The Halo Universe has become an archetype in gaming; a universe that can be easily recognized and ascribed to Microsoft’s veritable “cash cow.” After eight iterations of the franchise on the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles, the Halo universe makes it leap to the small screen with Halo: Spartan Assault in attempt to bring a halo-like experience to tablet gamers while promoting Microsoft Windows 8 touch devices. How does it fare? Terribly, if you make direct comparisons to its console brethren. However, for what it is – a $7 tablet, top down, third-person shooter – it works rather well, lacking the intimacy and depth of the console titles, but exuding so much of what makes Halo, well, Halo.
Halo: Spartan Assault takes place between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4, filling in some of the four years during which the beloved Master Chief remained in Cryo sleep. The story – if you want to call it that – focuses on the exploits of Spartan Palmer and Spartan Davis, who lead UNSC forces against the rogue Covenant forces that have ignored the cease-fire agreed upon after the events of Halo 3. However, the story is narrated by Infinity’s AI, Roland, and told to Spartan recruits aboard the ship, as they replay the events from the perspective of Spartan Palmer and Spartan Davis’ on their respective tablets. It’s a clever way of both justifying the difference in gameplay between the console titles and justifying it’s existence as a tablet-only title.
As far as gameplay, it’s rather simple to pick up and understand, especially if you’ve played any top-down, third-person, dual stick/analog shooters on the consoles or other device. For Windows Surface owners (or others who opt to use the touch screen controls) the left thumb controls movement while the right thumb controls the direction of your weapon’s fire. Simply sliding your left thumb on the touch screen in the direction you want to go moves your character; sliding your right thumb in any direction fires your selected weapon. Considering that this is a top-down, third person shooter, the Spartan you control is privy to nearly every weapon, grenade and armor ability available in the more recent Halo games on the consoles. Outside the crouching, jumping, and first-person perspective, the game very much feels like a “Halo”. You can carry two weapons at a time, you have access armor abilities and boosters, you can chuck both sticky and pineapple grenades, you can board/hijack vehicles, it’s pretty much all here.
Unfortunately, the gameplay implementation while mostly fine, isn’t quite as solid. For touch enthusiasts, while moving and shooting is much smoother and easier, accessing the armor abilities, changing weapons, lobbing grenades is less precise and a bit clunky, at first. But as you play, you do get a better handle on things. The keyboard and mouse option is better overall, as each of the functions are tied directly to specific keys on the keyboard. It can still take some finger gymnastics and shooting was less precise as I would occasionally lose my cursor in the fray. Again, practice makes the experience smoother over time.
There are a total of five military operations, each with five missions. Each mission can be completed with a bronze, silver or gold star, depending on your score. The higher the score, the more XP you receive. The XP be used to purchase different armor abilities, boosters and/ or weapons to be used in the next level. In addition to XP, you can purchase – using real money – credits that can be used to unlock other weapons, armor abilities, grenade in the game that are otherwise unusable. This is micro transaction portion of the game that is wholly unnecessary to complete game. Only those hardcore fans who must get their hands-on a rocket launcher or Spartan Laser in the game need apply. The pay portion to the games seems completely arbitrary, if only, to garner a few more bucks from loyalist. The rest of us will be fine never spending an extra dime, using only our assault rifle or other less “bombastic” weapon we can procure in game, which more than adequately does the job.
The story – told through a few well-crafted cutscenes, but mostly through the written descriptions prior to each level – does add a bit more gravitas to both Spartan Palmer and Spartan Davis, but it’s completely impersonal. The witty banter and dialogue, that helped to flesh out the characters on the consoles, is sorely lacking; however it’s the nature of the game itself that is the cause. The top-down perspective and lack of voiceovers for the main protagonists makes it impossible to feel like you’re in the shoes of Spartan Palmer. That being said, the story does do a good job of augmenting the mythos surrounding the two main Spartans and the rogue covenant forces intentions. In fact, the environments themselves are full of character, exuding everything that looks, feels, and tastes like the Halo fans have grown to love. Even as you play through the game, some of the backgrounds are filled with ship battles and other gun fights, helping to flesh out an already well-detailed environment. In addition, the sound design is impressive, with sound effects and music that feel nearly as epic as Halo on the consoles. For a lower budget game, the ambient sounds and overall sound implementation captures the essence and grandeur of what players have come to expect from a Halo title.
If anything, Halo: Spartan Assault is a nice, unobtrusive entry into the halo universe, one that some fans will easily enjoy while others can easily avoid without feeling like they’re missing something. It’s greatest success is capturing the essence of Halo; it’s greatest shortfall being the high expectations associated with being a Halo game. Then again, this isn’t a big-budget full release, so direct comparisons would be unfair. At $7, it’s a no brainer for Halo fans, that is, if you have Windows 8. Otherwise, Halo: Spartan Assault is not a reason to get a device with Windows 8. It works for what it is; a nice way to enjoy a little bit of halo on the go; and I’m perfectly ok with that.