The best way to describe Halo: Spartan Assault is by calling it Halo: The Arcade Edition. The game nails down what makes Halo… Halo. It looks like Halo, it sounds like Halo, and the story – albeit a bit barebones – feels like Halo, but sadly it doesn’t play like Halo. In an attempt to shake up the franchise, we get a top-down, twin-stick shooter take on the Halo franchise that feels too simplistic to stand up next to its big brother. But the most egregious fault of all is that this was originally a mobile game, something that is still quite apparent.
Developed by 343 Industries and Vanguard Entertainment / Published by Microsoft Studios
Available on Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 (2014). Reviewed on Xbox One.
*Review code provided by Microsoft.
Story-wise, the game fits between Halo 3 and Halo 4, and follows the exploits of two Spartans, Palmer and Davis, as they attempt to protect Draetheus V and its moon X50, which of course isn’t a moon but rather a planet-ending Forerunner structure (There always has to be a catastrophic weapon in these games, huh?). The story is mostly told with animated cutscenes that look pretty great, although calling them animated might be too much, since they’re mostly still pictures. Still, they look fantastic and the voice acting that accompanies them is just as good as every other Halo game. The story is sparse, mostly being presented to you after every five missions (out of 35), with a few paragraphs of text here and there. It gets the job done, but it’s mostly there to spruce up the simple, straightforward and oftentimes boring missions.
The game plays like most top-down, twin-stick shooters. You move your character with the left stick and point your guns with the right stick, which you shoot by pressing the right trigger. Armor abilities make a comeback, as do the various grenades in previous Halo games. One of the main differences is that these types of games usually bring with them unlimited ammo, but not Spartan Assault. Your weapons don’t have immense clips, so your forced to scour the environments for weapon caches or pick up the ones fallen foes drop. This adds a level of challenge not present in many other games of this type.
Sadly, the game’s missions are at most five minutes long and very straightforward, shining a light in the game’s mobile nature. This type of bite-sized experience is perfectly at home on a mobile device, where users usually play with them on long commutes, like the bus on the way to work, while on the toilet, etc. But this doesn’t translate well to consoles. It might just be me, but it feels too light, especially considering to what we’re used to from Halo on consoles. To compensate, the game adds five co-op missions on Xbox One that bring back the much dreaded Flood. These levels help extend the experience and offer something different from the campaign, since the addition of the Flood makes these missions much more difficult than the campaign (hence the 2 player requirement), but there’s just five of them, which can be beaten in a hour or less if you and your partner are good.
But the worst aspect that has come along from the mobile scene is the micro-transactions. Before each mission, you’re given a chance to set up your weapon loadout, boosts and assists, and choose which skulls, if any, you want to subject yourself to (skulls make the game harder but provide you with more XP at the end of the mission). You’re always saddled with a specific loadout depending on the mission at hand, and if you want to shake it up with sniper rifles, rocket launchers or spartan lasers, you have to fork over some of the XP you have accumulated by playing the game. The problem comes with how experience is dolled out. Even after playing a good while, the XP I had amassed wasn’t enough to constantly buy any weapons other than the default ones. This slow experience gain is done on purpose to make you spend real-life money on credits, which can also be used to purchase said weapons. The game also works on a three-star system. After each mission you’re scored, and depending on how well you do, you get bronze, silver or gold. The problem is, it’s either very hard or impossible to reach gold because I never did no matter how well I played. The only way to reach gold is by using the various boosts and assists, and seeing as how these also require the already rare XP, you’re pushed to spend money to get them if you want to constantly get Gold.
To be fair, all this can be done without spending an extra dime other than the $15 price of entry, but it is so excruciatingly slow that you’ll either have to settle with silver medals and default weapons most of the time or spend some money. This is straight out of mobile games, where this practice is found everywhere and we’ve gotten used to it. But it’s usually present in either free or $0.99 games, not in $15 ones. This appears to be a practice that Microsoft has decided to adopt with this console generation, seeing as how most of the first-party titles available now (Ryse, Forza) make heavy use of it. Seeing as how these are full-priced titles, this practice will probably backfire on them.
Halo: Spartan Assault makes for a serviceable mobile experience, one that’s cheaper ($6.99) there. But on the Xbox One, the game doesn’t feel at home, thanks to the combination of the $15 entry price, the aggressive presence of micro-transactions and the bite-sized nature of the missions. Instead, it feels like a forced port, pushed out so as to have a Halo game on the Xbox One before the year is over.