We weren't going to review the third episode of Halo 4's Spartan Ops campaign, because (a) slapping a separate score on content that seldom outlasts an hour seems a little contrived, and (b) there's only so many times you can read the words "not as good as Firefight" without reaching through the screen, seizing me firmly by the ears and banging my head against my keyboard.
I was planning to write some kind of feature instead, possibly reaffirming the hilarity of my ineptitude, but you know what? (a) I'm tired to the point that I'm itemising sentences rather than constructing them properly, and (b) Episode 3's worth reviewing. A little over-dependent on sheer volume, mind, but given the slightness of the first two episodes, the volume's rather welcome.
Once again, 343 has managed to construct five whole missions out of mostly second-hand parts. Two take place on a not-so-subtly altered Ragnorak, with goofier props like the mancannons swapped for downed Pelicans, Forerunner terminals, and an excess of tank barriers. Another mission sees Crimson tearing around Land Grab, which now sports a full-blown Covenant base at the far end. You'll also revisit the Gate in search of a particularly troublesome Elite, and shoot up a version of Complex that's lousy with screaming marines. Sorry marines. It's not my fault you don't know how to bunny-hop.
The Farce is once again strong with Microsoft's claim that all this amounts to a full-blown separate campaign, but you'll be too busy getting the sherbet blown out of you by Grunts, Elites, Hunters and Jackals to complain at length. Halo's traditional bad guys are back in strength for Episode 3, hammering down relentlessly from the heavens along with a regular travelling roadshow of Ghosts, Wraiths and Banshees. There is but the one way to survive their attentions, and that's via the free and unstinting exercise of firepower.
The periodic weapon drops are almost exclusively limited to big, bad, explosive items like Rail Guns, Spartan Lasers and Rocket Launchers, and practically every Covenant with a fancy hat is holding a Fuel Rod Gun. The action's at its fiercest on Ragnorak, where you're required to first rescue another squad, then defend the area against aerial insertion from all sides. At times the pyrotechnics come close to flattening all tactical thought - towards the close of the fourth mission, you're handed a bunch of Mantis mechs and basically ordered to incinerate the entire Covenant fleet. Any chance of a performance bonus, Commander?
But however brain-dead things get, Episode 3 thrills in a way the first two never managed. It feels like 343 has finally mustered the confidence to really challenge players, obliging them to nail down their loadouts and actually, you know, cooperate. Things are heating up in the CGI narrative too, which still has little in common with the missions themselves. Dr Catherine Halsey, founder of the Spartan programme, has been brought on board the Infinity, and is engaged in a fierce struggle with Sarah Palmer for the title of Least Sympathetic Authority Figure. Who will prevail? And what's going on with the big orange slab in the basement?
I hope Episode 4 keeps Episode 3's bulk, while restoring a little of the science. I also hope 343 finds a way to fatten up the associated leaderboards, introducing more in the way of awards and medals - "Best Sniper", "Most Supportive", etc. Breaking down the match stats this way would give players more incentive to revisit maps that, while increasingly entertaining, lack the volatility of outcomes we associate with the best co-op-centric shooters. Still not as good as Firefight, then, but getting closer...
The Covenant stop pulling their punches