Ever since Windows Phone 7 launched with Xbox features and games, fans have been clamoring for a mobile Halo game. The Halo series of first-person shooters is Microsoft’s most popular gaming franchise, so a Windows Phone version would seem like a foregone conclusion. But two years passed without the slightest hint at a mobile Halo title, prompting us to question whether Microsoft has the will to bring its gaming franchises to Windows Phone.
Thankfully, a little PC and tablet OS called Windows 8 finally inspired Microsoft and franchise stewards 343 Industries to make the leap towards bringing Halo to mobile devices. Developing the game for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 simultaneously allowed the creators to keep costs down; reach the phone, tablet, and PC markets in one go; and give Microsoft’s fledgling phone and tablet operating systems a shot in the arm.
Halo: Spartan Assault is finally available on Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. Read on for our comprehensive review of both versions!
A slim story
Spartan Assault takes place between Halo 3 and 4. Since Master Chief is napping in cryosleep during that time period, players control two of his co-Spartans (genetically enhanced soldiers) instead. You’ll play as either Sarah Palmer (first seen in Halo 4) or newcomer Spartan Davis, depending on the level.
A new character would normally be exciting, but Davis doesn’t show any personality or even have a first name. His final appearance in the game comes in an awfully offhand manner to boot. Davis could have been left out without impacting the story.
Characterization aside, Spartan Assault deftly adapts Halo’s shooting gameplay into a title that can be played in tiny chunks on the go. Gears of War Judgment did pretty much the same thing earlier this year on the Xbox 360, breaking away from long, story-heavy stages into short, highly replayable levels.
Spartan Assault’s 25 stages vary in objective and length. Several have players defending a stationary location against enemies for a set duration of 2-4 minutes. Other times you’ll escort one or more NPC allies to their destination or hunt down a group of enemies. Mission length caps at five minutes or so, though you might spend much longer trying to actually beat the harder missions.
Play it again, Sam
While it won’t take especially long just to beat the game, the developers have done a surprisingly good job at instilling replay value. For starters, gamers can earn 32 medals to seek for kill streaks and specific types of kills. Medals add to a stage’s score, making it easier to earn gold star ratings.
Other than seeking gold stars for each stage, Challenges lengthen the game a fair deal. Three weekly challenges provide new objectives over time. Plus each level has three specific challenges such as killing a number of enemies with a specific weapon.
Challenges are fun to go after but one major UI mistake cuts into that fun: you have to visit a specific screen from the main menu in order to view those challenges. It would be so much more convenient and intuitive if the stage challenges showed up before and after a stage or when pausing the game. Having to back out to the main menu to check them is a major hassle.
Load-outs, XP, and difficulty
Every stage has its own specific load-out of two weapons and one armor ability. Players can spend XP earned from beating levels or credits bought via In-App Purchase (IAP) in order to access better weapons like the Sniper Rifle and Rocket Launcher instead of the default load-out. The catch is they only unlock during that specific instance; if you revisit the level and want a boost, you’ll have to buy it all over again.
Experience earned during a level depends on two factors: star rating and skulls. You can choose up to two difficulty-increasing skulls from a pool of six in order to get an experience multiplier. The problem with the XP system is you don’t get any experience if you fail the level. Spartan Assault is harder than a traditional Halo game – enemies can take your Spartan down a bit too quickly, and you get only one life per level with no checkpoints. Failed attempts at a level would be less frustrating if we still got some XP from them.
Windows 8 version
Both the phone and Windows 8 versions use cloud saves and support the Play/Pause/Resume feature. Progress earned in one version transfers to the other seamlessly, provided a user purchases both versions. XP, medals, Challenges – they all carry over between platforms.
Both versions share the same content, but they differ slightly in controls and UI. On Windows Phone, double tapping the screen tosses a grenade in the direction you’re facing. With Windows 8, you either press a grenade button or right-click the mouse. Armor abilities have their own button on Windows 8, whereas tapping your Spartan activates the ability on the phone.
When playing on Windows Phone or on Windows 8 with a touch screen device, virtual sticks control character movement and firing. Unfortunately, the phone’s virtual sticks are surprisingly ineffectual! The phone gets no-onscreen representation of the sticks, but that’s not the main problem. The movement controls are just super floaty and fiddly. Walking in a straight line or turning quickly are much harder than they should be. I’m adept at virtual sticks and Spartan Assault’s Windows Phone controls still give me trouble.
The Windows 8 game will receive Xbox 360 controller support in a post-launch patch, but it already provides a control option the phone lacks: mouse and keyboard controls. Moving with the WASD keys and aiming and firing with the mouse should feel perfectly natural to anyone who has played a PC shooter. The only downside: you can’t remap keys or adjust mouse sensitivity. Those are basic, important options in any real PC game.
Spartan Assault does multi-platform Achievements so much better than Skulls of the Shogun. You can earn all the gold stars in one version and the same Achievement will unlock the next time you get a gold star in the other. The same applies to the Achievements for medals and weapon and armor ability use.
Certain stages have their own specific Achievements. You’ll have to complete those requirements separately on both platforms. Considering the brevity of the individual levels, replaying a few specific ones hardly proves an inconvenience.
Microsoft and company have largely done a bang-up job with Spartan Assault. It captures so much of the look and feel of the Halo series, complete with most of the signature weapons and vehicles. The threadbare story and absence of multiplayer are slightly disappointing compared to Gameloft’s more robust efforts, but the game works even without those elements.
The Windows Phone game will be updated to run on phones with 512 MB of RAM in August, right around the time it stops being a Verizon exclusive in the US. Hopefully Microsoft fixes the movement controls and occasional crashing issue eventually as well… While they’re at it, they should make mission-specific challenges viewable during missions.
Nitpicks aside, Spartan Assault is one of the best Xbox-branded games on Windows Phone or Windows 8. Let’s hope that more games from Halo and other high-profile Microsoft franchises follow!
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