After a brief hiatus, Spartan Ops will return Jan. 21. The second half of the first season of Halo 4's free episodic campaign includes five new episodes chronicling the adventures of the UNSC Infinity and her crew.
Whereas Halo 4's player-versus-player multiplayer component plants its action and narrative flag onboard the spacefaring vessel, Spartan Ops takes players to the surface of Requiem, a Forerunner planet steeped in franchise lore.
The game's developer, 343 Industries, bills the first 10 episodes as Season 1, which certainly implies further installments, though 343 has yet to confirm confirm future content. What we know is that, after a brief Lost-like hiatus that began on Dec. 3, Spartan Ops will pick up where its first five episodes ended.
Beginning next week with Episode 6, players will don Mjolnir armor and return to Requiem. This time, with the benefit of observation gleaned from more than 32 million Spartan Ops missions played, 343 will add new twists to the formula established in the first five episodes.
"I would say that's one of the more key challenges for the second half of the first season, I think," Spartan Ops mission designer David Ellis told Polygon in a recent interview. "We learned a lot of lessons from the first half [of the season], especially in how we use environments — and in some cases reuse environments — and I think we've done a much better job of compartmentalizing the maps."
Ellis uses depth to describe the process of expanding the environments in the upcoming episodes, which he characterizes as "a sort of natural evolution of what we did with the first half of the season" informed both by the developers' desires and player feedback.
"We sort of think of them as layers, and each time you go there you peel another layer back and another layer back," he said. "So you always have something new to do, something to see and something that's going to change your perspective on what that map or environment is."
Spartan Ops' narrative is designed to expand like its level design, following the continuing adventures of fire teams Crimson and Majestic and the glue that binds them together: a quasi-imprisoned scientist named Dr. Catherine Halsey.
"In essence, she's kind of the mother of the Spartan program — she created them," Ellis said.
"She's actually being held — not of her own free will."
Freed of the time that 343 had to take establishing the narrative and characters, Ellis said that the goal was "to hit the ground running" both in terms of gameplay and design.
"I think in the first mission [in Episode 6], especially within the first 10 seconds, we're going to be doing things that we never did the first time around."
"I think in the first mission [in Episode 6], especially within the first 10 seconds, we're going to be doing things that we never did the first time around, and I think that's pretty exciting from the design perspective," he said. "We always like to do new things. You never want to the same thing over and over again.
"I think from that perspective, people will know firsthand that it's not just going to be the same experience, per se."
Ellis identified an area of improvement that the team focused on by trying to congeal Spartan Ops' dual narratives, which play out in CG cutscenes and through the first-person shooter's boots on the ground.
"I think we did a better job with the second half of the season of tying the storyline of the missions into the CG episode," he said. "They're not identical. They're sort of two parallel storylines that are going along, but what we tried to do is, when there was overlap, we wanted to make sure that they were important, that they were impactful.
"There are going to be some very key elements within this season ... where you're going to play a big role in what's happening in the CG episodes."
Ellis was tightlipped about what kind of role that is, but he was obviously excited about the way Spartan Ops is evolving. He praised the art department, which created bigger set pieces for this second half, but he was also careful to avoid revealing them for fear of spoilers.
"Especially as we get down further to the end of the first season," he said, "there's some big set pieces, some big moments that people aren't going to be expecting."
Halo 4 players will get to experience some of those set pieces for the first time next Monday. In the meantime, you can check out a Spartan Ops trailer that made its debut at the Spike VGAs in December.