For a number of years now, people have been dreaming of portable incarnations of Microsoft's biggest game franchises for their Windows Phones. None less than Halo. The release of a Waypoint app raised hopes, hopes which only faded the longer said app went without an update for Halo 4, being as it is, contemporary to Halo Reach. To this day it remains ignorant of Halo 4 and as such hopelessly out of date.
But to our surprise and delight, Windows Phone 8, and an updated generation of hardware, brought with it the game that we had always hoped for. Specifically, a very well designed and executed top-down shooter, that feels every bit part of the Halo universe. Forgoing the epic scale and complexity of storystelling that it's console counterparts have become famous for, it instead portrays the early days of the Spartan Ops program. You play as Spartans Palmer and Davis, fighting in six operations against the covenant, each divided into five short missions. These missions vary in nature from defence to assault, in much the same way as the Spartan Ops mode in Halo 4 does. In fact, the whole game feels very much like that mode. Trademark Halo gameplay in 5 minute bursts, all of your favourite weapons, vehicles and enemies to play with, with a score given based on time taken and medals earned, and that score translated to a bronze, silver or gold star. It's a world that any Halo fan will instantly feel at home with in every way.
A short, but beautifully rendered movie sets the scene for each operation, each mission within described by just a paragraph or two for those that want further insight into what's happening and why. Before wading into battle, you can exercise a modicum of control over your loadout; what weapons, armour ability and boosters you will use. The weapons designated by default vary by mission, and cover both human and covenant factions. Most weapons a Halo fan will be familiar with feature here. The same goes for armour abilities. Additionally, purchased credits or earned XP can be spent to upgrade these items for more powerful ones, such as the spartan laser or the rocket launcher, and "boosters" can also be bought which boost shield, score, or damage. This is where the microtransactions come into play, but honestly, upgrading to any of this stuff is not necessary to enjoy the game to it's fullest, and can be bought with XP anyway, albeit a significant chunk. Skulls can also be selected on this screen, from a choice of six, which combine to increase the XP you'll receive from completing the mission. Once ready to begin, the mission loads impressively quickly; it's just a couple of seconds in fact, before you're thrown straight into the action.
So here's where the rubber meets the road. How does it look, and how does it play? Firstly, the graphics are stunning. On my Lumia 820 at least, with its 800 x 480 amoled display, I am greeted by the vibrant, richly colourful environment of a rocky exoplanet, packed with detail and immaculately textured, with deep black shadows and beautifully colourful blue, green and purple lighting emanating from every flare, bioluminescent plant and plasma explosion. And even in the heat of battle, the perfectly smooth frame rate never drops. The maps range greatly in size, but all seem well designed and laid out. The sound is also worthy of a mention here, featuring the kind of sci-fi plainsong that Halo fans have come to love, along with authentic weapon sounds, those familiar covenant cries and spartan battle chatter. With my Lumia linked to my awesome new bluetooth speaker, it is clear that the sound is as high quality as the graphics.
The controls have come under some fire for being fiddly or confusing, especially when driving vehicles. But actually I found them easy to get to grips with after only a short adjustment period. Adapted from a twin-stick shooter, it forgoes virtual sticks in favour of using the entire screen. With both thumbs on the screen, the left controls movement while the right controls direction of fire. While it avoids the usual problem of slipping off of a virtual stick that you cannot feel, it can on occasion introduce a new problem; that of your thumbs straying too far into the screen and obscuring your view of the action. With practice I'm sure this can be avoided. A well thought out set of gestures control all other functions. A button on the bottom right of the hud controls all actions, whether picking up dropped weapons, entering vehicles or turrets, or setting charges. Tapping the weapon/ammo hud element top right switches weapon. Tapping on the character activates the armour ability, while double-tapping anywhere on screen throws a grenade (or fires the main gun on a scorpion or wraith) in the direction your character faces. And that's about it. An excellent tutorial mission walks you through all of this, but actually it's pretty intuitive.
But there are more layers to this game that elevate it above and beyond what I expected. It features weekly challenges for example, just like Halo 4, which help you to gain XP quickly. What's more, your Halo 4 career and your Spartan Assault career are automatically linked, and mutually beneficial. Earning certain achievements in Spartan Assault can unlock goodies in Halo 4, and vice-versa.
As far as achievements go, we have a good mix of difficulty here, like any Halo game. Totalling 250G thanks to a free update that added the sixth operation to the game, it varies from simply complete each operation, to mission-specific challenges, some of which are tricky, to the very hard task of gold medalling all levels.
There is one criticism of the game however, that is frequently mentioned and undeniably true; your phone will get hot. I mean, really hot. After 20 minutes' play you could fry an egg or iron a shirt with the damned thing, much more than 40 minutes and you'll need asbestos gloves if you value your thumbs. It's more hardware intensive than any mobile game I have ever played. What's more it will take up a hefty lump of your storage. Post update, 1.2gb of space in fact, if you have the space to install the thing in the first place.
In summary though, I can strongly recommend it to all Halo fans, even at the slightly high price. For me, it represents a high watermark for this type of game, perfectly designed and executed in every department, well worthy of carrying the Halo name and the high price tag.
This review was based on around 20 hours play with a Lumia 820