Back in June 2013, as I sat waiting on Microsoft’s E3 stand for a Dead Rising 3 presentation to start, I picked up one of several Surface tablets that had been left around the waiting room. On it was a copy of Halo: Spartan Assault, which would later release on Windows phones and Surface tablets in July of that year. At the time I thought the twin-stick shooter remarkably playable on a touch-screen tablet; I remember thinking that it was a shame the game would be stuck on touchscreen Windows devices and Windows 8 PCs. It felt like a game with instant appeal for console gamers – you know, where most of the Halo series’ audience can be found.
Less than half a year later, Microsoft ported the game to consoles anyway, starting with the Xbox One in December 2013, and later the Xbox 360 at the end of January this year. Should the game have made the jump to a wider audience, or should Spartan Assault have been left where it was initially found?
Halo: Spartan Assault is presented as a UNSC training simulator for future Spartan soldiers. These future soldiers all carry touchscreen devices that are meant to resemble Surface tablets, so design-wise it’s almost as if you the player are a Spartan in training, reviewing canonical encounters from the Halo universe as part of your training. It’s a neat little chink out of the fourth wall that would probably have made a bigger impact had I been playing this game on an actual Surface and not an Xbox 360. Still, the premise is nice and it’s an excuse for the game to revisit numerous Covenant encounters from the perspective of a handful of Spartans other than just Master Chief. If you’re a sucker for the Halo universe then you’ll definitely get a kick out of Spartan Assault’s presentation.
Gameplay is your typical twin-stick shooter affair played from an isometric viewpoint. You’re always a Spartan and in typical Halo fashion you’re armed with two weapons, two sets of grenades and an active armour ability. Armour abilities are familiar, with healing bubbles, cloaking, hologram decoys, and sprint boosts all making an appearance. Insofar as weapons go, it’s your standard Halo arsenal, and the Covenant Needler remains as wonderfully overpowered as ever. There’s something very appealing about experiencing the familiar Halo universe from an unfamiliar perspective and control scheme – in that regard I found the game quite charming.
So far so good, wouldn’t you say? There are some concerns: for a start, precision controls are an absolute must for a twin-stick shooter, and Spartan Assault underperforms in that necessity. The right aiming stick has noticeable “dead spots” in one’s aiming arc. This often results in you missing your target as soon as you pull the trigger, which means you have to compensate while wasting ammunition. Add to that the rather unpredictable autolock (which you can’t turn off) and you’re left with a twin-stick shooter that’s shackled with an unimpressive aiming control. Games like the PlayStation 3’s brilliant Dead Nation are an example of a twin-sticking aiming control done very well; Spartan Assault isn’t a patch on that.
Furthermore, the game’s initial mobile offering can clearly be seen in one glaring area: microtransactions. You’re always given a specific weapon loadout for each mission, but if you want to customise that loadout you need to pay for your changes in weapons, armour abilities or boosters. You can spend accumulated XP on them, but you accumulate XP very slowly and whatever you spend XP on will only last for the next mission; these aren’t permanent unlocks for your arsenal. Obviously Microsoft would prefer it if you’d spend money on Credits instead – you can unlock a sniper rifle for around R8,00, for example. Considering you’ve already paid R150,00 for the game, it’s pretty lame that you’re then asked to fork out extra for weapons. Incidentally, the weapons for sale aren’t found in the campaign.
Spartan Assault is still a fun game that’s frequently gorgeous in its level design and perspective tricks. It has some suspect additions in the microtransaction department, but it’s entirely possible to play the game from start to finish without dropping any extra cash. Outside of the campaign there’s still co-op missions (that inexplicably aren’t on offer through split-screen or shared screen, but instead can only be played online), more than fifty medals to unlock and community challenges called Assault Ops. If you can overcome the occasional difficulty spikes and get used to the twitchy aiming controls, there’s quite a bit on offer to really enjoy here. Diehard Halo fans should definitely pick this up, but for those just looking for a game to scratch their twin-stick shooter itch, better options can be found elsewhere.