Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, Windows 8 Devices
Developer: Vanguard Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
It's official: Halo works surprisingly well as a twin-stick shooter.
Perhaps it shouldn't be particularly surprising, in all fairness. Vanguard Games are dab hands at the genre, having brought us the superb Gatling Gears, and absolutely nailed the basics with Spartan Assault. Reliving a Covenant invasion via a holographic training simulation, we'll wield a selection of familiar armaments and vehicles against believably authentic enemies.
One moment we'll smash through entrenched defences in a 'Grizzly' scorpion variant, the next we'll hose down Brutes with SMG fire or engage in tense shootouts against agile Elites using scavenged improvised weapons. The way foes move and act has been perfectly observed (from teetering Grunts to the shield-toting Jackals), while the balance of brave offence, vehicular hijacks and desperately turtling behind a rock during shield recharge is unmistakably Halo. Though more Geometry Wars than Halo Wars, Spartan Assault feels like a Halo game through and through.
Unfortunately Spartan Assault also feels very much like a mobile game that's been shoved onto a home console at twice the original price. Because... it is.
Spartan Assault's thirty missions may be delightfully varied, but are undeniably narrow and shockingly short. At 2-5 minutes apiece, every level ends long before they ever become truly interesting, feeling somewhat unsatisfying on a home console. Sure, this is perfect for stolen time on a Surface or Windows Phone, but the Xbox One arguably deserves more than a mobile port job.
The throwaway story is little to write home about (why didn't Vanguard conclude Halo 4's Spartan Ops story arc?), though the visuals are definitely worth a mention. It's detailed and competent from a graphical standpoint, leveraging the rich colour palette and eyecatching art direction we've come to expect from the series. As a severely geeky fan of the franchise, I was impressed by an effort to include vehicles and characters from the expanded lore and Halo Wars universe. Sound design is also impressive, especially in terms of music and weapon effects, but awful Marine voice samples leave much to be desired.
Just as an example, "nice work, dawg!" is not an appropriate thing for a battle-hardened future Marine to say to a genetically engineered super soldier. Is it? If you grit your teeth the first time you hear it, you'll bore a hole in your cheek by the nineteenth. This is a personal gripe, but a few more samples wouldn't have gone amiss!
Sadly Vanguard missed an opportunity to revamp the progression system, which was largely designed around microtransactions to unlock one-use boosters and weapons. This felt... just about acceptable... in the original £5 mobile release, but just doesn't work on a console. Accruing XP to access classic Halo toys like Rocket Launchers and Sniper Rifles is a laborious process, and doubly aggravating since they're only usable for one mission.
As a home console game, Spartan Assault should have offered a more robust progression and unlock system - further adding replay value by unlocking new gear for Gold Medals - rather than shoehorning in the inappropriate mobile model.
Despite its flaws, however, I still found Spartan Assault to be tremendously entertaining for the duration - especially its online multiplayer horde mode - and I practically demand a sequel. Vanguard proved that Halo's gameplay works in a top-down format, so it would be easy to roll out a companion series that fills in gaps in the canon while giving us more Halo to play during off years. If Microsoft Studios can tailor the next game for Xbox One, rather than mobile devices, they could be on to a sure-fire winner.
- Pleasingly authentic gameplay, enemies and weapons from a new perspective
- Varied missions and plenty of classic vehicles
- Impressive visuals, trademark colourful art direction
- Levels are shockingly short and truncated, if plentiful
- Inappropriate progression and economy designed for original (cheaper!) mobile release
- Terrible voice samples and throwaway storyline
The Short Version: Spartan Assault proves that Halo can power a solid and entertaining twin-stick shooter. Though short stages and annoying mobile holdovers can spoil the fun, we have our fingers crossed for more - so long as future games remember that what works on a mobile device sometimes isn't fit for the living room.
With luck, this will be the start of a cracking tie-in franchise.