Review: Halo: Spartan Assault (Xbox Live)
It's here. It's finally here. Microsoft's console-saving franchise arrives on Windows Phone. With a tweaked look suitable for mobile, control systems that work on a touchscreen, and the same level of action and adventure as the parent franchise, Halo: Spartan Assault has a weight of expectation on it like no other Xbox Live game on Windows Phone before it, and perhaps even afterwards. After a week of almost non-stop playing, let's lock and load, trooper, and find out if the wait has been worth it.
Version Reviewed: 188.8.131.52
Here's one big question about Spartan Assault... How much do you need to know about the Halo franchise, the back story, tips and tricks from previous games, and the universe of the UNSC? Do you need to know it's set between Halo 3 and Halo 4 in the fictional timeline? Do you need to realise that Sarah Palmer (one of the two characters you can play that drive the storyline) has a significant place in the universe? Not really, no.
I mean, for die hard Halo fans, Spartan Assault is the story between two of the marquee titles, it shows the last days of the Human-Covenant war, the first moments of the SPARTAN-IV development program... For everybody else, this is a top down shooter with a lot of class, clear graphics, crunching sounds, and a well balanced mix of tactical movement and frontal attacks.
In other words, the ethos is just like every other Halo game in the series. That's important to note, for two reasons. The first is that this game is going to have huge name recognition - something already evident by the number of web properties that are reviewing this title, and not other Xbox Live titles (such as 'Skulls of the Shogun') - put simply, people out there will hear Halo and Windows Phone in one sentence and be satisfied.
The second reason is that all of those writers, reviewers, and gamers, must not be disappointed. If it says Halo, they should get Halo. Thankfully, they get Halo. But with a mobile twist.
Congratulations to developers 343 Industries and Vanguard Games for not going with a first person perspective 3D shooter. Technically this is possible, as we've seen with ports of Mass Effect: Infiltrator and N.O.V.A. 3, but forcing the full console experience into a smartphone does lead to a number of compromises, especially on the controls and the detail that can be presented on screen to the player.
Spartan Assault goes for an older style of action gaming - the top down view. Strictly speaking, it's about 65 degrees down, so there is a touch of perspective on the landscape, giving the characters and terrain a convincing three dimensional look. While the characters are relatively small, this does give you significantly more vision over the terrain, which makes for a better game. I also like that the view zooms out a little more when you jump into a vehicle or fixed gunnery position so you can see even more.
Keeping everything recognisable at this angle and size is no easy task, so congratulations to the artists who have made sure that the differences between aliens, troopers, barrels, walls, and even discarded weapons is clear.
It also allows a different style of control to be used. Rather than the 'turn around and run' that FPS games use, Halo has a fully directional control - push the 'virtual' stick on the left of the screen in a direction, and your character will run in that direction. The second virtual stick on the right controls your firing. Push in a direction, and you will fire in that direction. Which means yes, you can run in one direction and fire in another.
Old timers will recognise this as the Robotron 2084 control system from the 1982 arcade classic, although it has been used countless times since (most notably in Gun Bros on Xbox Live last year). In addition to this, you have the grenade option, which is a double tap anywhere on the screen to throw the explosive ordnance in the direction your character is facing.
Let's be honest, a touch screen control system, no matter what you do, is not going to rival a physical controller with analogue sticks, micro-switched buttons, and an ergonomic shape. But Halo on Windows Phone comes close. It's not perfect, and I suspect that rather than a fully analogue movement system in any direction, Halo is restricted to a set number of directions (I suspect thirty two), rather than full 360 degree movement. That's enough to make the game playable, but it does mean that there were moments where I felt I wasn't running in the exact direction that I wanted to.
It's more noticeable when you are firing at long range, because you can see the tracer of your shots across the screen, and a sweeping movement is more juddering than it would be in real life (err, well, you know where I'm going with that).
Yes, it's a touch picky, and considering the mess that Gun Bros made of an almost identical control system, I'm just happy that Halo's control system is far better. The final finesse is missing, but I'm not sure that's worth chasing on a smartphone, because the control system works, and after about ten minutes I wasn't consciously focussed on what to do, my gaming head simply went "run behind those barrels while shooting to the side like a Sam Peckinpah" and I did. No need to think about the controls, no worrying where to move my thumbs, it was instinctive.
And that is a mark of a good control system. It gets out of the mental way and lets you play the game.
As well as thinking carefully about the graphical style and the controls, the level design has also taken into consideration the mobile environment. Halo: Spartan Assault is not set up to be played for hours on end in the living room, but as a mobile game. The levels are short to play, taking around five minutes or so to play on average. That doesn't leave a lot of scope for maze-like levels, and some of the action is very much of the boring 'walk down this corridor and shoot everything' style that I can't stand.
But this is neutered by the goals of some levels. Defending a fixed point, for example, means the game is not a running on rails shooter, but one that demands you mix up constant streams of gunfire, with running to areas with more cover and a safer position when you can. Escorting a troop tank up the hill is naturally going to be a corridor shooting level, but it's one that makes sense with the setting.
Also, each level has a lot of replayability, so even though there are only five sets of five levels, each taking around five minutes of play, you could spend an hour or two working through all the tricks and quirks of each level, changing your initial weapons, or using boosts on your armour for extra abilities (such as personal shields or faster movement).
Every level earns you experience (and you can increase the experience earned per level with the use of the optional skulls that degrade the easy experience, such as blanking out part of your HUD, or having dropped weapons carry less ammo). These experience points can be used to change your weapon, but only for the next time you play a level - so if you want to use the sniper rifle instead of the assault rifle, it will cost you every time you start the level. And while everything has a cost, it's not always experience, sometimes it costs you credits. Credits which you buy with real world money.
Halo: Spartan Assault, not content with being in one of the highest Xbox Live price bands, is also a freemium game. If you want all the really nice bonuses, if you want the tools that make the job a little easier, if you want the toys you've used in other versions of Halo, then it's time to pay up. I'm sure the argument will be that you can complete the game without using the power-ups (and also I'm sure there is one trained ninja-gaiden-gamer in the studio whose job is to do just that and nothing else... it's a full time job, with lots of overtime).
Yes, Microsoft will want to play around with different ways of making an income, but this way feels a bit... icky. If it was a free to download title (such as the upcoming Plants vs Zombies on iOS and Android) then perhaps I could stomach it, but if I've paid what is perceived to be top dollar for my mobile game, why should I keep on paying?
There is one element missing from Halo: Spartan Assault, and it's one that Halo is famed for... Multiplayer. This is purely a single player game, although you do have the weekly challenges (kill 1000 grunts is my current challenge, with four days left on the clock there's still a lot of killing to do), and each mission itself has a number of challenges. But it's not the same comparing successful medals with the ability to slam a shotgun in the small of your best friends back and recite Maori Death chants. It's the one element of Halo that isn't on show here. Short term, it's not something you'd easily flag up as missing, but once you've shot through the levels and are looking for more to do... that's normally where local or internet-based multiplayer comes in.
After many months, if not years, of waiting, Microsoft have delivered on the implicit promise in having the gaming section of Windows Phone branded Xbox. We now know the answer to the question 'will Halo come to Windows Phone?', and it's time to ask a bigger question. Is it any good?
The short answer is yes, it's good. It's bloody good. But there is room for improvement. The presentation, top down look, and slight 3D graphical look are all fine. The level design, small but perfect, works as well. I have a tiny issue with the control system, but it is easily played around. In that sense Halo works with no major compromises damaging the game.
The lack of multiplayer is slightly upsetting, but not a huge mis-step in the grand scheme. The inclusion of freemium to try and eke out a little more money from the gamers does feel wrong, for all the reasons above. Halo is a recognised name, and it does feel like this is cashing in as much as possible on the name for a short term success, rather than stopping and thinking about the long term impact.
I'm still giving Halo: Spartan Assault a 'mega' score of 90%, but it's with some caveats. Bring freemium is one of them. The second is a little note to say all the hard work is done in terms of infrastructure, gaming engines, and coding. I expect a sequel, or at least an additional level pack, before the end of the year. Halo: Spartan Assault better not be a one-off on Windows Phone.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at