It’s no secret folks who are day one purchasers of Xbox One consoles might be looking around for something to do with themselves having chewed through the initial smattering of release titles; Microsoft knows this, and so their answer is to port their Windows Phone 8 game, Halo: Spartan Assault, to the console and hope you’ve got so little else to do on their machine that you’re willing to drop $15 on a twin-stick overhead shooter that looks like a Halo game. A little harsh, but facts are facts. So, how does the game hold up after a full “playthrough”?
For a storyline, Halo: Spartan Assault‘s story takes place in virtual reality. You see, you play as a UNSC Cadet going through combat training. They don’t say if you’re some grunt on the front line or another member of the Spartan project: bottom line, you are actually just playing out someone else’s adventure! Even the AI that introduces you into the system can hardly hide its contempt at the whole concept by saying something to the effect of “Hey, grunt, you’re learning something, and this might actually be considered a fun little game!”. You play back and forth as a pair of Spartans, Davis and Palmer, back in a time when Spartans were about as populous as Jedi in the early years of the Star Wars saga. The two Spartans stumble upon an amazing discovery during the middle of the evacuation of a planet under siege by the Covenant, and the remainder of the missions are getting them back onto the planet to stop said discovery from being used against Earth. If you’re looking for a compelling storyline that has even the remote sighting of Master Chief, Cortana or any of your fan favorites, then this is not your game. Halo: Spartan Assault is you being handed a plasma rifle and being told to shoot at things.
For your $15, you are also given the Halo: Spartan Assault expansion pack from the Windows Phone version of the game, a full five more missions that go into more detail after the planet-destroying artifact is destroyed. All totaled, you’ve got 30 combat scenarios, alongside five standalone co-op scenarios which are all focused on you and a random buddy cutting through swathes of Flood, the little planet-zombifying plague that everyone loved from the Halo series. While this may sound like a lot, each combat arena can be blasted through in 2-4 minutes tops, not including deaths. I purchased the game this time yesterday and within four hours of play, I was done with the whole thing. It has a thousand gamerscore for those of you who live for the chase, but know that you’ll be spending a whole lot of time grinding out kills and replaying levels for….sigh…experience.
Why am I sighing at the word “experience”? Because experience, my friends, is the counter-currency in Halo: Spartan Assault to describe their microtransactions! Every mission you complete, you get a smattering of experience which can be used to unlock new weapons, armor mods or boosters; the amount of experience can be increased by turning on different difficulty “skull” multipliers, like only giving you a shield or turning off the heads up display. You can have two skulls active, so if you want to increase the generally simple level of gameplay to a point where you might break a sweat, you’ll get a few hundred experience in a run. The bad news is that while you can earn experience and purchase items like a rocket launcher for a mere 2,000 experience for a single mission once unless you buy it again, you can always buy credits from the store and buy more stuff just using your mommy’s credit card (don’t worry, she’s not looking, we won’t tell)! So, if for some odd reason you just can’t get a gold star score on a mission, you can purchase an assortment of crazy weapons, power up boosters and armor modifiers for the maximum tune of 250 credits, which is of course just over the amount you can buy for $1. Again, while this sounds inexpensive, once you complete the mission even if you only silver star it, you lose all that gear at the end.
However, you won’t need any of the gear they’re offering, because Halo: Spartan Assault is fall-off-a-log simple. Maybe my playing on maximum difficulty settings every game that comes out, playing through a twin-stick shooter on normal felt like cheating. Death has no real penalty except for having to restart your mission, which will only take you a few minutes to complete. You play from isometric perspective, looking down above the battlefield and running your little Spartan around the map. Left thumbstick moves, while right thumbstick aims your weapon. Unfortunately, unlike most dual stick shooters, Halo: Spartan Assault doesn’t give you an aiming reticule to give you an idea of where you’re aiming at. With machine guns firing tracer rounds, this isn’t a problem, but with those all-important Brute Shot rounds where each round counts, you want to make sure you’re putting a round on its intended target. It does make up for this with a liberal auto targeting which seems to have carried over a bit from the phone: as long as you’re pointing in the direction of an incoming enemy, you will find that you just happened to be aiming that exact direction. That said, grenades work nicely, and many a time was I able to stick a plasma grenade to an elite and watch him run around until it exploded.
The game revolves around score chasing: not only are you trying to complete the objectives, but the better you do, the higher ranking (bronze, silver, gold) you get for it. There are achievements behind maxing out every mission’s ranking and tied to how much experience you get per level, but if you’re not in it for the score chase, you won’t miss much. On top of this, any game with a decent “score chase” mentality lets you see the person on your friend’s list that you are directly behind and what score you need to reach to beat them. Of course, Halo: Spartan Assault doesn’t have this.
The co-op is a nice side feature that should have been more prominent in Halo: Spartan Assault. You and a partner simply have to survive wave after wave of Flood until the timer expires or you complete your mission, but why can’t you have co-op in the main campaign? And imagine a world where there is four player co-op like this? A screen full of multi-colored Spartans and an absurd number of zombies coming at your position?
I’m not a Halo guy to begin with, but I was looking for something to play on the new Xbox One. Halo: Spartan Assault feels like a rush job; a phone port in which enemy Covenant are getting stuck in terrain and my jumping out of vehicles regularly causes me to start firing my primary weapon uncontrollably. I was also annoyed at Halo: Spartan Assault’s last minute write in vote for 2013’s “Worst Ending of a Downloadable Game” award as the entire payoff for your four hours of effort is a 30 second storyboard, but if I hear another UNSC grunt yell out “Yeah, nice work, dawg” when I get a kill, Microsoft and I are going to have words. It’s the, what, 26th century? I can’t imagine “dawg” (and yes, it’s spelled out dawg in the subtitles) has made it into vernacular.