It’s Halo, but Not Like You Remember It
Halo Wars is the latest game in the Halo universe. But, unlike its predecessors, it is not a first-person shooter. Instead, Microsoft and Ensemble went in a completely different direction and decided to bring a real-time strategy game to the Xbox 360. When I first heard this game was announced, I was thrilled to hear it was being developed by Ensemble. This is the same acclaimed developer that was responsible for the highly successful Age of Empires games. Unfortunately, Halo Wars was their last game; Microsoft closed the studio shortly after the game was completed.
Even though Ensemble was developing the game, I was still very concerned about the controls, because it’s somewhat difficult to implement a real-time strategy game to work on a gamepad instead of mouse and keyboard. Well, luckily I was wrong, because the developer once again created a good RTS with a great storyline, good graphics, and great controls.
The game is played just like any other real-time strategy title. You play from a top-down view, so that players have the ability to see all their units in the area at once. The controls are the most innovative aspect of the entire game, because Ensemble Studios proved that RTS games are not only limited to the PC, but they can be done right on the console. The camera system is controlled by the right joystick and the crosshair is controlled by the left joystick (this would be the mouse on the PC). You can select your units one by one tapping the A button, or select multiple units by holding down the A button. Players can also select local units (meaning units currently viewable onscreen) by pressing RB, or select global units by pressing LB. Pressing the B button will deselect whatever you have selected, and X and Y are designated as attack and special attack. X and Y can also be used to move units. The D-pad is used to move around various locations on the map – you can cycle through base locations, armies, and to the last alert location. This would be the equivalent of clicking a specific location on the map. This method is not as precise, but it works. Another feature of the D-pad is the Spirit of Fire Menu. This menu can be accessed by pressing up on the D-pad. There you can heal your troops, repair buildings, request transport, and attack the enemy.
Halo Wars’ two main gameplay modes are campaign and skirmish. The campaign’s events take place 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved. The game starts with The Covenant searching for an object located at Harvest in the Epsilon Indi System. Of course, if The Covenant are after such an object, the humans want it as well, because it may be “the key to whole war.” Halo Wars’ story is told through a series of pre-rendered cutscenes between each mission. I’m happy to say that the cutscenes are fun and interesting to watch, and they are very well done.
Most of the missions have players starting out with a few units. You will eventually pick up more units as you progress further into the level by rescuing them. You could also destroy an enemy base and build one of your own to increase your population and research more advanced weapons. There are optional kill objectives like “kill 100 Grunts” or “rescue 500 civilians.” These will cause a skull to appear on the map, which is a collectible item. An item called “Black Box” can also be found. Black Boxes unlock information on the Halo Timeline; this can be accessed in the main menu. It’s a very cool feature which I’m sure many fans will enjoy. I do feel the campaign is lacking a bit, because the gameplay feels very linear, so there is not a whole lot of strategy to completing the missions. You will always find yourself going from one point to another, and there is rarely an opportunity to flank the enemy or to try something creative.
I enjoyed the skirmish mode much more. I liked it better because you have an opportunity to establish yourself. It is very reminiscent of the Age of Empires games. Up to six players (3v3) can play at once, and there are fourteen different maps you can choose from. Unfortunately, not all maps can be played on if you have six or four people playing. All fourteen maps are available for 1v1 matches, but there are only nine available for 2v2, and three for 3v3. You can’t play on all of them because some are too small for four and six players. There are two gameplay modes: standard and deathmatch. Selecting standard mode means players have to produce resources and research upgrades. In deathmatch mode, all technologies are already researched, each team begins with significant resources, teams gain population by claiming bases, and leader powers automatically improve over time. In addition to competitive network matches, Halo Wars has an online co-op mode as well. Players will have the option to play through the entire single-player campaign with a friend.
The developers chose not to focus on resources very much, but rather on combat. Still, players can build Supply Pads (UNSC) or Warehouses (The Covenant). By building them, you will instantly receive resources. Balancing out resources and other buildings becomes very strategic, because you want to create enough Supply Pads so that you can create many units, discover advanced technologies, and build vehicles. But, you do not want to create so many to the point where you won’t have space to build Barracks and other essential buildings.
I found it fun to create about four Supply Pads on the first base and two Barracks. I then destroyed a smaller enemy base further into the map, built another base there, and then created more Supply Pads and Barracks. I had enough resources being produced that I never ran out. Essentially, more resources were being produced than units. Doing this allowed me to create a mobile military force and therefore made it easier to destroy the enemy.
The graphics and presentation are a mixed bag. You will see a lot of effects being used in Halo Wars that are not typically used in a real-time strategy game. All the units from both the UNSC and The Covenant are recognizable, but they are not very detailed, though the textures are decent, and there are many units on the screen at once. You will notice the framerate drop every once in a while when there are too many effects and units all on screen at once. I think players will be happy to see that Ensemble created the Halo world like they remember it from the Halo Trilogy. The sound is decent as well. All the familiar gun sounds, vehicle effects, and characters sound like they did in the shooter. There is also the familiar Halo music that will surely amp up many fans to play the game.
Halo Wars is an interesting experiment that turned out to be a complete success. Microsoft and Ensemble proved that this type of game can be successful on consoles. However, I do not believe it is perfect, because I still would prefer to play it on a PC. Also, the campaign is too easy and lacking strategy, there are not enough maps for six players, and I think the developer should have made resource gathering more challenging. Halo fans have to remember that this is a very different Halo than what they are used to. If they are hardcore shooter fans, they may want to rent this game before buying it. Otherwise, I think this is a good game. If you enjoy the RTS genre, give your computer chair a break, buy the game, and enjoy your couch!
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
The graphics are decent, but there is no wow factor. 4.5 Control
The controls work very well; no complaints. 3.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
All the effects you’re used to hearing are back as well as the music. 4.0 Play Value
Campaign is too linear, but the multiplayer is fun. I do wish they had more maps for 3v3 matches. 4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.