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April 26, 2014

Xbox One Review – Halo: Spartan Assault

by Master Pillow

When Halo: Spartan Assault was released on Windows Phone the general critical consensus was that it represented a decent attempt at bringing Microsoft’s most important and lucrative franchise to mobile devices.  With adequate visuals and some inspired twin-stick touchscreen controls wrapped up within the usual Halo universe’s pomp and polish, the title managed to impress for what it was.  Flash-forward a few months and Microsoft has decided to release Halo: Spartan Assault on its brand new console, the Xbox One, with only marginal upgrades and the result is, understandably, rather uninspired.

Halo: Spartan Assault eschews the franchises’ normal first person aesthetics for a control scheme that is more conducive to touchscreen gaming namely, being a third-person top-down twin stick shooter.  At the same time long time hero Master Chief is nowhere to be found, replaced by Halo 4’s rather polarizing female Spartan, Sarah Palmer who shares top billing with a non-descript teammate by the name of Davis.  While the lack of Master Chief is a downer it really doesn’t matter as Halo: Spartan Assault doesn’t spin a deep resonating narrative and is presented more or less as historical fact mostly told through simple text blurbs.

The game has two basic gameplay modes the first being the standard single-player campaign that was also the meat of the original mobile/Windows 8 versions and a new two-player online co-op mode exclusive to the Xbox One.

The single player campaign is broken down into six acts each one further split into five missions for a grand total of thirty overall boards.  That means this version of the game has both the original 25 missions and the added 5 that came with the Hydra DLC.  At first glance this might seem like enough to last a while but Halo: Spartan Assault’s mobile roots clearly are front and center as each individual mission rarely lasts more than five minutes.

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Short missions are great for on-the-go mobile gaming where time is of the essence but they are entirely detrimental for home consoles, as the pint-sized chunks of gameplay do a poor job at either building tension or even gripping gamers with adrenalin-filled moments.  On the default difficulty setting the game is rather easy to complete as most console gamers will blow through the campaign without breaking a sweat.  The game’s relative ease and short levels make everything feel totally inconsequential and I would guess that many players will not even bother to follow the plot, skipping all the text as fast as possible.

Most twin-stick shooters ratchet up the tension by throwing hordes of enemies at the player and much of the fun comes from such instances where the protagonist survives these seemingly insurmountable odds with a mere sliver of health remaining.  Unfortunately, Halo: Spartan Assault takes the opposite tact by completely reducing the amount of enemies to low single digits while forcing gamers to be more tactical with the few that are on screen at any given moment.  That might have worked if enemy AI was smart enough to provide players with a decent opponent but that isn’t the case here as it soon becomes apparent that the collective IQ of your foes hovers near zero.

Each mission is scored and graded on a three star scale resulting in XP being earned which can then be utilized to purchase in-game upgrades and special items.  In theory, this means that players can replay completed missions to build up more XP to help them in difficult boards but the level of grinding is quite high as it takes forever to gain XP.  Other than XP the only real incentive to replaying missions is merely to earn a higher score for bragging rights on the Xbox Live leaderboards or earning achievements.

Speaking of achievements, though the overall campaign is short, it will certainly take much longer to earn the full 1000 as the game really emphasizes the fact that players need to complete the missions with the highest gold star ratings.  This artificially boosts the game’s longevity but I doubt many will spend weeks on end merely to brag that they achieved 1000 points as the grind and monotony are just too prevalent.

The game does try and mix things up a bit with different mission goals and objectives but they all boil down really to simply destroying things or killing more Covenant forces.  Vehicles like the Covenant Phantom or UNSC Scorpion tanks are also present and help break up the tedium but they are only used sparingly in too few missions.

While the single-player campaign represents the bulk of Halo: Spartan Assault’s gameplay the new two player co-op mode is certainly intriguing if a little half-baked.  This mode is basically a kind of training mode where two players control Spartans who are partaking in a virtual environment against the series’ most infamous antagonists, namely The Flood.  While co-op always is fun the problem here is that there aren’t enough boards and missions and it quickly becomes apparent that developer Vanguard basically rushed to add this feature for the Xbox One release.  That’s a pity as the game works well in this mode so perhaps some added DLC can help keep players interested.  Obviously, since this is the Xbox One, this mode really only works if you have Xbox Gold as there’s no local co-op allowed.

While the game visually impressed on Windows Phone the translation to bigger home screens hasn’t exactly been kind as nothing at all screams next-generation.  While the game is rock solid in the framerate department that’s more of a result of the sparse uninspired graphics rather than anything else.  Though there are thirty boards in total the overall art design makes virtually every board feel too familiar and there is a serious lack of easily discernible landmarks.

Thankfully, just like in its Windows 8 version, this incarnation of Halo: Spartan Assault works well with a controller and easily surpasses the touchscreen mechanics that are mandatory for Windows Phone users.  That isn’t an attack on touchscreen controls but nothing beats a physical game controller for accuracy in terms of movement and shooting (although a mouse and keyboard combo certainly works well on the PC).

Frankly speaking, what worked on mobile Windows Phones and later on Windows 8 desktops and laptops really suffers in translation to home consoles.  The game’s mobile roots are stamped all over this product including the rather ridiculous microtransaction system that gives players the option to use real money for temporary boosts and upgrades.

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We can argue the relative merits and demerits of microtranactions and in-app-purchases but the bottom line here is that Microsoft has priced Halo: Spartan Assault for the Xbox One at a premium $14.99, far above its $6.99 price tag on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices.  Those who have previously purchased the game on either Windows Phone 8 or Windows 8 currently can pick the title up for a discounted $4.99.  At either its full or discounted price the included microtransaction system feels inherent flawed and ill-advised and most importantly, downright insulting considering the already high price of entry.  Although many will argue that spending money is not needed, the fact remains that Microsoft’s heavy reliance on microtransactions in virtually all their first-party titles for the Xbox One is seriously questionable.

Halo: Spartan Assault doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a mild gaming diversion as it does not have one standout feature and though the gameplay is solid it lacks any creative spark deciding to stay firmly within the realm of virtually every twin-stick shooter ever released.  The truth is that the game’s real selling point is that it takes place in the Halo universe and if everything related to the franchise was summarily ripped out that the core gameplay could very well be from any generic twin-stick shooter out there.  The decision to scale back the number of enemies and create something that, on the surface, feels more strategic is not without merit but the total lack of difficulty and brain-dead AI makes the entire experience feel hollow, mundane and altogether tedious.

Halo: Spartan Assault might have worked wonders on mobile devices but on the Xbox One it is nothing but filler to pad the scarce release schedule until the next big title arrives.  That might sound fine but for a franchise as legendary as Halo is advertised to be it feels like a wasted opportunity that does nothing but advance the theory that Microsoft is milking its most important gaming IP more than it should.

** out of ****

Developer: 343 Industries/Vanguard

Publisher: Microsoft

Release Date US: 12/23/2013

Release Date EU: 12/23/2013

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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