With Halo: Spartan Assault, Microsoft can say that the Xbox One managed to have a Halo game out during the launch window. The bad news is that it's not Halo 5 or even another HD anniversary edition. Yet it's still a Halo game, which means it has a wealth of Covenant grunts to murder with your trusty needler. Spartan Assault reimagines Halo as a twin-stick shooter, delivering on much of the genre's arcade allure. However, the transition from mobile to consoles has brought with it a bevy of microtransactions, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
The non-numerical Halo games have been fitting avenues to explore other facets of the UNSC beyond Master Chief's exploits. Many of us were already familiar with SPARTAN-IV commander Sarah Palmer in Spartan Ops, and Spartan Assault makes her a playable character, along with Edward Davis, who appeared in the Halo: Initiation comics. Set after the war of the original trilogy but before Halo 4, the game finds Palmer, Davis, and other members of the UNSC faced with a Covenant invasion rather than a Promethean one. The setting maintains the Halo universe's curious aversion to normal astronomical objects; if it isn't a ring-shaped world, it's a hollow one. In Spartan Assault's case, the planet of Draetheus V is standard enough, but its moon, X50, isn't a moon but rather a planet-destroying Forerunner structure. Sound familiar?
In making Spartan Assault a genuine Halo game, developers 343 Industries and Vanguard Entertainment did away with one of the common comforts of many twin-stick shooters: unlimited ammo. It makes for a mild challenge in ammo conservation, until you realize how often fallen foes drop weapons for you to capitalize on. I give Spartan Assault credit for punishing complacency. The ease of the initial levels, along with their bite-size play lengths, makes it tempting to charge into the fray without taking advantage of the environment and the items in the field. Dying at the hands of the occasional wraith or grenade barrage encourages you to strategize. It's most rewarding when you have the presence of mind to know your ammo count and the cooldown time of your current armor ability, vanquishing foes using your mind as much as your might.
As I progressed through the game's first few missions, I was motivated to try out every familiar Halo weapon and see how they worked in this game's elevated camera view. The USMC rifles are reliable as expected, as is the target-tracking ammo of the sadistic needler. I was especially fond of dual-wielding a pair of SMGs, guns known for their inaccuracy in first-person Halo games, but their bullet-spreading tendencies worked great against the agile buggers in Spartan Assault.
The iconic Warthog and the free-flying Banshee are nowhere to be found, though more puzzling is the inability to wield an energy sword--not to mention, the ability to withstand three energy sword hits in quick succession. And don't even bother trying to hijack an occupied Covenant Ghost; you're better off taking it down with a plasma grenade instead of risking a fatal collision and restarting the level.
Halo vets will recognize the many objectives of Spartan Assault, which skew toward killing in general and focus less on activating switches. The more tense assignments are timed survival missions requiring you and your squad to last three to five minutes. Taken one at a time, these missions satisfy the need for short sessions, though in the scope of the overall game, tearing through Spartan Assault's 35 sorties makes for a playthrough that shouldn't take longer than five hours.
Acknowledging the double-dip of porting Spartan Assault on the Xbox One, Microsoft is offering a 66 percent discount to fans who have previously purchased the game for Windows 8 devices. An equally attractive incentive is the introduction of co-op play in five new missions featuring the much-loathed Flood. These levels, with their turnkey switches and their laser turrets that benefit from two operators, are designed with two players in mind. The Flood's penchant for overwhelming Spartans gives this mode a brief Smash TV-inspired rush that the campaign lacks. These new assignments can all be cleared in less than an hour--and they underscore by the lack of couch co-op and the campaign's total lack of co-op.
The entire game can be completed without spending real money or even the experience points you earn after each mission. However, even though success is possible, the game does place artificial constraints on you, encouraging you to spend some credits. I have always enjoyed the one-hit-kill prowess of a sniper rifle in any shooter, and it's disappointing that, aside from a couple of missions, the only way to access such a weapon in Spartan Assault is by spending cash or XP. Then again, I still managed to get my instant-kill fix through the classic Halo magnum.
Greatly disappointing is the lack of permanent ownership of Spartan Assault's purchased enhancements, since you don't get to keep these items after using them in a mission. The only reason to get into in-app purchases is to use various boosts and assists to get gold stars for scoring well. Spartan Assault should have succeeded in being a competitive arcade game by the classic definition, one where you strive to beat your friends' high scores, but victory rings hollow when you can buy your way to the top. Trial and error is needed to figure out which single-use armor abilities and boosts work best in getting the most points in a given mission, so Spartan Assault is best suited for Halo fans with high tolerances for repetition.
Whether you're hurriedly exiting a Scorpion tank on its last legs or backpedaling away from a gravity-hammer-wielding Brute, Spartan Assault is not short of familiar, albeit select, Halo moments. In-app purchases do not intrude on Spartan Assault's overall appeal, though the selection of optional items is only of interest if you seek to improve your scores. The limitation on cooperative play is the game's biggest disappointment, so here's hoping that Microsoft Studios has more multiplayer levels in mind for possible downloadable content.