Written by Nathan Brown
Windows 8 is a confused thing, so it's little surprise to find that Halo: Spartan Assault is too. Like the operating system to which it's tied, it's been designed to work on smartphones, tablets and PCs but doesn't entirely convince on any of them – jack of all trades and Master Chief of none.
PC users are spared the touchscreen version's virtual controls, but it's impossible to escape the feeling that you're playing a topdown twin-stick shooter that doesn't support twin sticks. Controller support is promised, but its absence is keenly felt here, especially when you hop in one of Spartan Assault's vehicles and find it can only move in eight directions.
This is recognisably Halo, at least, even if it's not quite the return of Master Chief forecast by students of the Steam database. Even from high up in the sky you can tell those are Covenant enemies running around down there, both in look and feel: Grunts happily waddle into your line of fire, while Elites smartly fall back behind cover when you deplete their shields. You do the same, naturally, and there's a familiar rhythm to combat as you flank round to open up enemies behind cover, retreating only when a pulsating sound effect and throbbing red energy bar alert you to your diminished defences.
The story tells of two Spartans – one of each gender, because there's no safer moment to introduce Halo's first female protagonist than when she's wearing a helmet and viewed through a lens placed a couple of hundred feet in the sky – seeking to fend off the latest Covenant advance across 25 protect, escort and destroy missions. It's told in flashback through a UNSC training simulation, which gives handy narrative justification to the scoring system. At each level's close your score is boosted by medals awarded for killing enemies within a certain time or without taking damage, and you're given a gold, silver or bronze badge. And it's here you realise once and for all that you're playing a mobile game on your PC.
The only way to change the loadout you take into each level is by spending currency. You're given three choices for each weapon and special ability – a forcefield, for instance, within which your shield speedily replenishes. One of these costs XP earned in game; the other two can only be purchased with Credits, available only through real-money purchase in bundles starting at £2.19 / $3.50 and going all the way up to £28.99 / $46. Skulls, which change the flow of the game – strengthening enemies, say, or having your shield deplete when you fire – increase the XP gained from each mission, but the best toys are locked behind a paywall. It's an unwelcome free-to-play system in a game you've already paid for, a mechanical construct that belongs on a smartphone screen, not a high-end PC. Halo: Spartan Assault is, in that sense, the quintessential Windows 8 game.
A smart top-down reimagining of the Halo experience, let down by mobile game monetisation.