- Editor's Rating
- Looks, sounds and runs fantastically
- Feels surprisingly similar to past Halo games
- Syncs progress across devices
- Controls are never totally precise
- Story is practically non-existent
- In-app purchases, need to buy twice for PC and mobile, and lack of gamepad support are annoying
Quick TakeHalo: Spartan Assault plays like a calculated, business-driven product, but at its core is an enjoyable, classically Halo experience.
The best and worst thing you can say about Halo: Spartan Assault is also the most obvious–it’s Halo, but for touch devices. It isn’t a straight recreation of the console-based Halo games, but it provides an experience that feels closer to its big brothers than it first suggests. It’s an attractive, entertaining, simple-to-play top-down shooter that doesn’t want to be anything more than an attractive, entertaining, simple-to-play top-down shooter. And that’s fine, because Spartan Assault is just too well-made to be dragged down by its lack of ambition.
Yet this is a deeply cynical game in the wrong light. It’s almost mechanical in how much of a capital-M Mobile Game it is. Vanguard Games and Halo 4 dev 343 Industries seem to have taken a checklist of every market trend for pocket games today and worked tirelessly to make sure each box was ticked. Sometimes it feels wholly calculated. This is good and bad.
The controls are of the familiar virtual twin-stick style seen in most mobile shooters; you move your Spartan around with your left thumb, and you shoot with your right one. Onscreen buttons for grenade throwing, switching weapons and interacting with objects are there too. It’s not always accurate, because it’s never really accurate with touchscreens. But for what it is, it works well. You’ll be mowing down Covenant aliens fine enough after a short while. (Note: There’s an option to use okay mouse and keyboard controls, but there’s no gamepad support for now, which is baffling. Either way, this was intended for touch.)
There’s always a noticeable aim assist that makes up for this inherent imprecision, which helps to streamline each level but also lets you put it on autopilot from time to time. Spartan Assault would never want you to get too frustrated. There are 25 of those levels for now, and they’re all appropriately bite-sized to let you pick up and play whenever. If you’re willing to buy the game twice, you can sync your progress across devices.
Each mission centers around one core objective, always involving killing stuff. Sometimes you escort a group of allies, sometimes you blow up enemy turrets, sometimes you show those Covenant buffoons the fear of Space God in a tank. They don’t require much thought until the handful of moderately challenging levels that end the game, which is exactly how lots of players will like it.
There are microtransactions, because of course there are microtransactions. They’re one of the first things you’ll notice. You can use them to buy overpowered weapons and abilities, but thankfully they aren’t necessary to get through the game. They’re still fairly annoying for a $7 game that you have to buy twice to play on PCs and phones, but hey, deal with it, right?
Mobile games generally aren’t known for their narratives, and Vanguard and 343 follow suit again here. Spartan Assault’s story is said to be somewhere between Halo 3 and Halo 4, but it might as well not exist; the game is framed as a series of generic “historical records” that are being recounted to a new recruit. To spoil: there were bad guys, and the supersoldiers killed them. That’s about it. The whole thing is told through a handful of text briefs before each level and the occasional 20-second cutscene, but Spartan Assault’s vision requires that it be nothing more than a neat little thing you can play in your spare time.
You don’t have to take my word for that. In a meta moment at the beginning of the game, your AI leader lays out exactly what you should expect from Spartan Assault. “We’re going to study the historical battles in hopes of increasing your tactical skills for the future,” he says. “As a bonus, it’s a pretty fun game you can play in your spare time.” That’s this game’s mindset in a nutshell, for better and worse.
So it’s easy to look at all of this and think, “Ugh, they made a casual Halo, gross.” That’d be somewhat justified. But there’s two problems with that thinking: for one, Halo has always, always, been about appealing to as many people as possible. Microsoft used Halo and Halo 2 to sell the Xbox, it used Halo 3 and Halo 4 to sell the Xbox 360, and it’s going to use Halo 5 and Halo 6 to sell the Xbox One. Seeing it go back to the Spartan well to sell the viability of Windows 8 as a gaming platform shouldn’t come as any surprise. This is a business, and Spartan Assault has been carefully constructed to be playable for everyone, even if that makes it awkwardly straddle the line between the so-called casual and hardcore.
The other thing is simpler: Spartan Assault is just plain fun. Its 4-5 hour campaign is a blast, one that translates the traditional Halo play style (which has always been just plain fun) to the mobile format surprisingly well. It’s a game that probably had to be made for business reasons, sure, but Vanguard and 343 clearly put as much heart into recreating the core Halo experience as they could.
If nothing else, Spartan Assault absolutely nails that familiar yet majestic Halo aesthetic. You have all the weapons you’ve used on consoles, from the assault rifle to the rocket launcher to the needler. Various kinds of grenades and Halo 4-esque armor abilities are here too. So are all the Covenant enemy types to hunt you down.
Almost all the franchise’s wild vehicles return as well; sometimes you can hop in a Ghost and run baddies over, other times you can jump in a Scorpion tank and lay waste to the landscape. Skulls, the modifications you can make to a level that handicap you (less ammo, no HUD, etc.) but give you more experience points, are back for those who want to make things more challenging. And as you mow down baddie after baddie, you’ll get that trademark rush of medals and the instant gratification of seeing “double kill” or “killimanjaro” recognize your efforts.
All of this looks and sounds exactly like it has on consoles. Spartan Assault is gorgeous on every compatible device, and we only experienced one moment of slowdown during one particularly busy segment of a later level, so in that sense it’s certainly a technical showcase for Microsoft to triumph.
AI performance is a little more variable. Accessibility is still the name of the game here, so Spartan Assault is never out-and-out hard, but sometimes both enemies and companions will have fits of amnesia and forget that they’re supposed to move.
Those quibbles aside, Spartan Assault does a remarkable job of recreating the raw feeling of playing a standard Halo game. The grunts will still squeal and make grenade-fisted suicide runs at you, the elites will still be worthy sharpshooting foes, and you’ll still back off whenever you see a hammer-wielding brute charge at you out of nowhere. They and their worlds are still just as vibrant and colorful as they should be. Those rousing pianos and monk chants still play at the main menu. There is still a distinct atmosphere that can’t be taken away here.
By the middle of the game, you’ll be in that distinctive, shield-based flow of knowing when to be cocky and when to be cautious. You’ll be ducking, dodging, speeding and swapping weapons on the fly, blazing a warpath like the supersoldier the game says you are. The interface and control scheme are foreign, but those usual senses still apply. That’s the best thing about Spartan Assault, and the fact that Vanguard and 343 have translated it to a fundamentally different setup like this is important.
Spartan Assault is a dumbed down Halo, but that’s only because it has to be. It still has the heart of the franchise, even if its willingness to adapt every mobile trend makes it seem more than a little heartless. And of course there’s an inherent limit on how good something can be when its similarity to existing games is the best thing you can say about it. Spartan Assault is a product, but it’s one expertly crafted by obvious professionals. It’s big business and pure entertainment. Accept it for what it is and you’ll have a good time.
Halo: Spartan Assault is available now for Windows 8, Windows RT, and select Windows Phone 8 devices. For the latter, it’s exclusive to Verizon handsets until sometime in August. You’ll need at least 1 GB of RAM to play it on mobile devices, but Microsoft says support for 512 MB RAM devices will be coming in the future. It costs $6.99.