Genre: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studioes
Release Date: 03/03/2009
A long time ago, a giant, hulking company released a giant, hulking video game console. Everyone made fun of it, with the most vocal calling it nothing but a dumbed-down PC in a shiny case that wouldn’t even control well because mouse+keyboard was better than a pair of thumbsticks any day. Undaunted, Microsoft threw out a little game called Halo, and the gaming world would never be the same. Now, years later, Microsoft is hoping that they can update the RTS just as they updated the FPS, with the same property that gave them instant gamer cred. Halo Wars has arrived for the Xbox 360. Will the RTS world ever be the same? Or is Halocraft: Humans vs. Covenant a sad excuse for a Real Time Strategy game? Let’s find out.
Halo Wars takes place roughly 20 years before the events of the first Halo. In the storied history of the Halo Universe, you will follow the events of the UNSC military from just after the liberation of the planet Harvest forward. If you’ve read the books, you will see the rebels in their place as annoying human targets of opportunity. You will take your orders from Captain Cutter of the Spirit of Fire, another nifty-named ship of the line. You will grin like an idiot as other ships and names will appear from time to time, like the Pillar of Autumn and Admiral Cole. You will undertake a campaign spanning some of the most interesting events in the Halo timeline.
In a mind-boggling twist, you will ONLY be following the events of the UNSC. Is this human-centric viewpoint racist? Maybe, or maybe it is just laziness. Okay, to be polite, it is possible that Ensemble just wanted to finish the game on time and ensure that we get the best experience possible. Still, you almost can’t forgive the lack of a Covenant campaign. It’s not like Halo 2 didn’t set the precedent of playing through both sides of the story, and something to explain the heretic sect of the Covenant would have been awesome. On the other hand, both of the Mech Commander games from Microsoft also only featured one campaign setting, and they were loads of fun.
Then there’s the Flood. Or rather, the lack of a Flood campaign. They are perhaps the least-documented race in the Halo universe. Where did they come from? How did they spread? Could we please see a story explaining how they devastated the Forerunners? Yes. Please. Now. Do want. Granted, a real time strategy game featuring marines, an alien horde, and a third group consisting of spiritual, shielded, energy-sword wielding aliens might have Blizzard’s lawyers salivating. While I won’t blister Ensemble for lacking a three-species lacking campaign, it is disappointing. Nearly every other RTS I’ve ever played has had at least one other playable species. Sequel? Expansion pack? DLC? We’ll see. The Flood do have a role to play in single and multiplayer though. While you can’t control them, you do see them dominating the landscape and destroying anyone that gets close on a few maps. You do get to play as the Covenant in Multiplayer, and they have a fully fleshed out presence there, so it is a bit odd that there isn’t a story mode for them, even if it was non-canon.
Presentation is top notch for the most part, with the typical set-up of mission followed by CGI movie followed by mission. If there’s an actual, weird problem with the presentation, it’s the lack of AI interaction. You are, for the most part, controlling via an Officer on the ground. Your CO is in orbit and you will take orders from him along with an AI named Serina onboard. Normally we have had Cortana in our head telling us how to play and how to control things, and Serina is just as sarcastic and amusing. The manual even tells us that she is theoretically interested in chocolate. One dig against the polish is that in the tutorials we just have a bland, male voice instructing us. Boring. That’s a small complaint, but it is enough to mention.
Story/Modes Rating: Very Good
Remember in the first few Halo games where your viewpoint slowly zoomed in on a pitched battle before putting you into the helmet? Halo Wars looks just like that. Your default view looks like you stopped the camera about a hundred feet up and watched the battle unfold instead of going all the way into Master Chief’s helmet. It’s not perfect, as I wish you could have gone just a little further in and a little further out. The full zoom isn’t going to show you the perfect unit details that some games in the genre do, at least for the ground troops. Several of the garrisonable structures do show your armies in great detail when you are at max zoom. That great detail isn’t entirely great, as keeping the explosions coming at a reasonable rate took precedent over reading the rank insignias painted onto the tanks.
Graphics in the cut-scenes, which show up just after every mission, are amazing also. The Covenant really feel just that damn big and scary. An Elite dual-wielding needlers? It’s intimidating, it really is. Humanity looks a little less well-armed than they do by Halo 3, which is perfect, as this is supposed to be 20 years in the past.
In battle, a lot of attention has been given to weapon and vehicle effects. The air units almost all have a heat-haze coming out from below. Warthogs will jump and skid as you traverse the ground. When you fire your weapons, muzzle flashes will pulse in time with the sound as you fire your chainguns. Covenant units with shields have that energy shimmer. When things explode, they explode big and flash all over the screen. There is nothing like seeing a pack of Hornets hovering over a mixed force of Scorpions and Marines moving inexorably your way. As they reach your base, translucent, shimmering trails from Guass weapons flash out, and a carpet bomb rolls out in front of them. Special note on how cool that is-you see a bomber streak across the sky and the ground bruises with where the bombs slam into the earth. Just as the bomber clears the screen, a rippling wave of fire rushes across the trail it left. All of that with no slow down.
Ensemble got very lucky with the resources from Bungie. The sound effects, from the boom of a shotgun to the whine of a Warthog’s engine, all are lifted straight from the Halo games. It is all directional as well. So when a tank fires across your screen, the blast comes from the left and the impact sounds to the right. All of the sound effects are well differentiated also. Assault rifles differ from chainguns differ from Warthog turrets, and all are different from the Covenant energy weapons. Somehow, even in the heat of a pitched battle, your ears can pick the different effects out. Great stuff.
Music? Well, this series has always had great music. This is no different. Soaring chants and a full blown orchestra accompany you on your missions along with the occasional guitar riff, lending a wonderful feeling of history and weight to what is, at heart, a piece of space-fluff. Voice acting is all done well also, although the Spartans sound a little bit like Batman. They are not, fortunately, wearing hockey pads. On the down side, ccasionally the talking heads which give you mission updates sound like they just stopped being interested. “Go out there and win this fight before those aliens overwhelm us,”Â when delivered in utter monotone, becomes sadly hilarious.
Sound Rating: Incredible
Control and Gameplay
Ah, the real meat of the matter. In each match, whether solo campaign play or online against opponents, your goal is to construct a base, build units, and send them forth into battle so that they can crush the enemy base. Ensemble has simplified this process an amazing amount, while still keeping the game as complex and challenging as possible. Much of that balancing act has been done by the removal of resource gathering. No need to send out grunts to find gold, oil, or other resources. Instead, you start with a Firebase, which has three platforms that you can assign structures to. One of these should be a barracks, one a supply point, and one a power generator. You receive new supplies at the supply points at regular intervals, and that is your currency. The level of power being generated indicates the tech level of your army, from one to four. You also have a thirty-unit cap on your force, with some soldiers taking up more than one of these units. A group of marines counts as one towards the cap, while a Hornet counts as two.
Through upgrades and careful building, you can advance to the Fortress, which has five platforms, and ultimately the Station, which has seven. The supply points and reactors can be upgraded to double their effectiveness, and supplies can be found throughout the map for basic troops to gather. The other platforms on your base can be made to hold Vehicle Yards, Aircraft yards, or a science hall. You can probably guess what those do for your army on your own. Some of the units have the iconic plasma shields, which you must remove to get to the chewy center. These will have two health bars, one for the shield and one for the unit health.
Hero units take the field in the campaign as well, whether it is the main character Sergeant Forge or a series of Spartans. If they lose all of their health, they do not die, but go into a downed state. To retrieve them, you must get a health unit over to them. Simple, quick, and fun, and keeps you from having to restart a level just because someone thought he was wearing the big boy pants. The Spartans are an especially fun group to use, as they typically have the “big guns”Â such as the Spartan Laser or the SPNKR Rocket launcher. They can hijack vehicles, turning them over to your side until destroyed.
Hero units are replaced, at least for the humans in multiplayer, by your commanding officer. The CO dictates whether your support power is an orbital cannon, a carpet bombing attack, or an increased speed of construction. Your CO doesn’t walk around the battlefield, but their presence is felt. For the Covenant, it’s a bit different. You actually have the Commander as a unit, much like a Hero unit in other games. They still have different support powers, but if they are killed, you lose access to them until you can rebuild.
Moving the camera around and selecting units is a breeze. You don’t need pinpoint control, because if you put your cursor close enough to a tank and press A to select, you will still select it. Holding down A and scrolling allows you to “paint”Â more units into your command. You can also tap the left bumper to command all your units. Now, this can mess things up just a little, as if you want to leave a force at your base you are going to have them go along with the assault team. Right button will select only what is on the screen, but you still lack the ability to create hotkeyed squads. All said, the gameplay is nothing new, and genre-purists may a balk at the simplification. Much like when Halo hit the Xbox though, the experience is refined for the console generation and very, very solid.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Incredible
Enough thought went into this game to keep it from being a quick and dirty tank rush RTS, as so many have been in the past. Ensemble created a hierarchy similar to rock-paper-scissors, in that Infantry are good against aircraft, aircraft are good against vehicles, and vehicles are good against Infantry. There are almost one exception per group, as the Wolverine tank will make most aircraft cry and sending a Wraith tank against a Spartan is kind of like offering your throat to a vampire.
You can’t just build one type of unit, bottom line. You don’t need to have some magic spread of unit types either, but in all the games I played, anyone who sent just one type of unit after their opponent was quickly shrugged off and countered by a balanced-arms approach. Overspecialize and you breed in weakness.
You can favor one unit type over another, though. Each of them have a series of upgrades, like changing Infantry from grenades to rockets and eventually putting a medic with them. Units will also gain experience for surviving, which gives you incentive to keep your people alive and healthy. No one tactic is superior, and that means a very well balanced game.
Balance Rating: Great
Partly because of the Halo lineage, and partly because of the wealth of multiplayer options that the RTS genre has embraced since day one, you will find a lot to keep you firmly in front of the TV. You have standard one-on-one matches, two-on-two, up to three on three. There is also a wealth of map choices and match options. The cooperative modes really make you feel like you are a pair of commanders leading different fronts. One of the coolest aspects is the ability to “gift”Â your units to your allies. So let’s say that you end up with a well-defended base while your two friends are off in the front lines. You’ve got your base built up, but your friend is struggling. You can send the next few Scorpion tanks you build straight over to his base, and allow him full control over them. Or just load him up with resources that you have aquired and let him build his own.
Also, if you just load up the game, and have friends playing it, the crawler says things like, “Buddy X is playing this game!”Â Matchmaking is quick and painless, it’s not like they don’t have the Halo 3 system to borrow. The slower play speed also makes it much less likely to run into juveniles of all ages who can’t wait to call you whatever racist slur is hot today. In the dozen or so games I played online, conversation was, at the worst, self-congratulatory. Most of it was strategics and asking for help.
Rewards for playing through again and again also are here, in the way of a point system and Skulls. You remember skulls, don’t you? Pick them up and you can activate little tweaks to the game. Some just effect the ambiance, like turning the inside of Grunts’ bodies into giant pinatas. Some of them affect the scoring system. For instance, one will make all units train at double speed, but cut your score in half. You also unlock a Halo Timeline as you play, which is a nice touch. Especially as I’m trying to wrap my head around where John 117 is right now, and what he’s doing. As usual, a full complement of Achievements will be on offer for various skill levels.
Replayability Rating: Classic
You can probably tell by now that this isn’t the most original game I’ve ever played. The sheer amount of references to past titles in both of the parent genres should tell you that. However, that shouldn’t detract too much from this game. While the idea is nothing new, the execution is faithful to the source material. Ensemble wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they were just trying to make sure it rolled as smoothly as possible. They had to leave some rough edges on it to allow it to have traction in a few bumpy spots. Okay, I’ll stop pushing this metaphor now. This isn’t perfect, but it is good.
Originality Rating: Enjoyable
If you’ve ever watched your armies coming together and said “Just one more unit”Â or “Just one more engagement”Â then this is a game you can lose yourself in. However, if you are looking for more of a pick up and play game, this might turn you off. You can keep matches going for hours if you play slowly enough, and having to squeeze all that into one day can be a scheduling conflict.
Addictiveness Rating: Very Good
There will be a desire for Halo games as long as Microsoft keeps putting out consoles. Likely, beyond that. Seeing another aspect of the Halo-verse is a very welcome change. That said, I’m personally hoping that we don’t see a Halo MMO or a Halo Cart-Racer. You can go too far.
The RTS genre, however, is a perfect fit for the IP. This game is designed from the bottom up as an action heavy RTS, for good and bad. You won’t find the ability to custom-build your base. Sprawling, multi-layered bases, a la the early RTS games like Command and Conquer or the very first Warcraft, will not be here. The Desktop Generals that live for that kind of gameplay need not apply. If, however, you are looking for a fast-paced, rapid fire, easy to control army to fulfill your bidding, you are welcome here.
Appeal Factor Rating: Great
The option between standard and collector’s editions shouldn’t be a difficult choice, although the price does jump by more than the usual ten bucks. With that, however, you are getting not only some cool stuff for this game, but also a comic book, some collector cards, and a patch. You know, if you have a jacket or something to put it on.
Those of you (okay, us) that are still playing Halo 3 on a regular basis will likely really enjoy the map pack that is included for Halo 3. Three more maps is always a good thing. Given the choice, and it’s the choice I made, go for the Limited Edition. There is enough value there to make it worth your gaming dollar. The Collector’s Edition (or Limited Edition, whatever you want to call it) is actually really well done. You have a metal case with two sides on it, one Human and one Covenant. Inside that is a mini-strategy guide. The graphic novel, patch, and cards come in a sealed package that looks very much like a sealed set of military orders. Classy. The patch, however, really is more of a rubber coaster. The cards have individual leaders of the factions on them, along with their abilities.
Miscellaneous Rating: Classic
Story/Modes: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Incredible
Addictiveness: Very Good
Final Score: Great Game!
Short Attention Span Summary:
Halo Wars finally puts the nail in the coffin of the argument that you need a mouse and keypad to play a RTS game. Featuring a compelling, if one-sided, story of humanity’s war with the Covenant, Halo Wars will keep Halo fans happy and will give RTS purists a reason to stop sneering at the console’s control system. A lot of fun and a heck of a lot of explosions await you.