Halo: Spartan Assault is a twin-stick shooter without the twin sticks. This single absent feature is as baffling as it is unfortunate. We’re talking about a Microsoft-published Halo game, the first in the series to be delivered exclusively for Windows 8 platforms. It’s got Achievements, it’s got a story that explores previously unseen bits of lore, it’s got space marines in colorful body armor shooting hordes of alien zealots. You can play it on any Windows 8 device, including the most decked-out gaming PC, and yet there are only two control options: virtual touchscreen buttons or mouse/keyboard. Microsoft promises gamepad support eventually, but why exactly couldn’t this twin-stick shooter support even an Xbox 360 controller at launch?
It’s a question that will cross your eyes if you spend too much time thinking about. Best to just let it be and focus on the positive: Spartan Assault happens to be an entertaining little game. You could even say it’s the strongest Windows 8 exclusive to date, though it’s not like there’s a whole lot of competition up to this point.
Master Chief sits out this latest campaign against the Covenant, with a story set between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4. Sort of. What’s actually going on is a series of battle simulations showcasing early engagements in the Spartan Ops program. You’re seeing what happened through the eyes of Commander Sarah Palmer and Spartan Davis, both stationed aboard the UNSC Infinity. The “set between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4” portion of the story is little more than a narrative wrapper, not that anyone other than a hardened Halo fan will really care.
Even if you’re not invested in the lore, this is unmistakably a Halo game. The top-down perspective may remind some of the series’ lone real-time strategy effort, Halo Wars, but the moment-to-moment action is much more direct. If you’ve ever played any twin-stick shooter then you know what to expect: one thumb controls your movement, the other controls the direction that you’re firing in. You’ve also got a few extra commands mixed in for melee, grenades, weapon/grenade-switching, armor abilities, and a more general “interact” command for swapping gear and using/commandeering vehicles and turrets.
All of these tools are useful as you send your tiny avatar up against hordes of tiny Covenant forces. Spartan Assault‘s 25 missions, split evenly across five campaigns, are short, clearly designed with a mobile gamer in mind, but they’re never dull. You’ll participate in desperate defenses to stem the tide of enemy hordes while you wait for rescue transports to arrive. You’ll escort lumbering Wolverine anti-air armor to its destination while facing resistance from all sides. Even the standard “kill everything in sight” objectives mix things up, with tanks to drive, with turrets to operate, and with a variety of loadouts that change up in each new mission.
Despite the different style of gameplay, Spartan Assault feels like a Halo game. A strong Halo game, even. It isn’t perfect, but the birds-eye-view take on human-versus-Covenant engagements works more than it doesn’t, especially if you’re playing on a touchscreen. The virtual analog controls are as well-designed as such a thing can be; the “sticks” themselves work fine and the secondary control “buttons” are small enough that you’ll only occasionally chuck out a grenade by accident.
The mouse/keyboard controls end up feeling inferior by comparison. Mouse aiming allows for more precision than you get with the touch controls, though a light auto-aim applied to the latter keeps things fun without ever making the game feel too easy. The WASD move commands are more problematic, especially once you hop into a tank. In the absence of gamepad support, touch turns out to be the best option for playing Halo: Spartan Assault. Perhaps for the first time in the recorded history of console-style mobile games.
There are a few shortcomings. The touch-exclusive auto-aim doesn’t break Spartan Assault‘s fun factor, but the dim-witted, easily “gamed” enemy AI does, at least a little bit. These Covenant are not nearly as bright as their console cousins, exhibiting only the most basic understanding of tactical planning. This is most obvious in missions that don’t involve defending some specific objective, and you encounter enemy forces that aren’t sharp enough to chase you when you slowly chip away at their numbers using hit-and-run strikes.
There’s also the dreaded and undeniably clunk implementation of microtransactions. Do we really need to have the option of spending real money on fake in-game credits just because it’s a mobile game? Loadouts are fixed for each mission in Spartan Assault, and while you’re free to pick up and use any weapons or armor abilities you find lying around, the only way to change what you take into a given mission is by spending earned XP or purchased credits on single-use items. The selection of loadout customization options is small – only three choices per category – and some can only be purchased using credits.
Thankfully you don’t ever need to spend real dollars on any of this junk, but microtransactions mess up a system that could have easily been leveraged to create added replay value. Putting aside the fact that certain loadout selections are cash-only options, you’re still left with tiny XP rewards in each mission that balance against the single-use nature of any loadout purchase to create an uneven economy. There’s not enough value to justify any loadout fiddling. Where there could have been in-game progression built around long-term hooks there is only a completely pointless emphasis on microtransactions.
It’s not exactly a stunning accomplishment at this point to earn the title of “best Windows 8 exclusive,” but Halo: Spartan Assault is certainly that. Any shortcomings in the play and design are far outweighed by the pure fun that you’ll have zipping around colorful alien worlds as you shoot up Covenant forces using the series’ familiar arsenal. Even the absent gamepad support is not as troubling as it first seems, especially if you’re willing to spend a little time adjusting to the solid touch-based inputs. The next triple-A Halo is more than a year away, but Spartan Assault brings the love to Halo fans that have been brave enough to leap into Microsoft’s Windows 8 future.
- Fan-friendly treatment of the Halo universe
- Varied, bite-sized missions fit the top-down play perfectly
- Visually rich environments pop with excessive Halo-ness
- Baffling absence of gamepad support at launch
- Dim-witted AI is easily “gamed”
- Pointless microtransactions diminish what could have been a decent hook for long-term play
(This review is based on a playthrough of Halo: Spartan Assault on a Windows 8 tablet, using a download code provided by the publisher.)