Halo 4's Spartan Ops component isn't your average wodge of bolt-on DLC. Together with the web series Forward Unto Dawn, it's an attempt to claim the very notion of episodic entertainment for one of Microsoft's key franchises ahead of a widely predicted, industry-wide switch-over to the service revenue model, where the larger portion of revenue comes from all-year-round, iterative updates, rather than initial product sales.
The idea is to dispense with fire-and-forget thinking, to build the sort of on-going momentum for a game that the best TV shows enjoy. That's not to say Spartan Ops is mere glorified television, of course. "If you say the term "interactive TV" that kind of gives me the willies, because it sounds like, you know, I'll pull up some UI that will tell me how to skip the plot along," 343's founder Frank O'Connor told OXM at a preview event.
"But this is truly interactive," he went on. "You're genuinely engaging inside the story and using the skill set and the muscle memory that you've learned from years of playing Halo to actually have an effect on the story and feel like you're connected to it."
The first season of Spartan Ops content comprises 50 missions, five per week over a 10 week period. The missions take the form of short, sharp four-player co-op odysseys set six weeks after the events of Halo 4, and starring Spartan-IV troops from the good ship UNSC Infinity. You'll fight both the Covenant and the new Promethean enemies, using all the weapons, gear and vehicles available in the campaign and regular head-to-head multiplayer.
Those missions we've sampled ranged from tense, winding scurries around boulder-strewn mountainsides to a big vehicular dust-off with dug-in Grunts and Elites. Mid-mission radio chatter between your slightly wet-behind-the-ears operator and a brusque executive officer add flavour, and the final versions will come wrapped in externally produced CGI sequences. The idea, says O'Connor, is to create an engaging context for your own, spontaneous tales of derring do.
"We're doing some interesting things narratively with it," he explained. "We have two squads, Crimson and Majestic, that have a rivalry, and you get to be the unseen squad in some ways, doing all the hard work, while the squad of characters that you're ultimately relating to and learning about are off doing other things.
"So there's this really interesting narrative friction that we've built - between this real squad which is you and your friends and the virtual squad." As in War Games, players will be able to customise their Spartan-IVs cosmetically and in terms of load-outs using XP, meaning that you'll be able to read each season back in the very appearance of the soldiers you deploy.
This intriguing tension between the fictional and non-fictional points to the possibility of a user-driven narrative, but O'Connor says it would be difficult to alter the plot in response to player action, as production values require at least some measure of forward planning.
"Players don't have the chance to affect things emergently, because we kind of have to build that monolithically. We know who the favourite characters are, and we know who they hate, and that person is designed to be hated, and we know how they're enjoying the fiction - but that's not the same as letting them dictate the direction."