|System: X360||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Ensemble / Bungie||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Microsoft||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Feb. 9, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
November 28, 2008 - When it was first announced just over two years ago, Halo Wars was a bit of a head-scratcher for many fans of the franchise. How would one of the best first-person shooters ever made fare as a real-time strategy title - and on a console no less? Typically meant for PCs, RTS games have not traditionally been great matches for gaming consoles. From what we've seen so far, Halo Wars is going to change that in dramatic fashion.
Despite its impending dissolution, Ensemble Studios has put a tremendous amount of effort and resources into re-recreating the Halo universe into a RTS format from the ground up exclusively for the Xbox 360, and fans will no doubt find themselves marveling at how well the developers nailed the formula when the game finally ships next spring. The game aims to be far more than just a gimpy RTS skinned with Halo-themed units, it's going to be an epic affair that fits snugly within the folds of the Halo canon.
Halo Wars takes place in the year 2531 - 20 years before the events in the first Halo game - just as the human UNSC have regained control of a planet called Harvest. In the preceding five years, the Covenant and USNC have been locked in a vicious war that has left the planet in ruin. At the game's opening, the Covenant have uncovered a forerunner relic on the surface at the northern pole of the planet, and a team from the USNC ship Spirit of Fire has been sent in to investigate. Rather than focusing on a single character, the plot revolves around the exploits of a small group. The development team has wisely decided to make the story an integral part of the experience in Halo Wars, so expect to see some interesting plot twists that play into what we already know about the Halo universe from the three first-person shooter titles.
While the gameplay looks great, the big excitement is not so much about what Halo Wars does that's cutting edge or different; it's about creating an extremely solid RTS experience on Microsoft's console. As expected, you'll be tasked with constructing bases, gathering resources, creating an army of varying units, and then strategically wiping your opponents off the map. Many of the familiar air and ground units and vehicles from the Halo games will be available, along with completely new vehicles. There's also the option to eventually upgrade buildings to create stronger units. The main campaign follows the USNC, but the Covenant are playable in skirmish mode. Though it doesn't appear they'll be playable, The Flood are also going to make an appearance.
Initially, one of the biggest concerns expressed about the console-based Halo RTS was how it would control, since that could potentially make or break the entire experience. Fortunately, this is an area the development team spent significant focus on perfecting, and it seems they've got it right. The two analog sticks allow you to easily scroll around and turn the view screen to get a good look at the battlefield. Selecting units can be done in several different ways that affords a great deal of control. Single button presses can highlight a single group of units, all of a specific kind of unit, or even your entire army at once. Once units are selected, they can be directed to attack using primary or secondary weapons or given other commands. The D-pad is used to quickly jump back-and-forth between bases, battles, and cycling between groups. You can even drop flares on the map that serve as camera warp points.
Halo Wars is a visual treat on many levels. The fully rendered cutscenes look amazing and provide a context for the strategic gameplay in each mission. The actual gameplay itself is also extremely detailed - right down to the tiny little USNC soldiers doing pushups in the training camp at your base. Lighting and shadows are impressive, but the thing that's really marvelous is how the sights and sounds meld perfectly to maintain the feeling that you're immersed in a Halo game. Though you're looking down at the battlefield from a new, birds-eye-view perspective, many of the subtle nuances from the original game are worked into the experience.
The proof will be in the pudding in February, when Halo Wars is officially launched, but the game looks, sounds, and handles far better than anyone might have originally expected a Halo-themed RTS would perform. Transitioning from a first-person shooter format to RTS may be a bit of a shock for some, but it gives strategy fans a whole new way to enjoy the action. Halo Wars could very well prove that RTS titles do indeed belong on consoles, given the right level of attention in the development phase. We'll find out soon enough.
CCC Staff Contributor