Halo: Spartan Assault is at war with itself.
It tries to translate Halo’s first-person shooting into a top-down, twin-stick shooter. The result is a game stuck searching for a satisfying medium between the two genres.
Spartan Assault struggles to sustain the back-and-forth of Halo’s combat loop, the rise and fall of its territorial and kinetic battles. The overhead perspective ruins the surprise of a flanking enemy, the adrenaline of confinement, and the small environments choke the wide-open dynamism of the series’ signature firefights. Enemies often rush toward you or sit behind cover, admittedly a potent tactic in the game’s bottle-necked level design.
When Spartan Assault doesn’t ask you to clear an area of its familiar alien hierarchy, instead, ordering you to protect a gigantic moving vehicle, or to defend a surprisingly resilient engineer, it offers a taste of what could prove developers 343 Industries and Vanguard Games’ hypothesis. In those few scenarios, maybe 10 of the game’s 25, everything begins to feel right just before you’re given another, equally short task to fulfil.
You’ll be stuck wanting that feeling again even after tinkering with the game’s set of combat modifiers, or skulls. But no skull can teach the Covenant the tactics of war, just how to make their weapons pack a mightier punch. Halo skulls have always been largely an exercise in masochism, but occasionally they find a way to change your approach. The score multipliers aren’t enough to warrant crawling through a level as your shield drops with every shot fired, instantly killing you with the “no health” skull, especially when death forces you to restart the level, which is infuriating four minutes into a five minute section.
It doesn’t matter what options Spartan Assault gives you, it’s not the kind of game the title suggests. What it really is is a score-based shooter dressed in Halo stylings. Where everything from the armor abilities and the guns function like the popular shooter’s, but serve little purpose other than for fan service. The story conceit isn’t any better. Spartan Palmer and Spartan Davis’ service history has the right kind of absurdity and bombast of the Halo series, but it’s devoid of emotion when presented as it is: through mission-briefing-like paragraphs. If Microsoft’s most expensive, wide-reaching blockbuster, Halo 4, made me sad for a manufactured killing machine, I’d expect a smaller game, like so many today, to tell something far more poignant.
Spartan Assault is competent in what it actually does, but it fails at what it tries to do. It’s stuck between the bite-sized design of mobile games and a condensed twist on the Halo formula. The compromises it makes on both ends hurt the end result. It’s a worthy effort, if nothing else.
Final score: 3 out of 5