Opinion: Once again, Halo is set to come to Microsoft's rescue
Spartan Assault is Windows' biggest weapon to date
Do you remember how gamers reacted when rumours Microsoft was working on the original Xbox – or, to put it more accurately, the 'X-Box' as it was known by the press at the time – first started popping up in magazines?
There was almost a sense of indignation.
How dare Microsoft start throwing its weight around in a market that – even with the monolithic giant that was Sony involved – had, though lucrative, almost existed as an industry exclusively for hobbyists.
What the hell does Microsoft know about games, anyway? Is Bill Gates going to try and shove Windows on this so-called X-Box? And why on earth does it come with a hard drive?
No way am I buying one. Not a chance. But, hmm, that Halo game looks pretty decent, actually. Seems to be getting a decent reception too. Okay, I'll pick one up for Halo, but I won't be buying anything else. Just Halo.
It's somewhat unrealistic to suggest that the fortunes of the original Xbox rested solely on the success of Halo: Combat Evolved.
Throughout the console's life, there were other games and indeed other features – such as Xbox Live - that ensured Microsoft's machine was able to find an audience.
Yes, you really did buy one of these
But, by the same token, it's difficult to imagine Microsoft's Xbox business being in quite the rude health it's in now if Bungie's blockbuster hadn't bolstered what was always going to be a difficult launch for the firm.
Very early on, Halo made people think differently about Xbox – differently to how they felt about 'Micro$oft'. Perhaps, people thought, Xbox was it's own thing. Perhaps tapping into it didn't mean you were selling out. Perhaps it was actually a platform for gamers.
If we accept Microsoft owes so much to the franchise for helping to foster a viable space in the console scene, why has it taken the giant quite so long to bring Halo into play as part of its efforts to make a mark in the mobile space?
Quick and dirty
Perhaps Microsoft was wary of wasting the opportunity – of commissioning a quick and dirty cash-in that, while drawing the eyes of the press, would ultimately do more harm to Halo and Windows Phone alike than good.
It's safe to say that, whatever review scores Halo: Spartan Assault ends up earning now it's hit the digital shelves, nothing about the game is rushed.
This is a serious release and, what's more, from the word go it feels utterly like Halo.
Halo: Spartan Assault on Windows 8/RT
Playing it in front of Martin de Ronde – creative director at the studio behind Spartan Assault, Vanguard Games – at Develop in Brighton last week, what first struck me was that I didn't die. Not once. I stayed on my feet.
Let me explain: Even at the best of times, I'm rarely the type of gamer who knocks people off the top of scoreboards or strings together a chain of combos.
Plop me – or, indeed, any games journalist – in front of a developer and ask me to play their game in front of them, and chances are any ability I do possess will melt away in front of their eyes.
Yet, despite Halo: Spartan Assault being anything but easy (and ignoring the fact I could see de Ronde surveying my every move out of the corner of my eye), I fought through one of the early levels with what appeared on screen to be some semblance of skill.
Bizarrely, there was another game that immediately sprang to mind as I digested my success – a game that, similarly, I seemed to thrive in despite feeling utterly overwhelmed from beginning to end.
Care to take a guess on what game that was?
'It's our baby'
Having never completed – or even enjoyed – an FPS before Halo, I have fond memories of Combat Evolved, even if I would only describe myself as a casual admirer of the Halo franchise, rather than a full-on fan.
During my quick runthrough of Spartan Assault at Develop, it's clear Vanguard has captured much of that spirit.
It's hard to explain, but while this new release isn't an FPS, is built around touchscreen controls and is running on hardware with entirely different form factors to that of the original Xbox, play feels very much like Halo.
The structure, the delivery, the accuracy. Spartan Assault simply is Halo.
Halo: Spartan Assault on Windows Phone
And, despite the fact it's Vanguard, and not 343, that's handled the game's development, it's not hard to understand why. As de Ronde explained to me, Halo is very much 343's baby now – the team know the franchise inside out, and their passion for it was infectious.
As a result, it's clear that Spartan Assault isn't just a game attached to a big license. It's the vehicle that allowed Halo to become Vanguard's baby, too.
Just as Bungie left Halo in the hands of 343, so 343 was able to pass on the experience of the responsibility that comes with taking on such a big IP to Vanguard.
How to win the war
There's little suggestion, however, that Halo: Spartan Assault will be able to engineer anything close to the kind of impact the original Halo had for the benefit of Windows Phone and Windows 8.
Indeed, the fact that Vanguard's game doesn't launch on a dedicated games device, but rather a series of smartphones and tablets purchased for a multitude of reasons instantly changes the relationship between a franchise like Halo and the platforms it's launching on.
I've been criticised for saying it before, but I'm firmly of the belief that individual games do not sell mobile hardware.
Being able to boast the widest array of games undoubtedly aids iPhone, but few people choose their smartphone based on the fact it plays one or two specific titles.
The mobile market is entirely different to the console scene in this respect, and Halo: Spartan Assault won't change this.
What it can do, however, is help to alter thinking. Suddenly Microsoft is backing up its mobile venture with one of its biggest assets. It's taking this thing seriously.
Turning the tide
What's more, Windows Phone now has a major game to call its own.
While it'd be unfair to say the platform is found wanting when it comes to boasting a varied games library, it undoubtedly plays hosts to releases week after week that saw the light of day on iOS and Android a long time ago.
Halo: Spartan Assault is the first real attempt by Microsoft to lead the mobile games space rather than follow.
On it's own, it's unlikely to be able to convince all too many consumers to risk Windows Phone, but for those on the brink of making the switch, Spartan Assault could help tip the balance.
Microsoft needs to make sure this is no one-off assault, however: the appearance of one legendary franchise may help win a battle or two, but if Windows Phone and Windows 8 are to stand a chance in the war, they're going to need to more weapons that boast a similar level of firepower.
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