An assault on the senses

When I first got my hands on a Windows Surface demo featuring Halo: Spartan Assault at E3 last year, I knew I’d never review the game unless it had a controller. Playing a twin-stick shooter without, ya know, twin sticks made the entire experience utterly frustrating, and I just couldn’t get past the idea of the inferior controls.

So, when I heard the game was coming to consoles and PC, I figured I could just wait for that version, since Spartan Assault’s largest, most obvious problem would be solved. Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though the input issues have been addressed with a traditional controller, there’s so much more disappointment lurking beneath the Surface.

Spartan Assault’s single-player campaign passes itself off as a training simulation where up-and-coming Spartans can relive and learn from historic battles—fought by Halo 4’s Sarah Palmer and a new Spartan named Edward Davis—that took place on Draetheus V and its moon. The game also features a separate online co-op campaign in which you and a friend can take on the Flood. In regards to enemies, locations, and general aesthetics, Spartan Assault looks and sounds very much like a Halo game, just from a different camera angle.

Single-player is broken down into 30 missions across six chapters, offering an intriguing slice of Palmer’s backstory in bite-sized chunks that shouldn’t take more than three to five hours (six to eight if you also do the co-op adventure) to get through. Unfortunately, beyond the superficial details and the possible appeal of learning more about Palmer, there’s really little else here to draw longtime Halo fans in. And while the game’s length may sound short, Spartan Assault still finds a way to feel like a drag.

Now, I understand that twin-stick shooters aren’t really known for their depth of gameplay, but in trying to impart a stronger Halo feel, Spartan Assault also removes any and all charm that usually comes with this genre. Typically in such offerings, you eventually come across opposition that you can’t overcome through brute force alone. You need to strategize, even if it just means running behind cover and letting your shields recover. I never had this feeling in any of the game’s 30 missions. I ran in guns a-blazin’ every time and walked away. In a traditional Halo title, this might make you feel like a badass. In Spartan Assault, it made me feel bored.

The game does try to make things a little difficult by giving you limited ammo on all your weapons, something you don’t normally see in twin-stick shooters. In most games of this genre, you always have one weapon, even if it’s a weak little pistol that has infinite ammo for the sake of aiming, since it’s not inherently the easiest thing with the three-quarters top-down view here. By not providing any traditional aim assists with a laser pointer or an infinite-ammo weapon, the developers want you to be careful about wasting ammo, since aiming remains an iffy prospect.

This point becomes moot, however, due to the fact that many of the weapons are overpowered, and there’s so much ammo littered about the battlefield that I couldn’t imagine ever running out. And the fact the game tries to create difficulty through the genre’s natural limitations—and does nothing to hide this—just comes across as lazy design.

But the frustration doesn’t stop there. You earn XP as you play to unlock weapons. But instead of fully unlocking the weapons, you’re only renting them for that particular task, meaning you have to buy the best weapons again and again and again.

Or, if you’re rich, you can spend real-world cash to rent the guns for each of the game’s 30 missions—because it’s not enough that Spartan Assault for consoles ($15) costs twice as much as its Surface and Windows Phone ($6.99) siblings. Even though you really don’t need to buy any of the weapons to beat the game, you can’t help but feel like you’re missing something without trying them all at least once. The game wants to charge you even further to have the best experience possible.

And therein lies the true issue with Halo: Spartan Assault. It’s still just a mobile game using the same tired nickel-and-dime tactics to squeeze a few more dollars out of you. It’s just been cheaply ported over so that you can use a controller—which, at least, does work much better than the touchscreen inputs ever did. Sarah Palmer’s story, as much as I like the character, isn’t enough to make this anywhere near a worthwhile purchase. The developers couldn’t even tack on local co-op, which I would’ve enjoyed when taking on the Flood (in what proved to be a slightly more interesting experience than the single player campaign, if only because I was playing with a friend).

Players won’t be missing anything by mercifically passing on this one–Halo: Spartan Assault is easily the worst experience to ever feature one of the most famous names in gaming.

Developer: 343 Industries/Vanguard Entertainment • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 12.23.13
A cheap port of a mobile game with glaring flaws at its very core that does a disservice to the Halo brand, Spartan Assault should be avoided like the Flood.
The Good Provides a bit more backstory to Spartan Sarah Palmer.
The Bad One of the worst twin-stick shooters I’ve ever played.
The Ugly The item rental/microtransaction system.
Halo: Spartan Assault is available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows 8-enabled devices (Windows Phone, SmartGlass). Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One.