The Halo franchise is no stranger to the odd spin-off, what with games like Halo Wars and Halo: Reach exploring different genres and storylines. Halo: Spartan Assault does both – it’s a top-down shooter, set in between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4, from the perspective of two new characters: Spartans Palmer and Davis. It’s somewhat of an extension of the universe of Halo, letting players see more of their beloved franchise while experiencing new types of gameplay. It’s much more suited to the tablet and mobile market for which it was originally created, but Spartan Assault is more than good enough if you’re craving for more Halo, but in a lighter, non-committing capacity.

The game’s lightness also manifests itself in the story, as Halo: Spartan Assault doesn’t really have one. You’ll hear something about a human-Covenant conflict on the surface of the planet Draetheus V, but it has almost nada to do with what you’re doing in-game. Between each cluster of missions you’ll see a nice (but rather static) cutscene with a voiceover explaining what’s happening at this point in the story, just to offer the tiniest bit of context. That’s as far as the game expects the player to care, and it’s usually enough of an excuse to keep the game going. Halo history buffs will probably appreciate this small addition to the canon, but most players will just listen politely and then continue to mindlessly shoot Covenant drones in the face.

Being a top-down shooter, Spartan Assault’s gameplay is pretty straightforward: you move around with the left stick and aim at hostiles with the right. There’s the addition of grenades and armor abilities, but these are no game changers. You walk, aim and fire, that’s it. This simple gameplay actually works in favor of the game, making it a fast and fun way to burn away a few hours. Missions are short, so you never feel stuck in one place for too long or notice just how repetitive everything is.

Thankfully, mission locations and the challenges you face keep changing, so Spartan Assault never gets boring. At one time you’ll be escorting a military convoy as Spartan Palmer, and at another you’ll be driving a tank into an enemy stronghold as Spartan Davis. Sure, the basics are the same, but without these changes in scenery, this relatively short game would feel much longer, and not in a good way. You can spice things up by imposing several restrictions before starting a mission. These will make enemies more difficult to kill, deplete your shield faster and generality make things a little more interesting. They also generate more XP when the mission is done.

Weirdly enough, experience points are not part of some progression system, but rather serve as an in-game currency. Before you start a mission you can change the default loadout by purchasing better weapons, armor ability and boosters using the XP you’ve earned. You can also purchase credits with real money to make things easier. At first, there’s very little reason to do so, but as the game progresses, missions become more difficult, and the default loadout just doesn’t cut it anymore. Unfortunately, you only rent everything for one specific mission, as a sort of “cheat” or temporary boost. This type of business model doesn’t feel quite right on a console release, especially one that costs as any other downloadable title. True, the game never forces you to buy anything, but there’s a real missed opportunity here to create a full progression system with levels and unlockable weapons, and actually create a sense of progression within the game.

As far as top-down shooters go, Halo: Spartan Assault looks pretty good. The environments are nice and varied, with a bright color palette and nice smooth textures. Enemy models make the transformation to 2.5D gracefully, and look as they did in previous Halo titles. There isn’t a lot there that we haven’t seen before, but the new perspective catches the eye and makes everything seem fresh. The music that follows the Spartans’ exploits also has a familiar sound to it, and helps tie in this spin-off to the rest of the franchise. One thing that really bothered me, personally, was the reoccurring line “nice work, dawg” A.I. marines kept firing off every time I took down an enemy or completed an objective. Not only does this line seem so out of place in a futuristic military shooter (really? Slang hasn’t changed in 540 years?), but it’s spoken so frequently it nearly drove me mad. But that’s just nitpicking.

Halo: Spartan Assault is light, fast and fun. The gameplay carries the game forward, and while the story is negligible, it serves as a nice addition to the Halo lore. It might not feel like a solid console release, and by some standards it might not be, but Halo and action fans will find a lot to enjoy, including a very short co-op campaign (if you can find someone to play with). Maybe at lower entry cost it might have been a little easier to recommend, especially given the micro-transaction business model, but then again – a few hours of mindless entertainment within the Halo universe might be worth it.

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