Running across alien terrain in sexy armor, firing machine guns, tossing sticky grenades, mounting turrets, jacking vehicles and slaughtering grunts and elites by the dozens? This is Halo, only now we're up above it instead of down in it.
Halo: Spartan Assault is a twin-stick shooter crafted by Microsoft's 343 Studios and Vanguard Entertainment, the developers of My Horse & Me for the Wii. Vanguard also made Gatling Gears, a twin-stick shooter for the PC, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, so they know what they're doing when it comes to moving one way and shooting the other.
The game was released for Windows 8 PCs and mobile devices on July 18, but I lacked the means to play it. I mean I have a PC, but I felt in order to evaluate Spartan Assault as a mobile game, I would need to play it on a mobile device. I had a Surface RT, but it was damaged horribly in my recent move. So I planned on skipping it.
Microsoft had other plans. They sent out a loaner Surface Pro, suitably decorated for the occasion. Okay then.
Halo: Spartan Assault relates events that took place between Halo 3 and Halo 4. By way of a military simulation computer, the player experiences the battles of Commander Sarah Palmer and Spartan Davis as they deal with a splinter Covenant group on the planet Draetheus V. What could be so important about the planet that the aliens would break the cease-fire between the two forces? Why am I asking this question? I'm the one who played it.
Suffice it to say, between cutscenes and the events that play out during the game's 25 single-player missions, those questions are answered.
And the getting there sure is entertaining. As much as I prefer actual sticks for my twin-stick shooting (still waiting on USB controller support), Spartan Assault hands rather well. Left thumb moves, right thumb shoots, swaps weapons and grenades, activates armor abilities and takes control of vehicles and turrets. It's a very busy right thumb, one that will periodically hit the wrong button at the wrong time, but mostly it does a wonderful job.
The pedigree of both development house shines through in Spartan Assault. It's got solid twin-thumb shooting, mostly responsive controls, and the satisfying impact that's the hallmark of a good multi-directional shooter.
And then it's all Halo-y. The weapons behave and sound the same, for the most part. The grunts behave and sound the same when you're applying those weapons. The mission objectives — disabling air support, defending a base, surviving against an incoming horde — are instantly familiar. At any given point the camera could swing down into first-person mode and I'd feel right at home.
There are some non Halo-y things about Spartan Assault. For one, there's no multiplayer, which makes me a little sad. That, and I very much doubt the UNSC would charge its soldiers to change out their weapons, and I find it hard to believe they'd build a military simulator with a coin slot in it.
For that matter, these people can create a fully-sentient artificial intelligence, but their training simulator is one step removed from Robotron 2084?
It's not necessary to purchase credits — I'd say the game is more challenging and satisfying without spending cash on the big guns. And the military simulator angle may be silly, but it does leave a large window open for additional content down the way.
It's a different sort of game, but the Halo spirit remains intact. You might not be able to jump in Spartan Assault, but that just means you can't get tea-bagged either. Oh happy day!
Genre: Mission-based twin-stick shooter
Developer: 343 Industries/Vanguard Entertainment
Platforms: Windows 8/RT, Windows Phone 8