July 18, 2013 at 8:04 PM ET
"We're going to study the historical battles in hopes of increasing your tactical skills for the future," an AI tells you in a brief video opening to "Halo: Spartan Assault."
"As a bonus," the AI continues, "it's a pretty fun game you can play in your spare time."
That comment pretty much sums up what it feels like to play "Spartan Assault," a game that's mostly notable for being first appearance of Microsoft's legendary "Halo" video game franchise on the company's new repertoire of sleek Windows 8 devices.
Playing "Spartan Assault" may not "increase your tactical skills for the future." But if you're a diehard "Halo" fan, it will prepare you for "the future" in the sense that it might tide you over for the next installment in the core series Xbox games, which Microsoft says won't be coming until 2014. And for $6.99 on the Windows Store and the Windows Phone Store, it really is a pretty fun game you can play in your spare time.
Just don't expect "Spartan Assault" to feel anything like a fully fleshed-out "Halo" shooter. Indeed, the top-down game feels more like an arcade-y, almost cutesy, romp through hordes of pint-sized little aliens similar to "Diablo 3's" new console version than its soaringly majestic predecessor, last year's "Halo 4."
I tested out the game on a Surface tablet at a Microsoft event earlier this week and later on a Nokia Lumia 928 provided by the company. The screen for the Lumia version of the game was uncomfortably small, I'll admit. And it continues to be annoying that for some entirely arbitrary and not particularly user-friendly reason, Microsoft can sync your progress in the game across multiple devices but still requires you to buy two full-priced versions for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 respectively.
But where both versions of "Spartan Assault" truly excelled was in their control scheme. Most shooting games built for mobile devices turn the bottom two corners of the smartphone or tablet's touchscreen into a sort of virtual set of joysticks in a lame attempt to mimic the experience of actually using an Xbox or PlayStation controller. "Spartan Assault" does the same thing, but it actually does it well.
Resting your thumbs on both sides of the screen, you use your left digit to move your character around and the right one to shoot in a particular direction. This run-and-gun gameplay lacks almost all of the tactical precision of the "Halo" shooters, and at times the game's auto-aim is so kind to you that it feels like you don't have to do anything other than keep shooting. The short length of the individual levels only adds to this. But like the core "Halo" series, "Spartan Assault" keeps itself challenging by making ammunition a precious resource, forcing you to keep hunting for new weapons and learning how to use them on the fly.
Story-wise, the new game is set between the events of "Halo 3" and "Halo 4," and doesn't feature the franchise's iconic protagonist Master Chief. But if you don't keep close track of "Halo" lore, you're not missing much here — you still play as a soldier in a massive suit of high-tech armor who runs around vibrant alien worlds shooting at bad guys. There's not much groundbreaking material here, in other words. It's basically the same "Halo" world gamers know and love, just from a slightly more distant perspective.
Because of that, it's tempting to see "Spartan Assault" as a cheap attempt on "Halo" developer 343 Industries and Microsoft's part to cash in on a blockbuster franchise — I mean, the game's AI practically admits as much in the opening cinematic. But that was no doubt part of the creative (read: corporate) inspiration for the new game, it doesn't make "Spartan Assault" any less enjoyable.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.