For a good number of gamers, the Halo franchise is synonymous with the Xbox name. After all, the first Halo helped launch the console and made it a hit in a PS2-dominated space. Halo 2 helped solidify Xbox Live as the premiere place for online gaming on a console. The thought of an Xbox console without a new Halo game is unfathomable. Xbox One owners are no different, and while the wait continues for a new Halo game to hit the new platform, Microsoft saw fit to give the new console an older Halo title to satisfy fans. Halo: Spartan Assault is a port of the Windows Phone 8 game, and it is a fine title. It just isn't what people were expecting.
Set in a time period between Halo 3 and Halo 4, Halo: Spartan Assault doesn't have you taking on the role of the famous Master Chief (AKA Spartan-117). Instead, you take on the roles of both Spartans, Davis and Palmer, at the outpost on Draetheus V and its moon, X50. Te outpost is under attack from a Covenant force that has ignored the peace treaty and gone rogue. You repel enemy forces to prevent them from uncovering old Forerunner technology, which can be used to destroy planets.
The tale certainly holds more significance if you pay attention to the franchise lore outside of video games. The heroes in this title play significant roles in the novels and such. What you get are the highlights of an important battle, rather than a fully fleshed-out tale. Aside from animated storyboards that bookend the chapters, most of the tale is told in text boxes that precede each mission, and even that doesn't do much beyond explaining the events that preceded the mission. Part of the reason for this is because you're essentially playing a program aboard the UNSC ship Infinity that uses the battle as tactical training for Spartans during their off-time. It is an interesting framing device, but it makes it feel like a throwaway story since it doesn't try to tie into the other games.
Spartan Assault marks the second official time the Halo franchise has veered away from the first-person perspective (Halo Wars being the first instance). This time, the game features a top-down perspective and a dual-stick system to deliver the shots. The left thumbstick moves your Spartan, the right thumbstick handles aiming, and you pull the right trigger to actually fire the weapon. Aside from that change, everything else remains the same as the more recent console titles. Commands for suit powers and melee attacks are still in familiar spots on the controller. The game also retains other mechanics, like a two-gun limit and an ammunition count for each firearm, forcing people to think about their shots during firefights instead of spamming the area with bullets. It also has skulls, a mechanic introduced in Halo 3, which give you handicaps for each level, like turning off your HUD or forcing you to become more vulnerable during attacks.
The shift in perspective also brings with it a gameplay shift, as the title is less grounded in story and has more of an arcade focus. You won't see points flying above each Covenant member you kill, but you have a persistent on-screen score counter during fights. You also have familiar badges, like Double Kill, Killimanjaro and Wrecking Ball that act as point multipliers, which are essential when you're trying to achieve three-tier star rankings for each level to gain more XP.
For the most part, the levels can be broken down into three different disciplines. Some levels have you hunting specific targets, with or without a time limit. Others are escort missions, and some levels require you to hold down your position until help arrives. No matter what, the missions rarely deviate from a given task, and instead of combining them into one giant quest, the game sets this up as 30 different levels: a combination of 25 levels from the original game and five bonus levels from the free DLC.
As far as the core game goes, it isn't a bad shooter. The mechanics of the Halo universe work very well here, though there is a heavy emphasis on on-foot action over vehicles. The arena style of environment keeps the game focused on combat more than exploration, a point punctuated by the relatively small size of each arena and the lack of secret areas. Giving it an arcade slant means that weaponry is abundant, so you'll rarely have a moment when guns aren't being fired. In short, it works as well as expected.
However, there are things that work against the game, and most of them stem from the title's mobile roots. The singular mission objectives keep things simple, but the levels only take a few minutes to complete. It's nice for quick sessions, but those going for longer playthroughs will be disappointed that they can complete the game in an afternoon. Also, the enemy AI doesn't seem to be as smart as it was in the console titles. They might dodge or run away, but don't expect much in the way of tactics. Oddly, their lowered intelligence means that your allies become quite useful and can even eliminate a few enemies on their own.
What is probably the most irksome is the presence of microtransactions, a holdover from the mobile iteration. At the beginning of each mission, you're able to change your weapon and power loadout for something more powerful, like automatically offensive drones, sniper rifles or Spartan lasers. You can use the XP you gained in previous missions to buy these items. You can also convert real money into credits to purchase the items. No matter how you purchase them, the items are only available in that mission for that play session, so if you want that Spartan laser, you have to pay for it every single time.
There are two things about this that will rub people the wrong way. The first is that Spartan Assault isn't a free-to-play title. It takes far fewer credits to obtain an item with a microtransaction than in XP. The constant spending of items really adds up despite their low prices, and when you consider that the game costs $14.99, it starts to become a very expensive game. You also won't see ammo pick-ups for special items. Unless you're an expert with these guns, you'll feel terrible if you miss even one shot.
The second takeaway is that microtransactions can be hard to ignore in some cases. You can finish the game without buying a thing. If you're playing for leaderboard supremacy, however, the weapons become something akin to pay-to-win tools, since they can sometimes mean the difference between a silver and gold star. This feels dirty and out of place when compared to the current microtransaction model in video games.
New to this version of the game is a co-op mode. Instead of trying campaign missions with a friend, you're restricted to Forerunner-themed arenas as you and a partner take on wave after wave of Flood-infected creatures. Compared to the main game, there are only five stages for co-op mode, but at least they follow the same mechanics and scoring system as the rest of the title. The stages emphasize cooperation, as the levels have plenty of sections where two people working in tandem are required to open doorways. If you're captured by the Flood, you need a partner to get you out of a bind. While the AI is meant to take a full rushing attitude, the relentless and numerous foes make up for that lack in intelligence. Compared to the main campaign, it is certainly more challenging and more fun.
Perhaps the biggest complaint about the multiplayer mode, aside from the fact that it doesn't let you play the campaign levels, is that it is restricted to online play. The format of the game seems suitable for local co-op play, so the restriction to online-only play is baffling. That decision hurts even more when you try to find a game online and realize that it's a tough endeavor. The online population for the title seems to be rather small, so you'll need to have a friend on standby who's willing to play. Even more questionable is the mode being limited to two players. Games like Zombie Apocalypse have shown that the addition of two more players doesn't hurt the format, so the decision to go for a maximum of two players is definitely disappointing.
Graphically, Spartan Assault is good. The environments emulate the Halo aesthetic quite well, with the familiar war-torn bases and barren battlefields meshing well with the colorful alien flora and fauna. The figures are now diminutive in size, but you can easily tell the difference between a brute, a grunt, and every other enemy in between. Their accompanying animations are done rather well, and particle effects are rather minimal. Things like explosions and the aura of the moon's and planet's energy sources are reflected rather well and don't ruin the game's constant 60fps. The frame that surrounds the screen at all times reminds you that you're running a simulation aboard the Infinity, but plasma TV owners should know that there's no way to turn off that border. Also, if you're looking for something that makes the game feel like it could have flourishes or other traits specific to the Xbox One, prepare to be disappointed. The only thing that's unique here is the resolution bump to 1080p.
Sound has never been an issue with the Halo series, and this one isn't looking to buck the trend. The effects are classic Halo, as is the music, which isn't done by the original composer, though his influence is certainly noticeable. They're all well done, but some seem to play at inopportune times, like a sad piece playing during the tail end of an intense firefight. The voices are fine, but the lines from your accompanying soldiers can get repetitive.
As long as your expectations are tempered, Halo: Spartan Assault is a serviceable game. It works as a top-down shooter, but you'll miss the enemy intelligence of the older games. The bite-sized missions can be good, but unfortunately, that means the whole game amazingly short. The presence of co-op is nice, but when you see how limited it is and how little online community engaged there is, the mode might as well be invisible. Most of all, the presence of microtransactions that are not only highly disposable but also pricey is hurtful when you consider that this is the most expensive version of the game. If you already have the game on a Windows 8 device, then it isn't a bad idea to get the Xbox One version if you're a fan or just want to share progress back and forth. Otherwise, wait for a sale or wait for another first-person Halo.
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