343 Industries has the most ambitious of plans for Halo 4 in Spartan Ops. The promised weekly updates that will span "months rather than weeks" will continue the Halo story beyond the events of the game's campaign, according to franchise development director Frank O'Connor.
Halo 4 picks up five years after the events of Halo 3. Master Chief is still at the Forerunner world that we now know to be called Requiem, and he's been joined by the UNSC Infinity in a battle against the planet's natives as well as Covenant forces who believe that they've found the homeworld of one of their gods.
The story follows Master Chief's heroic feats while the multiplayer instead drops players into the battle armor of Earth's forces in the continuing campaign to maintain control of the planet. In gameplay terms, this breaks down into two basic elements: War Games, the competitive multiplayer mode which is framed in the game as training exercises, and Spartan Ops, which offers a co-op-centric continuing storyline.
The plan as 343 lays it out is to deliver weekly content updates that amount to five bite-sized missions for up to four players, plus one cinematic cutscene that lays out the underlying narrative driving a given week's scenario. Our behind closed doors E3 2012 demo took the form of a ground infantry combat mission, though fans can expect to enjoy the full gamut of Halo experiences, including vehicle-oriented missions and perhaps a few surprises that have yet to be revealed, as Spartan Ops unfolds.
What's especially cool about Spartan Ops is that the content won't ever go away. You'll need to be connected to Xbox Live to access it, but the mode technically amounts to an ever-growing library of content that you can play and replay as much as you'd like. You'll rank up in Spartan Ops along the same line of progression that you do in War Games, so anything you unlock can be used in both modes.
There's a lot to unlock too. Multiplayer loadouts represent a major change in Halo 4, offering a much more elaborate and play-changing set of customizable variables than Halo: Reach did. In addition to tweaking basic supplies like weapons and grenade loadouts, players will also have three slots to set up--Tactical Package, Armor Ability, and Support Upgrade--with a wider range of options unlocking as they level up. This is where you'll access stuff like Armor Lock and Hologram, as well as new abilities such as Firepower, a Tactical Package that lets you equip two primary weapons to your loadout.
For the E3 demo, O'Connor was joined by executive producer Kiki Wolfkill for a runthrough of the first week's first episode of Spartan Ops. The cutscene was shown as an unfinished animatic, but it was ample for conveying a sense of the story. It seems that Covenant forces discovered some sort of Forerunner artifact on Requiem. Earth's powers-that-be believe that anything the Covenant want to possess, humanity should take instead, and so a squad is sent out to secure the artifact.
The brief multi-objective mission involved fighting through Covenant forces to activate a series of doors and switches, eventually clearing the way to the artifact. Picking up the Forerunner tech sets off hidden alarms that summon some of the planet's defensive AI, and the mission turns into one of survival as the squad awaits pickup from a friendly Pelican.
Here we get to see a few of the game's new enemies in action. Crawlers are the most basic of the defensive AI, small, bug-like critters that move quickly and leap great distances. A single headshot will bring one down with a satisfying pop, but they tend to move too quickly to make precision firepower very effective.
Then there are the Knights, humanoid creatures that can attack at range with weapons and up close with slashing claws. They're an aggressive bunch, but they become positively deadly when supported by Watchers. These flying support units ought to be priority one in any encounter. Not only can they shield any nearby enemies and spawn in more crawlers, they can also resurrect any fallen Knights.
The new enemies bring along a new arsenal of weapons of well, one of which was showcased in the demo: the Scattershot. It's a shotgun-like Forerunner weapon with ammo that ricochets, making it a force to contend with in any indoor location. Although this Spartan Op mission was set outdoors, the Scattershot still proved to be one of the more effective defenses against Crawlers.
Overall, Spartan Ops feels like it's set to be a significant addition to the Halo franchise. There's no Online Pass or anything like that; this will be a standard game feature, available to all players. It's also going to be a constantly growing library of additional mission content that you can replay to your heart's content, provided you have a live Internet connection. What The Forge did for Halo 3, Spartan Ops looks set to do for Halo 4. Look for it in stores on November 6.