likewise the value of the characters is in the ability to interact with them: the aggressive Sarah Palmer and calm Thomas Lasky are one-note but likeable, and other supporting characters help out during missions. Humor and rivalries make them more than just a way to explain the little blue lights pointing the players toward their next task.
Both my favorite and my least favorite thing about Spartan Ops was Catherine Halsey. I've talked about her before, and Spartan Ops continues to treat her as a friendless villain.
I love Halsey. In Halo 1-3 and Fall of Reach (my intro into the Halo EU)
she was like a twist on the wise old mentor trope. Part of the twist
was that she was a wise old woman, but the other part was that she was a
wise old child-kidnapping mad genius. I love how smart she is, and the
way she gets involved with so many unconventional types of motherhood -
she’s mother to the Spartans and to her AI as well as to her biological
Halsey has been mistreated in the EU a
little in a way that seems at odd with Halo as a franchise. Spartans are
always portrayed as a positive, righteous force that players are
supposed to identify with and root for- Halo is sometimes almost
laughably pro-military. Halsey, however, prevents an opposing point of
view - she’s almost universally hated in-universe for creating those
very Spartans. Spartans themselves hate her for kidnapping children to
turn into Spartans. It would make a little more sense to me if any of
those Spartans expressed a desire to be civilians themselves.
is, essentially, the scapegoat for anti-draft arguments within a
pro-military story. Spartan-IVs are volunteers, and were created without
Halsey’s involvement but using some of her technology. They almost seem
to me like an apology from the creators of the game for presenting a
I’m not saying that any given franchise shouldn’t poke at its own
moral underpinnings, but Halsey seems so universally hated in-universe
to an unrealistic degree. I wish she had an in-universe friend.
That meta-commentary stuff can kick me out of the story sometimes, but
going back into it, I like Halsey for her long-suffering at the same
time as recognizing that her arrogance and amorality are flaws. They’re
interesting, morally thorny flaws too. I admire her brains and her ability to remain calm under fire, and I love that this woman who, unlike Cortana, isn't sexualized has always been the central figure of a very masculine game.
The loss of Halsey's arm in episode 10 reinforces the idea that she's on a Hero's Journey. It's not a cosmetic loss: it's an ugly one, come from living in a ship full of brutish warriors who don't know how her species works. It's not a "cool" scar, and I love Halsey even more for that. Halsey's wound reminded me of when Luke Skywalker lost his hand, and I feel like season two of Spartan Ops, if there is one, will be the Empire Strikes Back of the Halo universe.