“Wake up Sam”, that’s what my internal Cortana said on the morning of May 14.
Paul and I were in Santa Monica, CA to get an early preview of an upcoming, unannounced, non-console “Halo” action title. That’s all we knew, but the fact that Microsoft and 343 Industries invited Windows Phone Central gave us an idea of what platform we would be playing this on.
Was it finally happening? Halo on Windows Phone? As you know by now, the answer was a loud yes. And bonus, Windows 8 was getting in on the action. If you read us regularly, you might have figured out by now I’m a big Halo fan. So what do I think about Halo: Spartan Assault so far?
Spoiler alert: Forget E3 and Build, I want it to be July already.
So what’s this post about?
I’ll give you guys and gals a journal type entry for that morning, my initial impressions and finally I’ll try my hand at addressing some concerns I’ve seen on the web and have myself about the game. Then we're going to battle it out in the comments on what you all think of the game.
May 14, 2013
We were at Shutters on the Beach, a hotel in Santa Monica that, believe it or not, is on the beach. The conference room was situated right next to the boardwalk (well, technically a cement walk), but you couldn’t tell since all blinds were shut to keep Peeping-Toms at bay.
Shutters on the Beach
Microsoft and 343i invited about a baker’s dozen (or two or three) of gaming journalists, bloggers, and traditional news reporters to the event. First thing first, food and non-disclosure agreements. There was a full breakfast buffet to keep blood sugar levels from dropping too low and the NDA's needed to be signed by everyone for the presentation to start.
Basically you agree to an embargo on everything discussed, breaking that embargo results in the forfeiture of your first born or something else of equal value. Bellies full from the breakfast buffet and papers signed, it was time to kick off the presentation. Unfortunately, no videos or photos were allowed to be taken during the event, but that didn’t matter so much since they were planning on sending media assets for the game closer to the day the embargo gets lifted.
The presentation itself was solid. The speaker had a Surface Pro powering the large HDTV in the room. PowerPoint slides, screenshots, and videos were seen by all. In addition we got our first glimpse of gameplay during a live demo on that same display. But the most beneficial part of the morning came after the presentation. When a handful of Surface Pros were handed out for journalists to try out the game for themselves. The team of developers and designers working on Spartan Assault walked around, helping people get the feel for the game while answering questions.
Thoughts on Spartan Assault from a Halo fan
Surprise. I’m a Halo fanboy. I’ve played (and loved) every Halo game since it landed on the original Xbox back in 2001. Ever since I picked Windows Phone as my mobile platform in 2010 I’ve been to play the Halo series on my smartphone. Nearly two and half years have elapsed since and we’re so close to getting that game.
Was I surprised that the game wouldn’t be a first-person shooter? Yes and no. While I’ll always dream of playing a Halo FPS shooter away from my Xbox, it wouldn’t be the same experience on a smartphone or tablet. Because by default you interact with touchscreens on those devices. Sure you could add a controller, but that adds an unnecessary barrier to playing a game that wouldn’t sit with most gamers.
Tank beats everything
So what about a real-time strategy game, like Halo Wars? Well that also presents some problems. While I think a hypothetical Halo Wars 2 would be amazing on a tablet, it could be awkward on a smaller display. I think 343i did the right thing by giving the Halo universe a new genre: the top-down shooter. We’ve seen it work well on mobile devices, remember Z0MB1ES!!1 (on the ph0ne)? Try it out if you want a general idea of how Spartan Assault will play.
During the presentation I was a little hesitant about this twin-stick shooter for a Halo game. It felt slightly sacrilegious as a Halo fan that it would not be first-person, but then again so did Halo Wars. And like Halo Wars, after playing the game for a few moments it clicked – this is exactly how Halo should work on a tablet or smartphone. The picture below gives you the idea of how the touchscreen controls will work.
Abilities? Check. Melee? Check. Teabagging? Hmm...
And if you look at the diagram above, you’ll see how they managed to capture that Halo feel in a new game genre. Melee, weapons switch, grenades, vehicle controls, and armor abilities are all present in this game. It may look complicated, but it didn’t take long for me to get comfortable with the controls. I really can’t wait for you to try it out for yourself, but it handled really well and can only get better between now and then. Something I’ve never said about a touchscreen based first-person shooter.
It’s easy to dismiss Halo as just another mindless shooter if you haven’t really played. But fans of the series will quickly talk about the Halo mythos and how it draws them in. The Halo universe spans many different story-telling mediums: books, comics, videos and more. It looks like Halo: Spartan Assault will continue to carry that torch of finding a good balance between story and gameplay. Within the Halo community there are fans who enjoy and engage each other in specific segments of that universe. Most of you are familiar with those who just play online multiplayer. But there are solid groups who spend most their time in just campaign. There’s also fans who have never played the game, but greatly enjoy the books. The in-game cinematics are of a quality that you usually find in AAA titles on console games and that has me excited.
Concept art for Spartan Assault
Cinematic from Spartan Assault
So what do we know about the story so far? Well Spartan Assault is tied tightly into the Halo 4 story. You’re on board the UNSC Infinity, the main ship in the Halo 4 campaign. The ship is used as training for Spartan IVs through an X-Men like Danger Room. Basically a training facility where Spartans can re-live past battles to hone their skills or do skirmishes against one another in this simulator. The battles that you’ll be re-experiencing focus on Sarah Palmer, an ODST who becomes part of the first wave of Spartan IVs. You’ll also have a new character named Spartan Davis, who we don’t know much about at this time.
This is the part where Spartan Assault clicked with me that morning. The weapons in Halo have always had their own unique feel and sound. Maybe it’s the countless man hours I’ve sunk into the Halo series, but I can close my eyes and tell you what weapon is on screen by ear. You know that feeling when you fear the pink mist as your body explodes after an opponent unleashes their Needler on you? You’ll get that feeling playing Spartan Assault. I couldn’t stop grinning as I played the demo and heard that grenade bounce, that sticky stick, or those Grunts begging for mercy.
Dual SMGs are back
Spartan Assault will come with a variety of weapons. You’ll see some old friends (dual SMGs anyone?) and some new weapons that we’ll learn about at launch. But the moment that really clicked was how good the weapons work in this top-down perspective. You can pick your initial weapons at the start of each mission. I picked the sniper and went to town. A click flick in the general direction of an enemy will result in that sniper bang followed by an Elite knocked off his socks.
Vehicles are all present too. During my short hands on with the game I was able to kick an Elite out of a Wraith. Like all Halo games before this, you can control the vehicles and wreak havoc. I quickly took out the surrounding enemy Wraiths with mine. It was satisfying to splatter Grunts along the way.
Concerns and some misses
Right now there is no multiplayer or co-op in Spartan Assault. To me, that’s a miss and something I wish 343i had pushed hard to make happy. Why does Halo have such a high replay value on the Xbox? Because once you finish the campaign you can spend an insane amount of hours online doing multiplayer games in a variety of gametypes. Slayer, Capture the Flag, and others would have been fun even in this top-down perspective. I think it would have been possible to do since they were able to create a compelling story and campaign with this new twist.
And even if online multiplayer would have been too time consuming to add, co-op would have been equally as rewarding. I’m not sure how Spartan Assault will stay relevant once you’ve beaten the game. The game will feature challenges, specific to each level and then weekly ones. But I’m not sure that’s enough to keep people coming back. The allure of multiplayer is that no two slayer games are the same. On the console, new human opponents always present different challenges and test you as a player on Xbox Live. That could have translated well to this game.
Buy credits? But I bought the game...
Across the internet a handful of people have grumbled about this being only available for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. They see it as a money grab and selling out of Halo for the purpose of pimping their new platforms and making cash. While it’s true that most companies actually try to make money, you shouldn’t let that detract from enjoying Spartan Assault. Windows Phone and Windows 8 are getting a game that’s produced like it belongs on the console.
However it’s hard to ignore the in-app purchases. When you have to initially buy the game (6.99) and there are still IAPs in the game it kind of stings. 343i stressed that you can beat the game without using them. However, it’s hard to judge how true that statement is until we actually get to play it. As a game developer do you design a game to slightly encourage micro-transactions? If I had to guess, 343i won’t take that approach since they’ve generally shown a loyalty to their fan base.
What happens next?
Between now and the release in July there’s still a lot more to learn about Spartan Assault. We expect to get more hands on at E3 and learn more about the game. For example we still don’t know what you’ll unlock in Halo 4 while playing this game. Other mysteries include whether or not there are separate achievements between the phone and tablet versions. Will we see a version for the Xbox One? All questions to ask and find out.
As a lifelong Halo fan I am extremely looking forward to this game. Not only for the small push that Windows Phone and Windows 8 might see, but because it’s the first time we’re getting to experience Halo away from the couch.
I’m curious what you Halo fans think of this game? What about non-Halo fans? Sound off with your thoughts below!