Halo: Spartan Assault coming to Windows Phone and Windows 8

Windows Phone has boasted Xbox Live integration from its very beginnings in 2010. The features this integration brought, such as games with Xbox Achievements, Xbox Live friends list and text messaging support, and the promise of integration with actual console games all gave Microsoft’s mobile OS a big in with hardcore Xbox 360 gamers.

One thing has long been missing though: an exclusive title that would inspire people to buy a Windows Phone just to play it. Windows Phone 8 didn’t launch with such a game last year, and in fact neither did Microsoft’s revolutionary PC and tablet OS, Windows 8. The lack of killer apps was enough to make us question Microsoft’s will to bring the company’s major franchises to its own mobile platforms.

That all changes today, because Microsoft has just officially announced Halo: Spartan Assault for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. That’s right: Halo, one of the most popular franchises in gaming is coming exclusively to Windows platforms next month. And both versions will be Xbox Live enabled, complete with shiny Achievements. At last, it looks like Microsoft is starting to take mobile Xbox gaming seriously.

From big screen to small

The first question Microsoft and 343 industries faced when adapting Halo for mobile devices had to be: how? Touch screen devices are intrinsically different from a game console with physical controller, to say nothing about varying levels of horsepower between Xbox 360, Windows Phone 8 devices, and Windows 8 devices.

Should the Halo creators maintain the mainline series’ first-person perspective and shooting gameplay that legions of Xbox gamers have come to know and love? It would mean stricter hardware requirements in order to maintain the expected graphical fidelity. More importantly, many mobile gamers find FPS controls too complex and unwieldy on touch screen devices.

The other option would be finding a new genre and perspective for this offshoot of the venerable series. Halo once branched out into the Real-time Strategy (RTS) genre with Xbox 360 sleeper hit Halo Wars, after all. By maintaining Halo Wars’ zoomed out third-person perspective, the developers could achieve more than acceptable visuals on a variety of mobile hardware.

Would mainstream FPS fans take to a more niche genre like RTS? Halo Wars received positive critical reviews and it didn’t tank at retail, but it hardly moved strong enough numbers to grow the Halo brand, either. So for Halo: Spartan Assault, Microsoft and 343 decided to combine Halo Wars’ look with traditional twin-stick shooter gameplay. The result is a game that looks a little different than fans are used to but still plays just like Halo.

Filling in the story

Halo: Spartan Assault Sarah Palmer cinematic

In adapting Halo to mobile platforms, 343 wanted to maintain the series’ AAA quality production values.  Halo games always feature epic science-fiction stories, even if their narratives do leave far too many gaps for books and tie-in products to fill in. Spartan Assault takes place in the time between Halo 3 and 4 when humanity still thought the mainline series protagonist Master Chief to be lost forever.

As such, the new story revolves around Commander Sarah Palmer, a character first introduced in Halo 4. Sarah was one of the first marines to enter the Spartan-IV program. In the Halo games, Spartans are genetically enhanced humans capable of wearing specially designed armor and leading humanity’s fight against hostile alien races. Joining her is Spartan Davis, a male character created specifically for this game. Microsoft won’t say anything more about Davis just yet. Maybe his first name actually is Spartan, making his participation in the program quite serendipitous.

Spartan Assault’s storyline comes to life through console-quality video cinematics as well as fully-voiced dialogue during gameplay. Players will experience Sarah Palmer’s very first mission as a Spartan soldier, back before she commanded her fellow Spartan-IV forces during Halo 4. We’ll also learn the origins of that game’s conflict with the new sect of Covenant following the end of the Human-Covenant War. You didn’t think the series’ lead antagonistic race would sit this one out, did you?

Arcade-style

Halo: Spartan Assault Wolverine tanks

Since people play games on phones and tablets in much shorter sessions than on consoles, Spartan Assault’s level design must change by necessity. There are now 25 fast-paced levels, each of which can be completed in a single sitting. Every stage has its own unique optional challenges for players to complete. Weekly challenges (as seen in Halo Reach and Halo 4) will keep players coming back for more as well.

As I mentioned before, FPS games on touch screens carry a serious learning curve. Spartan Assault, on the other hand was designed with simplicity of controls in mind. Virtual thumbsticks control movement, aiming, and firing, just as you’d experience in twin-stick shooters like Zombies on the Phone. Secondary functions like throwing and swapping grenades, melee attacks, switching weapons, and even armor abilities are all mapped to buttons around the edges of the screen. The input simulates playing with a controller as closely as possible – without making things confusing for newcomers.

Whatever you’re used to doing in a Halo game, just about all of it shows up in Spartan Assault. Palmer and Davis can pick up and use a variety of weapons, human and Covenant alike. The alien forces take cover behind glowing energy shields that dissipate when they take enough fire. Both sides bring plenty of vehicles into the fray, including jeep-like Warthogs, Scorpion Tanks, fast-moving Ghosts, tank-like Wraiths, and even flying Banshees. Yes, players get to drive these vehicles.

Single-player assault

Halo: Spartan Assault bridge blockade

The one aspect of Spartan Assault likely to disappoint series fans is its complete lack of multiplayer. The omission seems to stem from Microsoft’s reluctance to include real-time multiplayer in its own Windows Phone and Windows 8 offerings. We’re told that the inability to suspend and resume games on these platforms without disrupting the multiplayer experience is the cause for that general policy. I guess nobody told them that multiplayer games like Asphalt 7 and Modern Combat 4 work just fine. Even Gameloft's upcoming Halo clone N.O.V.A. 3 will sport online multiplayer. Who expects to resume a multiplayer game after switching applications or locking the screen anyway?

On the other hand, Spartan Assault does include awesome cloud and connectivity features. Both the Windows Phone and Windows 8 games support Play/Pause/Resume, meaning players can start a game on one device and resume it on the other. No worrying about loss of save data if you switch devices with this game!

Series fans will be excited to know that Spartan Assault connects with Halo 4 in multiple ways. Experience earned in the mobile game transfers to the console game. Other mobile accomplishments will unlock emblems for customizing multiplayer characters in the big-screen game. Microsoft promises “additional integration features after launch.”

Coming soon to phone, PC and tablet

Halo: Spartan Assault comes to Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 this July. Because nobody knows Microsoft’s mobile platforms like Windows Phone Central, we can tell you exactly which devices will run Spartan Assault as well. The Windows Phone 8 game only requires 512 MB of RAM, making it compatible with low-cost handsets like the Lumia 520! And although Microsoft is pushing the Windows 8 version in a big way, Spartan Assault win run on Windows RT as well. High five, Surface RT users!

Whenever a game launches on both Windows Phone and Windows 8, the issue of payment structure arises. Historically, Microsoft fans who wanted to play titles like Skulls of the Shogun on multiple platforms had to buy each version individually. The same applies here as well. Halo: Spartan Assault is a separate $6.99 purchase on Windows Phone and Windows 8. Sure, we all want universal apps to come to the Windows ecosystem in the worst way. But $14 hardly seems like too steep a cost to play Halo on your phone, tablet, and PC.

Don't miss the rest of our Halo: Spartan Assault reveal day coverage: WPCentral takes Spartan Assault for a spin and interviews the developers and Spartan Assault through the eyes of a die-hard Halo fan.