Review: Halo: Spartan Assault (Xbox One)

HaloSpartanAssault

What started as a Windows 8 PC, phone and tablet exclusive, then was on the Xbox One and a month later arrived to the last rung on the ladder, the Xbox 360, is now an arcade-style shooter that any Microsoft consumer can enjoy. But this isn’t just any mobile shooter ported to a console, it is a port of a Halo mobile shooter. That immediately means it is going to raise heads and probably make a lot of money, regardless of its quality. I cannot recall having played an across the board bad Halo game, but I can now say I have played a forgettable one. This title is a licensed video game where the license happens to come from the world of video games.

Spartan Assault is a series of top-down, dual-joystick shooter missions which will alternate between the perspective of the two main Spartan characters. In practice, this means that half the time the person in the brightly colored power armor will make manly noises and the rest of the time a woman will grunt when her armor gets shot. By far the weakest aspect of the title is the story as there is barely any there to criticize. This is not a series of action packed levels in an epic space opera spiced with some of the best computer animation money can buy. What it is, is text on one side of the screen next to a map of an alien moon or planet with labels pointing out Covenant troop movements with big arrows like they were the Galactic Confederacy charging the lines of General Space-Grant’s 4th Star Army in Ken Burns’s greatest documentary of the twenty-sixth century. No effort is made to give the two Spartans any sort of character so that if they did show up in other games Halo fans would care. Sarah Palmer, the playable girl cyborg, was in Halo 4 and some of the Halo comics if that does anything for you. Even for a relatively cheap game the tale told is so barebones that I wish the game did not even try to have the brief story it does and just was a series of random training exercise missions. I would rather not be asked to pay attention to something that is immediately forgettable.

What it lacks in story it makes up to some degree in action. With characteristic efficiency the Spartans will single-handedly slaughter every alien that manages to get in their way. Introduced in the first Halo, a personal shield will absorb any damage taken until it is depleted and given time to recharge. Just like the regular Halo games, the play consists almost exclusively of avoiding fire while targeting enemies and sometimes ducking for cover until the “Waah-ooooo” sound of the shields coming back lets you know it’s time for more mayhem. As always health is a second life bar of sorts that does not regenerate and seems to be drained far quicker than the shields. This creates a style of game that I find to be uniquely Halo, switching from the rampaging Gun-Juggernaut character from 90s first-person shooters, to the more realistic, highly vulnerable gunmen from a Tom Clancy game the second the shields go down.

The gunplay is fast and it is possible to have two weapons at once, switching out new ones as ammunition runs out or better ones are picked off of dead foes. Like in the big games, grenades can be used to flush out enemies or simply kill a lot of them without having to have direct line of sight. Because this is not a first-person title, throwing a grenade is accomplished by holding the correct button which will in turn show on screen a small area where the pineapple will land. If it is a plasma grenade, it will stick to any enemy who happens to be in the area. Many of the classic weapons make an appearance, from the all purpose assault rifle, to the homing Needler, to the plasma pistol that can be charged to fire one massive shot instead of several little ones. Shooting the guns is simple, just point the Spartan in the correct angle and pull the trigger. The need for accuracy in a top-down game like this takes some getting used to, but after a few levels I had no problem killing grunts across the screen with a few Magnum shots. 

In the few missions that have them, players can use vehicles to kill enemies.  Most do not require this, but for the most part it is more efficient to blast apart aliens with the main cannon of the Scorpion (M808B Main Battle Tank for those reading the fluff) or run them over than to shoot them with a rifle or beat them to death with melee attacks. The armor modifiers are also back which can allow the Spartans to run faster or set up a giant dome of healing. Everything feels and sounds very much like Halo.

At the outset I mentioned this was a mobile game originally, and when talking about the look of the game it’s necessary to reiterate that to help keep expectations in check. Like many other aspects of the game, the graphics are not bad, they just fail to impress. The camera is so far back that it is difficult to see any sort of detail on the tiny grunts and elites moving on the bland-looking ground. None of the textures look muddy or faded and all of the edges are clearly defined, there simply is no detail in this high definition version. The look is largely a consequence of the fixed perspective, though it does grant some new sights. Whenever a grenade is thrown it will bounce around some materials and explode into a nice spherical spray of plasma. Covenant plasma bolts look bright and painful as they shoot across the screen and the lavender Needler shots form streaming arcs as they seek out their targets. A boarded vehicle moves easily and the shots are a breeze to line up when one does not have to look down the turret like in the main Halo games. They might be tiny and non-distinct, but the enemies and heroes all animate their actions appropriately, whether it be running in fear, an elite’s cry of frustrated rage that a human is destroying his shields, or the Spartan’s big melee hit. Things would feel more grand if the non-mobile versions of the game expanded on the action by putting a few dozen enemies on screen at once with their plasma explosions and light show of alien weaponry filling the sky as desperate Spartans duck behind cover. I have no doubt that the game looks good on a cellphone, a standard that does not translate to a PC monitor or a big television when there are only a few creatures moving at once. As it is the things moving around on the battlefield are easy to identify and the action is clearly Halo, just at a distance. The voice acting is flat but the alien grunts, screams and weapon blasts all sound exactly like they do in the full-sized games. More than anything else these classic sounds help make it feel like Spartan Assault shares a continuity with the Master Chief and Cortana.

Much of the action and visual appeal is distracted by the constant rumble in the controller. For some reason, the Xbox One does not have a global system setting to turn off the controller vibration. Some other games make up for this oversight by including an option to shut this off. Apparently Microsoft is so in love with the idea of players having shaky hands that they have made it impossible to shut it off at either the system or software level. The rumble here does not add to an immersive experience because even if players are feeling every blow and explosion, the perspective is still two hundred feet above the virtual air. I’ve thought that controller vibration was a lame feature since the N64 rumble pack, but at least I have been able to turn it off and on at will in the past. This lack of choice is not confined to Spartan Assault and I do not like the idea of having to void my controller’s warranty by physically cutting the wires in it, to play a game the way I want to. There is also very little in the way of customization options in the game for controls or A/V setup.

Another thing featured in the games released by Microsoft for its new console that can also be found in Spartan Assault are microtransactions. Account holders are not given the option to buy funny hats for their characters or gun skins or even pets to follow them around, though that would be something I could get behind. Instead they are offered the equivalent of cheat codes. When choosing a loadout before a mission the standard shotgun or magnum secondary weapon, or whatever is the default for a given mission, can be swapped out for another gun for real money. Good performance in a mission will also net credits that can be used to purchase these guns and alternate armor modifiers, though an amazing performance will net less than a few dollar’s worth of unlocking points. The most efficient means to the end of starting with the sniper rifle or turret laying armor modifier is to fork over some money. And while the Microsoft Store might be in regular, transparent dollars and cents, these microtransaction amounts are not, making it all the easier to just click a button that might as well be labeled “Pay to Play.” Since they can be earned with in-game currency and do not feel necessary to complete the levels, this is not that big of a problem. What is a problem is that unlocking one of these loadout options, either with real money or game bucks, does not keep it unlocked. So if there is a weapon combo you really like, then you’d better grab your credit card or be prepared to grind old levels again and again to build up enough of a reserve to play the way you want. The game can be completed without ever giving these options a second thought, but then the levels will never play differently and there will be virtually no replay value. That’s a problem for a short game like this one. It is also troubling that the game has leaderboards which can, apparently, be affected by how much money you pay.

No matter how many or few extras one buys, the game can be played with other people. There are a few missions that charge two Spartans to take out masses of the deadly Flood. The gameplay is largely the same as the main game and there is not a lot to say about it other than if you want to play it, you better have a friend with similar tastes as there are not many people waiting to join a pick up game. As in the single player mode, multiplayers can turn on skull modifiers to increase the difficulty.  These include variables like Starvation, which causes all of the weapons found in the game to be low on ammunition, and Hollow, a mod that will kill a Spartan in one hit if he gets hit when his shield is down. This risk is balanced with a reward of extra points upon completing the spiced up mission. The Skulls are also necessary to keep the game interesting as this is far and away the easiest Halo game when played on the default settings.

Spartan Assault was probably a great cellphone game. Assuming that the problem of on-screen controls for an action game was meaningfully addressed, this would be a fun game to play for short bursts at a time. All of the missions are bite-sized enough to be very enjoyable and almost entirely score focused so there is a reason to replay. Taken over to the couch or PC, where its big console Halo cousins are part of the competition for the player’s attention, the basic structure of the game can start to feel very tired, very quickly. It looks crisp on the Xbox One, a high-definition top-down/high-up view of a Halo battlefield with few characters on it, but is just not a great fit for the system. In the context of a theatrical style single player experience it is a failure. It is not the world’s most engaging multiplayer title, but it can scratch a little of that Halo itch in shorter sessions. On the Xbox One, where it is possible to go back and forth between live television and Spartan Assault during the commercials, it’s not that bad. In general there is nothing bad about it, it is just forgettable. Maybe some day there will be some sort of smart DVR on the One that allows the Xbox to detect a commercial and then switch to an already loaded game to constantly stream entertainment to the player. But as it is, Spartan Assault is a mobile game – not a smart commercial substitute – that can be played on a television and can be enjoyed only if that standard is kept in mind. But anyone looking for their next grand Halo experience should look elsewhere.

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Pros:
+ The sights of sounds of Halo in a new kind of game
+ Action is fast and uses trademarked (literally) Halo guns and moves

Cons:
– Unable to turn off the rumble
– Microtransactions cheapen things
– Overall a shallow experience

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox One, also available for Xbox 360 and Windows 8 PCs, phones, and tablets
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: 343 Industries / Vanguard Entertainment
Release Date: 12/24/2013
Genre: Top-down shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.