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Review: 'Halo: Spartan Assault'

Microsoft placed a great deal of hope on Halo when it first broke into the console business, and now it’s attempting to leverage the reputation Halo built with a new entry on Windows RT, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices.

“Halo: Spartan Assault” represents Microsoft’s first effort to bring the Halo franchise to mobile devices, also marking the first original entry in the franchise not to be released on an Xbox console. When “Halo: Combat Evolved” was released for the Xbox on Nov. 15, 2001, it reshaped how first-person shooters were viewed on consoles. At the time, traditional logic dictated that mouse-and-keyboard input was the only effective control system for a first-person shooter. Instead of attempting to revolutionize shooters on touch-based devices, however, developer Vanguard has opted to bring Halo to the twin-stick, top-down shooter genre – well, somewhat.

Because there aren’t actually dual analog sticks on a tablet or smartphone, “Spartan Assault” is a dual-thumb shooter: The right thumb controls shooting while the left thumb controls movement. Controller support is oddly lacking from the game’s initial release on PC, though Microsoft claims a patch scheduled for release in the coming weeks will add the feature. Instead, PC users are relegated to keyboard-and-mouse input, which doesn’t quite offer the same fun feeling as the touch input.

Despite the slight shift in genre, “Spartan Assault” remains a typical Halo experience: The two playable characters – the game shifts perspectives from Commander Sarah Palmer and Spartan Davis – use rechargeable shields and loadouts consisting of two guns, an armor ability and grenades. One of the more head-scratching features of the game comes from the loadout menu, however: Alterations can only be made to loadouts by purchasing them through two different systems.

"Spartan Assault" features the same familiar Halo gameplay from a top-down perspective.

A sniper rifle, shield booster and auto sentry can be obtained through the use of in-game experience credits earned through gameplay, but other items – including a Spartan Laser, rocket launcher, overshield, seeker drone, score booster and damage booster – can only be purchased by using in-game credits with actual money.

Experience credit and purchasable credit are not swappable, and the aforementioned items are exclusive to each system. Each purchase only lasts one level as well, making the monetary options more worthless. It’s a poorly implemented system, and most users will rarely use it because the impacts are so minuscule.

Any negativity experienced from the credit system is quickly erased once the actual game begins.

“Spartan Assault” features several mission types, including escort, defense, search-and-destroy and vehicle levels. The vehicle levels are particularly effective, easily mimicking the experiences of console Halo games, though they’re relatively easy given how overpowered the vehicles are. Still, they help break up any monotony and feature easy-to-use controls.

Make no mistake, though: On-foot levels make up the bulk of the game, and they’re very fun. Most of the main enemies – including Elites, Brutes, Jackals, Grunts and Drones – are found in the game, and the ebb and flow of combat remains largely the same. Players will find themselves implementing the same tactics as the first-person entries of the franchise, such as throwing grenades to soften large groups before rushing in with guns and high-tailing it back out to recharge shields.

Graphically, “Spartan Assault” also keeps the Halo legacy alive. There’s a beautiful and vibrant color palette that simply isn’t found in other games, and textures are crisp. The game shines on Windows computers and tablets, though the Windows Phone version features blurry interface elements and models. The sounds are equally good on both versions, with all the well-known weapon and vehicle noises perfectly recreated.

Several vehicle levels serve as a change of pace from the on-foot missions.

All the missions take place in large maps that can mostly be traversed in any method desired, though there are obvious paths implied in the level structures. The variety makes missions fun to play multiple times, as do skulls – another feature of franchise that made the jump to the mobile entry – which make the game more challenging.

The game has five chapters of five missions, and each mission has three levels of accomplishment – a bronze, silver and gold star. Obtaining a gold star on the smartphone version is an extremely difficult task given the smaller screen for input, though every star can be obtained on the computer and tablet entry with a reasonable amount of effort.

“Spartan Assault” for Windows Phone has major performance issues.

Therein lies the rub of the game: The Windows version is easy to control and features crisp graphics, but the Windows Phone version is seriously lacking. The entry for smaller screens can be difficult to control given limited real estate for thumbs, leading to frustrating moments. Worse, “Spartan Assault” for Windows Phone has major performance issues.

“Spartan Assault” ran smoothly on the Surface RT, though performance was oddly sluggish at times on my HTC Windows Phone 8X – strange given the fact that Microsoft’s Windows Phone guidelines require all manufacturers to use similar hardware. Crashes were frequent with any duration longer than 10 minutes on the smartphone, though no such issues arose on the Surface RT. Users on the game’s official forums said they experienced on several other devices, including several Nokia phones.

Players can modify their loadouts before missions, though the options are limited without purchases.

Microsoft touted cloud syncing between the Windows and Windows Phone versions of the game, though progress wasn’t fully synced between devices used for this review.

After completing the game on a Surface RT and then purchasing it on a Windows Phone 8X, only about half of the statistics and missions obtained on the former version made their way to the latter. Attempts to sync progress by signing out of the game and restart devices were unsuccessful, and it doesn’t appear there’s any option to fix the problem at the moment.

“Spartan Assault” proves Microsoft is willing to put its weight developing big-name exclusive apps for Windows and Windows Phone, but work remains to be done to ensure simultaneous development for the platforms doesn’t come with the neglect of one of the versions. The Windows Phone app is plagued with constant crashes and blurry textures, issues not fund on the Windows app. Additionally, the smaller screen sizes make basic interactions, such as activating armor abilities, cumbersome.

It’s easy to recommend “Spartan Assault” on Windows, but Windows Phone users should wait until patches are released to fix the bevy of problems. In the same vein, there’s no major reason to purchase both versions given the obvious superiority of the Windows variant.

"Halo: Spartan Assault" is available now for Windows RT, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices, though the latter version is exclusive in the U.S. for Verizon Wireless subscribers until Aug. 16.

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