Couldn't give a chuff for Halo multiplayer? Not particularly keen on the idea of other players butting in on your campaign storytelling? Lay your concerns to rest, O insular one, for Spartan Ops mode's guilty secret is that (so far, at least) you can play it entirely by yourself (you will, however, need an Xbox Live Gold connection anyway - apologies to those misled by this review as it was originally published).
Those missions which cry out loudest for co-op intervention benefit from a dash of AI hand-holding - fire up the vehicle-heavy Landgrab in single player, for instance, and the game will shuttle in UNSC marines to ride shotgun as you motor around the desert, splashing objectives and dodging Wraith shells.
It's not the most enjoyable way to play Spartan Ops, naturally. Each of the five on-disc maps - the first of 50, designated for drop over the 10 weeks following release - is designed to reward team work, splintering into high and low roads with different clusters of heavy ordinance to discover in far-flung corners. Sniper Alley plays it broad and vertical at first, as players work their way across two sets of Forerunner platforms, shrinks down to a windy rocking killzone which suits both duelling at corners and mid-range sniping, then explodes into full-on special weapon carnage.
The Challenge takes place on a vertiginous pile of Forerunner architecture, with a sea of Crawlers slopping around below, waiting to pick off the strays. Sacred is a relatively claustrophobic, uncomplicated run from one end of a temple to another, and Core, finally, sees you tackling the full flower of the Promethean legions across parallel ramps and cover-scarce platforms.
343's unspoken hope is that these option-strewn layouts will stand comparison with the endlessly replayable co-op campaigns of Left 4 Dead. They're bundled up in more or less the same way - a brief opening cutscene sets the tone (there's also a rather more protracted CGI affair to introduce the episode as a whole) and the action is dusted with moderately entertaining battle chatter.
But as capable as the underlying design proves, the missions lack the substance to carry it off. The largest Spartan Ops maps aren't much larger than the largest Halo 4 multiplayer maps, enemies don't reward repeat play as handily as the Infected do, and there's a shortage of interactive map elements or pace-changers like Valve's Gauntlet moments.
The storyline has its moments, despite inheriting the po-facedness of Halo single player. In particular, there's a fun subplot which sees your Crimson Squad competing with the Spartans of Majestic Squad, whose feats of valour occur off-screen. It's not the most compelling meta-narrative we've encountered lately - that honour probably falls to comparing your life-or-death decisions to those of the community in The Walking Dead - but I'm looking forward to finding out how the rivalry evolves in the course of Season 1.
It's easy to dismiss Spartan Ops as a slightly gratuitous novelty freebie - gratuitous given that the main campaign also supports co-op, and accommodates rather more cinematic razzmatazz in the process. This add-on campaign could - and should - be the start of momentous things for Halo, however, as Microsoft begins its conquest of the free-to-play sphere. Hopefully, future episodes will build on the first instalment's robust foundation, expanding the maps and introducing variables to upset the rhythm of some familiar firefights.
Read our full Halo 4 review for the verdict on the main campaign and multiplayer.
Free, fun but a little too spartan