(Xbox 360 Review) Halo: Spartan Assault

Developer: 343 Industries / Vanguard Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action / Shooter
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 7 = Good

Halo: Spartan Assault is an arcade-style top-down shooter delivered in the guise of a training simulator. Set during the downtime between Halo 3 and 4, the game’s 30 missions comprise a series of battles undertaken by Commander Sarah Palmer and Spartan Davis against the Covenant during their invasion of Draetheus V as well as a follow-up mini-campaign, Operation Hydra. The successful shift to a new play style coupled with an array of solo and co-op missions and satisfying action do well to hold up an otherwise lightweight, microtransaction-ified release.

The Covenant might have agreed to a ceasefire, but that doesn’t mean the UNSC can afford to lower their guard. The future of humanity is at stake, after all. To keep their soldiers up to snuff, the higher-ups assign the troops the task of studying and surviving one of the deadliest earlier encounters, the sudden attack on Draetheus V. As the campaign unfolds, Commander Sarah Palmer and Spartan Davis are called upon to carry out the duties that all will find themselves undertaking in the fight with the Covenant:  defending fixed positions, evacuating and protecting personnel, assisting besieged squads, and repelling enemy landings. The missions are short and to the point, often feeling as if they would fit between checkpoints in a traditional Halo release, and they require quick and decisive action on the part of the Spartans. This typically involves grabbing the closest weapon and blasting anything that comes within firing range, though there is some room for finesse in the form of behind-the-back melee attacks for quick takedowns of smaller units. Being able to get close enough to an enemy to deliver such a mortal blow will often require the use of special armor abilities, and it’s in this area where the game loses some of its footing.

In addition to armor abilities, players will have access to a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and a booster in their loadout. These will often change in relation to the mission at hand, but they can all be customized through the use of in-game experience or purchasable credits. Options are limited, however, as all categories are restricted to three upgraded items: either weapon type can be swapped for only a sniper rifle, Spartan laser, or rocket launcher; boosters can be swapped for a shield, damage, or score booster; and armor abilities can be traded up for an autosentry, overshield, or seeker drone. Armor abilities have the greatest variety, as players can start with other skills, such as cloaking, sprinting, or projecting a holographic double at the start of a mission, while boosters have the least, their slots being empty unless one is equipped. Discarded weapons as well as weapon lockers and crates are scattered throughout the maps, and are frequently found near starting positions, so spending experience or credits fortunately isn’t required to attain different weapons. The problem with this system isn’t what’s included but what’s available in total as it’s incredibly sparse, especially when compared to the customization options of the main series. Another is that this seems to be intentional in order to encourage the use of spending actual money for items. This decision is driven home by the fact that purchased weapons do not carry over but have to be re-purchased for the next mission, and experience is often far short of what’s needed if players want to frequently kit themselves out.

Experience is slow to accumulate, although the use of skulls, which as before increase the difficulty (e.g., no HUD, shield only, swapped in-mission weapons have less ammo, etc.) for a return of additional experience, helps somewhat to offset this. Additionally, kills can also be chained for combo modifiers, which also go towards each mission’s star-based performance rating, and Assault Ops allow for bonus experience through mission-specific and weekly challenges. However, even when using both skull spots, deftly chaining together kills, destroying every piece of enemy equipment in sight, and keeping an eye on the challenges, experience is rarely in abundance. This means that the sniper rifle (1,000 XP) or rocket launcher (2,000 XP) are frequently absent from the Spartan’s arsenal, which is also due to the fact that armor upgrades range from 200 XP to 800 XP and boosters from 500 XP to 1,000 XP. After half a game filled with silver- and gold-star-level performances, I was at around 5,000, and that’s with constant use of the 3X shield-only skull and only a few boosters.

The weapons themselves are represented well, and they prove just as satisfyingly lethal in a top-down shooter as they do in first-person. An entire arsenal is available throughout the missions, from the dual submachineguns of Halo 2, to the infuriating needler and grunt-downing shotgun. Melee weapons aren’t equippable but they do appear in force on the Covenant’s end, and their presence always causes the pulse to quicken. It’s not just the weapons that have made the transition, either, as the series’ classic vehicles are also well represented. Both factions provide pilotable machines, with the ghosts continuing their run as the series’ zippy, ramming dealers of death and the mammoth tanks being exactly the kind of destructive addition that an arcade-style game demands. Not only does the game look like a regular Halo title, but it feels like one, too, and that’s key. It’s one thing to get a game’s aesthetics right, but it’s another thing entirely to capture the flow of combat and feedback of the weaponry, and that’s something Spartan Assault absolutely nails.

Once history has been relived, players can take another trip down memory lane in a co-op-centric training simulator against the Flood. Multiplayer is limited, however, in that there is no local co-op—and this is as perfect an example of a sofa-friendly game as I’ve seen—and no compatibility between this and the Xbox One version. This is especially unfortunate as it would have helped to deal with the lack of players, as it can be difficult to get a game going. It might be too much to ask for AI bots given the game’s cost, but their absence all but guarantees many co-op-free sessions. The missions aren’t long, but battling alongside a partner is enjoyable, and it’s a letdown that this is not always a viable option.

Halo: Spartan Assault is a solid if short top-down shooter that serves both solo- and co-op-minded players, but the influence of microtransactions makes for an overly limited experience. The low price point certainly makes the game more attractive, but the campaign length and lack of any sufficient skill- or score-based hooks won’t keep action fans or high-score chasers plugged in long after they’ve seen Palmer and Davis off. As it stands, the game’s good, but it’s easy to see that it could offer much more.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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