News, Views, and Reviews
Microsoft had a strange problem after the release of Halo 3. How do you follow up one of the most successful video game trilogies of all time? Especially when the studio that created it, Bungie, was going to become independent from Microsoft? First, Microsoft created another studio, 343 Industries, to inherit Halo from Bungie. Bungie helped 343i with Halo: Reach and the Halo Anniversary remake, and then left the franchise in 343i’s hands. The first solo effort for 343i, Halo 4, was met with critical acclaim and decent sales. So far, they are off to a good start. It’s one thing to create a new development studio and keep making Halo games, of course, but where does the series go? Halo 3 wrapped up its story line with a very satisfying conclusion.
To address this, Halo 4 also started a new story, a new conflict for the iconic Master Chief, his fellow “Spartan” super-cyborg-soldiers, and the rest of humanity. This new conflict takes place mostly in and around a massive super-ship called The UNSC Infinity. The Infinity is practically a giant city, capable of slipstream space travel, that humans built when they were still fighting their previous enemies, a group of aliens collectively referred to as “the Covenant”. Following the end of the Covenant War, Earth decided to launch the Infinity deep into space anyway, hopefully for peaceful, exploration purposes. In Halo 4, the Infinity discovers a new threat, a group of aliens called the “Forerunners” which were more or less responsible for all the technology in the galaxy. The Forerunner technology (like the “Halo” devices themselves) that the humans and Covenant fought over in the previous series of Halo games, hide a more sinister purpose, and is protected by a nearly infinite supply of AI constructs. In summary, Halo 4 details the activation of a Forerunner world and the beginning of a new conflict between Humans, the Forerunners, and many Covenant armies that join the Forerunners. Halo: Spartan Assault is a spin-off of this new conflict.
The Halo games usually star John 117, the Master Chief: a product of genetic and bio-mechanical experimentation that was called the “Spartan 2” project. “John 117” and the rest of the Spartans were raised from age 6 to become super soldiers, even before the Covenant War started. This project took many years, and many applicants didn’t survive the process. The end result were the Spartan 2s: seven foot tall super-humans capable of piloting nearly invincible suits of armor. Fortunately for Earth, the Spartan 2 project finished right before the Covenant started attacking Earth’s colonies. If it weren’t for the Spartans, the Covenant would have easily won. During the thirty year war that followed, an updated “Spartan 3” project created more super-suited-soldiers at a quicker rate. These newer Spartans weren’t as big as the Spartan 2s, but still impressive compared to regular humans. Like the Infinity ship, the more advanced “Spartan 4” program was intended to help with the war with the Covenant, but then the war ended.
Story: This twist to the Halo story creates interesting game play opportunities. The Infinity contains training facilities for the newly created Spartan 4 soldiers, and “training exercises” explain the multi-player facets of the Halo 4 video game. “Halo: Spartan Assault” is also a training program for the new Spartans, but its in the form of a “video game” instead of multi-player combat. This program is actually simulating the previous encounters of Spartans Palmer and Davis (new characters introduced in Halo 4) back when they were fighting the Covenant. So follow this: YOU play a video game called “Spartan Assault” pretending you are a Spartan 4 soldier that’s playing a video game, that recreates the combat missions of DIFFERENT Spartan soldiers. If that seems confusing, don’t worry, it’s just a clever attempt to explain why you’re playing a video game that has a lot of “game” elements (such as replaying levels with different weapons or trying to get higher scores) that wouldn’t ordinarily be justified if it was just telling a story.
Controls: If you think that’s confusing, consider that Halo: Spartan Assault isn’t just a spin-off of Halo 4, it’s also a different type of game. That’s right, it is NOT a First Person Shooter, it’s an “isometric” (camera is fixed in an overhead view) shooter. Spartan Assault is sometimes referred to as a “twin-stick shooter” but that’s incorrect. A twin-stick shooter has one simple mechanic: the left thumb stick steers the player and the right thumb stick fires weapons in the direction it is pushed. Examples of this would be Geometry Wars or the Zombie Arcade shooter unlocked in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Spartan Assault uses the left hand (W, A, S, D keys) to move the player, and the mouse moves an aiming reticule around the screen, but you still have to press the left mouse button to fire and the right mouse button to throw grenades. Precision shots are required as you can, and will, run out of ammo. Put another way, Spartan Assault might look like a “casual” shooting game designed for tablets and smart phones, but it is actually really hard. Even with a keyboard and mouse, I struggled to complete several levels, so I can’t imagine how hard it must be on a touch screen device. There is supposed to be a future update that will allow Xbox controllers to be used, but for the sake of this review, I’m sticking with the K/B and M controls. From the isometric point of view, lining up shots is part of the challenge. In a first person shooter, you simply aim the reticule where you want to fire, and shoot. Here, you have to not only aim in the correct direction, you often have to anticipate the movement of your enemies. All of the Covenant enemies are represented: “Grunts” and “Elites”, the shield carrying “Jackals” and flying “Drones”, and thuggish “Brutes”. Unfortunately, some of the strategies for dealing with these enemies in First Person don’t translate for the new isometric view. Dealing with the Jackals is especially frustrating, as you would normally aim for exposed arms or feet to get them to drop their shields and then finish them off when they are exposed. In Spartan Assault, you just have to keep shooting at them until their shield collapses and THEN you can shoot them. Fortunately, the shooting mechanics are as solid as you’d expect from a Halo title, its just little features like the Jackals that don’t translate well.
Nearly everything else from the Halo games are here, and handled exceptionally well: the Covenant vehicles, the Wraith and Ghost, are more fun to drive than the human Grizzly and Scorpion tanks. Expect to see Pelicans, Locusts, and Banshees in the air, but you can’t fly them. Human support vehicles, the Wolverines and Elephants, are also included but not controllable, and the famous Jeep-like vehicle, the Warthog, is notably absent. Nearly all of the Human and Covenant weaponry are accounted for, except for the Battle Rifle and Designated Marksman Rifle. The “Armor Abilities” from Halo: Reach are also available, including the “auto sentry” and “light shield” from Halo 4. This is a little strange because those are Forerunner constructs found and adapted to the Spartan 4 armors – but chronologically speaking, Spartans Palmer and Davis wouldn’t have had access to them during these “Spartan Assault” missions.
Graphics: For a “mobile” game, the graphics are exceptionally bright and clear. The animations of all the characters and enemies of the Halo series are translated well, and this feeds into the strategy involved in taking down the different adversaries. Firing at an Elite, for example, will eventually cause their force fields to fail – and then they’ll either try to jump behind cover to let them recharge, or make a mad dash at you. Grunts will run away if their numbers dwindle, just like in other Halo games, or they’ll fire up two sticky grenades, one in each hand, and run at you. The adventures of Spartans Palmer and Davis take place on an entirely different planet, and its moon, than has appeared in previous Halo titles, and the graphics benefit from the new environments. Strange, alien trees twist and obscure your line of sight on some levels, or your path will be impeded by the ground ripping apart on others. Overall, I was very impressed with the graphics.
The prologue and introductions sequences are handled with an animation style that reminds me of motion comics. They’re mostly static scenes, reminiscent of concept art, that will have something animated like someone’s arm moving or ships floating across the screen. I suppose it would be too much to ask for tablets and smart phones to handle full CGI cut scenes.
Game Play: So, it’s an isometric shooter, and the controls work (with K/B and M) but what is the game like? The game is divided into 5 chapters, with 5 levels each, for a total of 25 levels. Each level has to be completed before the next one is unlocked, but all unlocked levels can be re-played for an attempt at higher scores and experience points. Experience points actually let you “purchase” different weapon load outs or armor abilities before replaying each level. These points are earned back, then, by replaying levels, and you can get huge XP bonuses by handicapping your replay attempts with the infamous “skull” modifiers. These skulls have different effects like keeping your shields from regenerating, making the enemies more aggressive, limiting your ammo, and so on. This creates a self-feeding loop: you want to get a higher score, so you “purchase” better abilities. You need XP to buy those abilities, so you use skulls to multiply your XP score. Some levels I got the “gold star” with relative ease, and some I could barely complete with a bronze star. Even multiple attempts at these levels, I always seemed to get the same score. I never bought any special point modifiers, but I did use the skulls a lot. Maybe I’ll have to try some different weapon combinations. Getting the usual Halo medals like “running riot” and “killimanjaro” gives you huge point bonuses, so maybe I just need more medals. Overall, it is pretty neat to be able to play and replay these brief but challenging levels.
I do have some frustrations, though. For one thing, every level is a complete challenge with no save points. If you die at any time, you have to start over from the beginning. For another, even though there are some load out options, many levels require a set combination of weapons that can make them a lot more challenging than others. Finally, for now at least, there are no multi-player options. It might be too much to expect some sort of versus mode (although that would be really fun with this different camera perspective) I would like some co-operative game play. The Halo series is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to co-op games, so maybe they’ll add that in the future.
Sound: Like the visuals, the sound in Spartan Assault is very well done. The soundtrack is excellent, as are the reproductions of the now iconic weaponry and other sound effects. Hearing that “hum” of powering up a plasma pistol shot or the “tink tink tink” of the needler pistol is very satisfying. The prologue and level intro scenes are animated like action-comics, but they do have voice actors, primarily the new A.I. character “Roland” introduced in Halo 4. The “stars” of these mission simulations, Spartans Palmer and Davis, never speak. Which is a little strange because especially Spartan Palmer is a main character introduced in Halo 4, and will be a main character in the Halo TV show. Still, these are supposed to be video-game training missions, not an epic story, so the lack of dialogue doesn’t really hurt it that much. I’m just glad they did the music and sound effects really well. Like other Halo games, the friendly and enemy A.I. characters can be a little chatty, which is amusing sometimes, although Spartan Assault lacks the variety of phrases. So, expect them to repeat similar phrases over and over.
Conclusion: This might have to be a review in progress. For only $7, I got 25 missions that I can replay and challenge myself to get higher scores. It’s a smaller dose of Halo, intended for mobile devices, that I get to enjoy on my PC instead. There is a lot of opportunity for new missions and levels to be released, as well as the rumored Xbox controller support and multi-player updates. Those updates could dramatically change the nature of this game, but I am pleased with what I’ve played already. I currently don’t own a Windows phone or tablet, so I can’t comment on the differences the touch screen controls make. If you updated to Windows 8, and are a Halo fan, you owe it to yourself to download Halo: Spartan Assault.
Halo: Spartan Assault is a download app available only for Windows 8; Windows 8 smart phones and tablets, and is rated “T” for Teen for: Blood and Violence.