Despite Bungie no longer being in the picture, Halo remains Microsoft's strongest gaming franchise thanks to excellent work by 343 Industries. This is great if you're an Xbox gamer, but the series hasn't graced the PC since Halo 2. Soon Halo will be back on the PC, but it won't be the game that you're expecting.
We went hands-on with Halo: Spartan Assault at E3, which was being demonstrated on both Microsoft Surface Pro tablets and Windows Phone 8 handsets. Given the form factors of choice and the version for mobile, you can probably already guess that it's not going to be the usual Halo experience. Rather, Halo: Spartan Assault is a twin stick shooter, where the left control stick controls movement and the right stick directs weapon fire. Of course, given that there are no thumb sticks on either the tablet or phone, it'll be virtual controls on the touch screen.
We first played the Surface Pro version, and found the visuals true to the Halo universe. The game appeared to be running at the Surface Pro's native full HD 1920x1080 resolution, so while the images were sharp, the weren't setting any new standards through the Intel integrated graphics HD 4000.
Gamers can play as either Sarah Palmer or the new Spartan Davis. Gameplay wise, it's a simple twin stick shooter. Those who have played other Halo games will appreciate experiencing the universe from a less-often-seen perspective (other than in Halo Wars), but there's a lot less depth in the gameplay variety and even the enemy AI.
Controls could be a matter of opinion. Ours is that twin stick shooters feel best when played with real twin sticks, so playing through the touch screen was less than ideal. Luckily, given that this is running on Windows 8, gamers can plug in an Xbox 360 controller and then everything is right again. Those playing the Windows Phone 8 version, however, won't have such a luxury.
The Windows Phone 8 version was very similar, feeling much like a miniaturized experience from the Surface Pro. The biggest loss was the graphical clarity, which is a given when going from a 1080p screen to 720p. That said, the pixel density is greater on the phone, but there was still a perceived drop in detail, which leads us to suspect that the game could be internally rendered at an even lower resolution and then upscaled to the screen. Unfortunately, this is something that we were unable to confirm on the show floor.
Halo: Spartan Assault won't be a major addition to the franchise, but it will probably be the biggest budget top-down twin stick shooter to date. What's truly puzzling is why this isn't going to be available on Xbox Live Arcade, which is the ideal platform for something like this. Perhaps it's going to be only on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 for the same reason that every Halo game since Halo 2 was kept only on Xbox – a reason continues to elude us.