Friday, July 26, 2013

Halo: Spartan Assault review

When Microsoft Studios first announced Halo: Spartan Assault on Windows Phone 8, I almost reeked with disgust. Here was a franchise which gameplay was deeply rooted as a first shooter genre. I admit that I have a deep seated biased against developers who attempt to shoehorn a gameplay designed for consoles onto smartphones. It would be unplayable.

Thankfully, the developer Vanguard alongside Microsoft Studios seems to have realised that and designed the Halo: Spartan Assault around a smartphone's more limited input options. The result is something beautiful and is easily one of the best tactical based shooter available on any smartphone. This isn't yet another Halo first person shooter. The huge difference in gameplay mechanics, not to mention the platform, Halo: Spartan Assault deserves a proper examination.
In Halo: Spartan Assault, you play a series of missions/campaigns using a UNSC training simulator (yes, it's a game withing a game!) fighting off an invasion of a bunch of Covenant thingies. The biggest change over its console and PC cousins is the change from first person's perspective to overhead camera. While there is no analog pad on Windows Phone to assist in aiming or movement, the game makes do with two virtual twin sticks which while aren't as accurate as a proper analog pad, is serviceable. It is by no means a perfect solution to a long standing problem but until Microsoft adopts a universal gaming pad for Windows Phone 8 platform, this is the best we can do. According to Microsoft, gamepad support is coming to the Windows 8 version.

Visually Halo: Spartan Assault is brilliant. You would not believe the game is running on an aging dual core Snapdragon S4 processor and Adreno 225 GPU. The game does benefit from having to only support the Snapdragon line of SoC on Windows Phone 8, so I am guessing Microsoft Studios has done a lot to optimise the title. Animations are well done and while the game environment could do with a bit more colour, at least it isn't just shades of brown. The game isn't rendered at its native 720p (more like 480p) but it is hard to tell when playing on a small display. And to be fair, it doesn't really matter. The subtitles are rather small, perhaps hinting that Microsoft developed this game on 1080p 'phablets'. Ha, we can only hope...
Frame rate (and audio) does stutter at times, especially during scenes with heavy amount of special effects, though it never becomes too jarring. If there is a complain about the visuals is that the environment appears a bit too clean and bare. A bit more debris and obstacles would alleviate this issue but perhaps this decision has more to do with improving performances. Loading times is a none issue. Despite looking rather pixelated in screenshots, the game is lush and beautiful in motion. Graphically I would put rate the visuals to be somewhere in between the PSP and PS Vita. Those with Windows 8 and RT versions will be treated with even better visuals obviously. Microsoft has a very good game engine here and it would be a shame if they aren't already developing other games for Windows Phone 8 using this particular engine.

Cut scenes are generally sweet and short though you can tell that the videos suffer from aggressive compression. This is likely to be a byproduct of a decision to limit the installation size of the game. After all Microsoft has imposed a rather stupid limitation by not allowing one to install apps and games on external storage or to mandate OEMs to include larger storage. I had to free up 3 GB of storage space on my HTC 8X before the game would install. This despite the game's download size coming in at a reasonable 700 MB. Lord knows what people with 4GB devices will think once this game is made available to them.
The switch from first person to top down perspective makes complete sense once you start playing on a device with small display like the HTC 8X. This sort of design would normally allow for a more tactical approach within the game. While most of the environments mainly consists of wide open areas, which doesn't suit the sneak in approach style of strategy, the game is more than just another runner and gunner.

There were times when the game would almost plays like a one-person tank rush in a real time strategy game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, there is nothing wrong with running in and gunning every baddie you see. Good thing the campaigns have a bit more variation than that. For example in one level you have to survive an assault by baddies, while in another your job is to escort a bunch of suicidal vehicles. It never gets boring.
You wouldn't be bored with the choice of weapons here. You will find all sort of weapons of mass destruction such as Spartan laser, shotgun, rocket launcher, assault rifle, sniper rifle and a good old fashion Magnum revolver. And here's the big downside that brings down this game. While these weapons can be upgraded via one of the two in game currencies, some upgrades requires you to purchase with credits also known as real life money.

Yes you heard that right. Credits which can't be earned in the game, but instead must be funded using real money via in-app purchase. Some items can be upgraded using XP, which can be earned during the game. But the fact that the requirement for credits to uplocking certain weapons, armor and booster abilities like shield is frankly insulting considering the fact that the game costs £4.99 or £5.49. To make matter worse, the items you unlocked are only available for that one specific game. Revisit and you have to buy again. I can understand Gameloft riddling Asphalt 7 Heat with micro transactions but the game costs only £0.79 and everything is achievable with patience.
Moving on, as an Xbox Live title, there are 200 Xbox Gamer points up for grabs in the form of 20 unlockable Achievements. These ranges from completing operations, objectives and earning certain XP level and stars. It isn't difficult and most gamers wouldn't have a problem unlocking the majority of the Achievements available even if you don't spend any money on those ridiculous upgrades. Hei, we all hate in-app purchase but at least the game's difficulty is balanced enough.

Speaking of difficulty, the difficulty level can vary from each campaigns. There are levels where your hero can take abuse after abuse without much sweat only to die after a couple of hits. You often have NPC allies with you has unlimited health so you can always rely them on helpin... Wait, except, you can't. Each of your allies has an AI of a sheep. Enemy combatants aren't the brightest bunch here as well. They don't hide or duck (not that you can with the simple environments) or attempt to sneak behind. Weapons and items dropped by enemies can be picked up. You can also commandeer turrets and other vehicles, which will increase your firepower dramatically. Personally I didn't find the difficulty to be over the top. Challenging perhaps, but nothing on the level of Demon's Souls.
Each of the 25 campaigns are tailored to be bite sized, perfect for mobile consumption, and lasts about 3-5 minutes per campaign which is enough for a bus ride or lunch break. There is no auto-save, so if you are killed halfway through a campaign you will have to start all over again. This isn't an issue considering how short each campaigns are, though they can get annoying once the difficulty ramps up. On a whole there is roughly about two hours of fresh content here which is reasonable considering the price and its mobile nature. Replayability is high as you seek to earn all stars, unlocking Achievements or beating new objectives.

All in all, for the amount of content, the price by itself is right, but I still found Microsoft's decision to introduce in-app purchase on a commercial game, and without clear warning, to be cheeky. Tut tut. But shrewd micro transaction mechanism aside, Halo: Spartan Assault is a rather enjoyable and well presented game with high production value.

Visually impressive
Bite sized campaigns which are perfect for mobile gaming
Great fun

Windows Phone 8 version costs more than the Windows 8 version
Controls are a bit iffy
Shrewd in-app purchase mechanism
Plot? What plot?


Tested on HTC Windows Phone 8X. Currently compatible with Windows Phone 8 smartphones with 1GB RAM. A version updated for 512MB RAM support is being developed. Halo: Spartan Assault is also available on Windows RT (Microsoft Surface) and Windows 8 platform.

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