E3 2013 Impressions: Halo: Spartan Assault

A lot of people expected 2013 to be a Halo-less year. We just got Halo 4, preceded by Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition in 2011. It would have been okay to take a break this year, but instead, 343 Industries has come out and announced three Halo projects: a television show, the next Halo game coming to Xbox One, and a twin-stick shooter called Halo: Spartan Assault.

Spartan Assault is Halo‘s first foray into changing up the series’ formula since 2009’s Halo Wars, a real-time strategy title for the Xbox 360. The game centres around touch-based controls, a first for the series, and will launch in July for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. We had a chance to play the game at E3 this year, and while it was a nice experience, it was a bit too busy for our taste.

Set between Halo 3 and Halo 4Spartan Assault has an overhead view that made the game difficult to play. Characters are so tiny on-screen, and while they all look fantastic and are easy to recognize, they tend to be a bit unrefined. Halo 4 spoiled us with little details and Spartan Assault is undoing all of that for us. Don’t get us wrong; the game looks great; colours are vibrant and enemies are very well animated, but the perspective is not really conducive to long play sessions without squinting.

The audio in Spartan Assault is very well done, and the fact that we were in a loud convention centre makes it more apparent that there was some pretty awesome editing done to get this sounding the way that it does. Note: We played with a quality set of headphones for anyone thinking the loud convention centre might have drowned out poor audio. Rest assured, it was very well tuned music and sound effects.

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If you’ve played a game like Geometry Wars, you should be familiar with the twin-stick shooter design. Your left analog stick controls movement of your character while your right one controls firing direction. It’s actually a bit of a wonder that a game like this hasn’t been set in the Halo universe before now, though it doesn’t fit the series as perfectly as we’d like.

The gameplay of Halo is very refined and complicated to serve the purpose of the variety of things you can do. By nature, however, a twin-stick shooter is designed to be relatively simple and unobtrusive in controls. Unfortunately, the team at 343 Industries and specifically, Vanguard Entertainment, the group developing the game, have gone overboard to include everything from the full-fledged console shooter and that’s where the game falls apart.

There are some things carried over from the first-person shooter that work beautifully, such as the awards for multi-kills and kill streaks. Those little touches pulled us into the Halo world with their familiar names and sounds. However, this twin-stick shooter had about a half dozen buttons in the bottom right of the screen just to do things like switch out weapons or toss grenades. This is what broke the entire experience.

The beauty of a game like Geometry Wars is the quick-paced action and super-intense moments that you can only really get if extraneous controls are stripped away and the interface is bare. Halo: Spartan Assault, while a well-executed game in some ways, falls short in this from what we’ve seen so far, and while we’ll reserve judgment for a full review in July, we can’t help but be underwhelmed by this entry in the franchise.