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On first glance, Halo: Spartan Assault looks like a cash-grab: a top-down shooter with Halo characters designed to gobble up some easy money from series fans. The game shouldn't be written off so quickly, though.
Spartan Assault is set between Halo 3 and Halo 4. Covenant forces have begun attacking the planet Draetheus V and UNSC forces, led by Spartans Palmer and Davis, must repel their invasion. I assume all the events are canon but they might not be of much interest unless you're a die-hard Halo fan. There are no big revelations here. If you're hoping for a Halo 5 tease, you're going to be disappointed.
Canon or not, the game feels unquestionably like Halo. The characters and vehicles closely resemble their counterparts in the first-person shooter installments. The sound effects are dead-on as well. The top-down visuals are obviously a downgrade from the main series but do manage to surprise on occasion. In one mission, you can see the burning reflection of the moon on Draethus V's glass-like surface.
The campaign is spread over six episodes with five missions apiece. These missions cycle between simple hunt-and-kill missions, tank battles, escort assignments and "last stand" scenarios. Each takes about 10-15 minutes to complete so you could knock out the game in an afternoon if you're so inclined. Once you've completed each mission, you receive a score based on your speed and performance.
The missions range from forgettable to riveting. Each episode is treated almost like a separate campaign and starts off with two or three vanilla missions that feel more like training exercises. The later missions in the episodes are more ambitious and range from a frenzied planetary evacuation to a multi-phase boss fight. These moments were a more serious test of my ability and I wish there were more like them.
Fortunately, the game does give you a way to ramp up the difficulty. You can enable one or two Skulls that modify the game. For example, you can set your shields to regenerate only when you melee attack an enemy, or make your shield and armor deplete when firing your weapon. Some of the Skulls are far less interesting; one merely removes your UI while another lowers the ammunition that enemies drop. These modifiers do help the replay value of the campaign's best moments but they're not enough to save some of the blander missions.
The other incentive for using Skulls is that they multiply the amount of XP you receive from each mission. Activating one Skull will give you twice the normal amount of XP, while a second will boost your XP gains to quadruple their usual rate. You're given clear rewards for taking on these handicaps.
XP isn't as enticing as it first appears, though. You can use XP to buy new weapons, armor abilities and boosters. However, you're only getting these upgrades for one mission. The XP gains are too slow to feel like you're making solid progress. Let's you say you want to buy a Spartan Laser. You'll have to complete 10 missions with a Silver medal score just to unlock the weapon for a single mission. The Skulls, instead of being cool ways to boost the difficulty, are a means to make the XP gains less paltry.
I guess the designers intent is this: players will earn XP and then use them to buy upgrades that enable them to get higher scores. These higher scores will earn them even more XP so that they can...buy more upgrades and get even higher scores? Or, if the developers are lucky, players will spend cash to unlock these perks quicker. The end-game hinges on your desire to keep playing the same missions over and over in order to climb the leaderboards. As I said, though, a lot of these missions aren't interesting enough to play twice.
If you're looking for lasting gameplay, the co-op mode is your best bet. In co-op, two players fight the Flood in five missions. The Flood behave as they do in the FPS Halo entries: instead of playing it safe like the Covenant, they rush enemies and try to overwhelm them with their superior numbers. You'll often find yourself back-to-back with your partner, blasting seemingly endless hordes of these parasites. I can see myself replaying the co-op missions a lot.
The only flaw of the co-op is that it has much less content than the campaign. There are only five co-op missions currently. While they're fun, they can only last you so long. I wish the developers had put time into fleshing out the multiplayer with additional maps and features instead of squandering their time on filler missions for the story mode.
At its best, Spartan Assault is a frenetic, arcade-style tribute to Halo. The game's high points are less frequent than they could be, though, and the long-term appeal of the game is limited. You'll probably put it aside for good after 4 hours or so - which isn't terrible value for its $14.99 price tag.
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PC, Windows Phone 8, Xbox 360 (2014)
Developer: Vanguard Entertainment, 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios