The (re)Birth of Episodic Gaming - Halo 4's Spartan Ops
About three years ago, a friend and I came up with an idea. One that would utilise the existing market for weekly episodic drama and combine it with video gaming. A downloadable week by week 30-45 minute game that would take the place of hit shows such as "lost" and "the walking dead". Each episode would comprise a fully acted segment to set the story up, then allow the player to explore that story, or take direct control of one of its characters. We saw this working very well for suspense and drama games, maybe even incorporating Rockstar's then brand new face and emotion technology made famous by the fantastic suspense thriller LA Noir. Well its been three years, and due to lack of funds and the slight hitch that we don't own our own computer games or publishing company, we haven't gotten around to it yet. The good news however, is that Microsoft's new Halo champions, 343 industries, have had a stab at this very concept.
Halo is Microsoft's ace in the hole, its a genre defining game that has enjoyed overwhelming success since its very first appearance on the big ol fat Xbox of yesteryear some 12 years past. For those not familiar with the series it focuses mainly on a genetic super soldier wearing a foot thick armour suit running around shooting aliens in the face, all with the main idea that the more purple and green blooded squidmen you kill, the less earth gets blown up. You know, the usual. Well, Halo 4's campaign is in essence more of the same "if it ain't broke don't fix it" style shoot em up. However the new creators of the game franchise have elected to include an episodic "Spartan Ops" game mode.
Halo's new game mode is the first of its kind. Sure there have been episodic games before, Valve's PC crowbar em up classic Half Life 2 probably sitting at the top of the pile. But nothing quite like this, nothing quite like the idea we had. Nothing that should be truly considered "episodic". Each Spartan Ops episode brings with it a short, but very high quality, intro video typically lasting in the region of 5 minutes each. Players can then jump into games with upto 3 other friends or random internet people and continue the story in five, twenty minute ish chapters. Each chapter is basically just a small section of a map, voice ques and audio give the players their orders and advance the story, usually giving you an objective to defend, switch to press, or enemy emplacement to attack.
The actual gameplay is simplistic, re-using objectives or map segments on a regular basis, but somehow it never seems to get old. My brother and I have been playing through episodes 1-5 over the past few weeks and I can honestly say that each and every time its been a fun, engaging and very amusing experience. 343 industries have even taken as many ques from the community as they can, and have promised that future episodes will be more fluid and make better use of the map space available. This is great news as you don't often go through 5 chapters in a row without doing at least one thing twice. Spartan Ops isnt the new style of game I envisioned, but its a bloody good facsimile. What it is however is a portent of things to come. Its the star of Bethlehem for gamers. Its an experiment in something new, a bold idea, and above all, its lots of fun.
Episodes 6-10 are currently on the Xbox live market place and all Spartan Ops are free to anyone with a copy of Halo 4 and an Xbox live subscription.