As a Halo fan who’s old enough to remember when shooters couldn’t be first-person, you’d think a Halo-flavored version of Robotron: 2084 or Smash TV would be right up my alley. But while Halo: Spartan Assault for the Xbox One never hits the effortless stride we’ve come to expect from a Halo game, it’s still has plenty of addictive arcade-y action.
When some rogue Covenant soldiers — who either don’t know, or don’t care, that there’s a ceasefire in place — attack a human-controlled planet and its moon, and end up disturbing some flood guys who were just trying to find a moment’s peace, its up to some armed and armored human soldiers to stop their ingress…or die trying.
Made by Vanguard Entertainment (who released the similarly old school shooter Gatling Gears in 2011), under the supervision of the Halo overlords of 343 Industries, and originally released on Windows 8 tablets, Spartan Assault is very much in the mold of those aforementioned arcade games, as well as their modern equivalents Super Stardust HD and the Geometry Wars games. Using one thumbstick to move, and the other to aim, you have to mow down as many bad guys as you can while avoiding their attempts to kill you.
As you’d expect, Spartan Assault is rather Halo-esque. Besides letting you use your favorite weapons to fight your old pals, it also uses the same sound effects, color palette, and iconography as its bigger brothers. It also, in a break from this genre’s conventions, lets you do such Halo-ish things as carjack an enemy turret or vehicle, smack a guy upside the head with your gun, or deploy such armor abilities as a shield or trigger-happy drone. You can even get double and triple kills like when you get lucky in multiplayer.
In another nod to those other Halo games, Spartan Assault also doesn’t have you getting swarmed from all sides by enemies who can be taken out with a single gunshot. Instead, your enemies are fewer in number, but can take more shots before going down for the count.
Because of this, Spartan Assault — unlike some but not all games of its ilk — doesn’t let you aim and fire an unlimited stream of ammo at the same time with the right thumbstick. Instead, that stick is only used to aim; you have to use the right trigger to fire, and you only have about as many bullets as you would in a regular Halo game (save for when you use a turret or vehicle). Though you can, if you’re running low, pick up a downed enemy’s weapon or restock at a conveniently located ammo dump.
Spartan Assault also differentiates itself from similar games by giving you more to do than just shoot anything that moves. Not only are there are offensive missions where you have to, say, destroy your enemy’s stuff, but there’s also defensive ones where you have to stop your enemies from destroying your stuff (which sometimes makes this feel like the mode “Firefight” from 2010’s Halo: Reach).
There’s also a variety in the size of the levels. Besides large ones where you get to explore a little, there are also smaller, arena-like areas that you’ll have to criss-cross several times to complete your mission.
The thing is, I actually wish Halo: Spartan Assault broke with tradition even more than it does. For instance, in the more spread out levels, it would be helpful if your radar also served as a map, one that showed where you’ve been and where you haven’t.
I also wish that the developers had done a bit more when they ported this over from tablets. Because it was originally made for a screen you’d hold in your hand, not one you’d look at from across the room while you sit on the couch, the game’s aerial viewpoint is set so high up that it’s difficult to make out any real detail.
I even, just to see how much better this would look with a closer viewpoint, played the game while standing really close to my TV. And I have to tell you, before my eyes started to water, I could really see how much better this game looks when you can actually see what you’re shooting. That this wasn’t done — or wasn’t at least something you could adjust in the options — is a real oversight.
Similarly, the red dots on your radar — y’know, the ones that indicate where your enemies are located — are so tiny that even on a big TV it’s hard to see them. In fact, it wasn’t until I played the game at night, when there was no ambient light streaming through my living room’s curtains, that I realized that circle in the corner of the screen wasn’t just decorative but instead had little red dots moving around it.
The irony of this is that the one thing they did add in adapting the game to the Xbox One ended up making this worse. When used repeatedly, Covenant turrets have a tendency to overheat. When they do, the game lets you know this by turning on the vibrator in the right trigger. Which, as you’d know if you’ve played Forza Motorsport 5 or any other game where they turn on the vibrator in the right trigger for more than five seconds, is really uncomfortable and irritating.
Thankfully, this is the only real irritant when it comes to playing Spartan Assault with a controller. If anything, being able to play with a controller is the one reason why I’d suggest someone who already bought Spartan Assault on a tablet might want to double dip (assuming, of course, you didn’t play Spartan Assault on a tablet with a controller…in the study with Col. Mustard). Admittedly, I only played the tablet version with the touchscreen controls for a few minutes at the event where Microsoft, 343, and Vanguard first announced this game, but even with that limited time, it’s obvious that this works way better with two thumbsticks than it does by rubbing two thumbs on a screen.
Sadly, though, the dual thumbsticks of the Xbox One’s controller can’t completely save Halo: Spartan Assault. While one of the hallmarks of the Halo first-person shooters is how effortless they are, how you can tell yourself you’re just going to play for a few minutes before making dinner, only to next realize it’s 4AM, you’re still playing, and you’re not wearing any pants, Spartan Assault doesn’t do this. It’s the kind of the game where, after a couple missions, you’ll want to take a break. Granted, you’ll want to play a couple more missions in a couple hours — it’s like the Chinese food of video games, if I may perpetuate a stereotype I’ve never found to be true — and it’s more engaging when you play it co-op with a good buddy (though by “good” I’m referring to both their gaming skills and the quality of your friendship), but it’s not the kind of thing that will cause you to lose hours of your life. And your pants.
That said, if you’re into old school-ish twin stick shooters, or Halo, or both, you’ll find the Xbox One version of Halo: Spartan Assault to be quite engrossing, thanks to its solid controls and healthy doses of Halo flavoring. And you don’t even need to be an old man to enjoy it.