Halo Wars Review

The main reason everyone panics when they hear the phrase “console-based RTS” is simply because they can’t fathom playing a title of that genre and not using a keyboard and mouse. Strategy titles require precision, speed, and if you play at an extremely high level in Korea, around a hundred memorized custom key-bindings.

Halo Wars is purely controller-based, and the game handles it better than you’d ever have thought possible. My first console RTS experience was Command and Conquer on the Playstation, and it was a complete mess, with the developer trying to get the controller to function in the same way as a keyboard and mouse. Frustration actually led to a Playstation mouse being released in the end, but by then it was cheaper simply to buy the PC incarnation.

The control system for Halo Wars is slick, responsive, and unbelievably intuitive, with the ability to select a custom amount of units, all units of that variety on screen, all units on the map, or all units in your current field of vision. This is all done with one button push for each function. But before you begin to wonder how this would work, using a controller that only has five usable face buttons, a D-Pad and two sets of shoulder buttons, Ensemble Studios have managed to fit all the other commands on there.

I need not simplify the system, as it is already as simple as possible; you’ll be using the X button for the majority of play when it comes to ordering troops around and to attack. The interesting variant on this is most units, whether initially or through upgrades, have a special attack. For the marines it’s a grenade, for the Warthogs, a ramming charge into infantry. This is all accessed simply by pressing Y over an enemy instead of X. In addition to this, the D-Pad will call up everything from orbital strikes to Pelican transports, and it shows clearly that Ensemble have tried to fit as many functions into the mix as possible.

The only real criticism I can offer for the title is there’s no longer any way to have the game remember a certain group of units. In StarCraft, I would set up four or five “teams” of units, with support and offense units mixed into the same selection, and I could recall them simply by pressing 1 through 9 on my keyboard. In Halo Wars, manual selection is all that’s offered to you, and while this can prove frustrating in the heat of battle, it doesn’t detract from how brilliant the rest of the game really is.

This is a fantastic looking title. I’ve seen a wealth of RTS titles in my lifetime, and not once have I been this excited to see a unit from the other Halo titles simply to see how wonderfully rendered it has become in Halo Wars. The units are detailed enough not to look clunky and lazily rendered when you zoom in, and they have a variety of contextual animations, from Scarabs stalking over the flaming wreckage of a tank, to Elites ducking and weaving to avoid incoming fire.

With the amount of units on screen at any one time, as all units on foot come in squads bar the occasional leader, you’d expect a lot of slowdown. But even through testing the system to breaking point (I like zerging areas with thirty warthogs) there wasn’t a moment of juddering frame-rate, save for a few instances during online matches where the connection made the issue unavoidable.

The gameplay itself is incredibly fun, which isn’t too common a thing in the RTS genre. StarCraft is always going to be the inevitable comparison point for RTS sci-fi-based titles, but it differs from its futuristic predecessor in so many ways. The base building is as complex as it is simple looking; with only up to seven possible “slots” for additional buildings, it prevents the problem other RTS titles suffer from of not being able to get your units through the maze of barracks and refineries fast enough, but also means there’s a lot of strategy going into how many slots you use for units, and how many for resources.

This is the first title I’ve seen where acquiring the resources to build your troops starts simple and fun, and stays simple and fun. Speaking from the UNSC point of view, you simply build a Supply Pad for a ship to land on, and the supplies will flow in, indefinitely. They never deplete, and can only double in their unloading of resources to you if you upgrade the landing pad to sit two cargo ships rather than one. You’ll need higher technology levels for the title’s “uber units”, the Covenant Scarab and the UNSC Vulture (a heavily armed and armoured gunship), but this is as simple as slotting in a reactor or two next to your base, and again upgrading them for double the output.

It makes gameplay a lot smoother, and it means only very rarely will things get to the point of failure while attempting a mission, even at Legendary difficulty level, as long as you remember the three Rs of retreat, regroup and recruit. Simply limping back to base and waiting for enough resources to flow in to make another wave of ten Scorpion tanks or whatever your preference may be, though it comes with the punishment of a low score for taking too long to complete your objectives.

The score system is fairly straightforward, with scores for completing primary and secondary objectives, such as saving a hero or wandering off on a side-track to find a trapped Warthog. The score is then multiplied depending on your time, combat skills and other smaller variables. If you decide to grab a victory early, be prepared to lose points, but if you’re into slow army building and scouting parties for secondary objectives, you’ll happily receive one of the many gold medals available to you for doing so well.

The campaign itself is comprised of fifteen missions separated into four acts, and are separated from each other by a pre-rendered cutscene to flesh out the story. The story itself, dare I say it, is the best, most well-written storyline I’ve seen in the Halo universe outside of the official fiction titles. The characters are varied, and it’s a joy to finally see how an Elite manages to make human noises with a face like half a spider. Everything is stunningly rendered and the colour of the Halo universe does a lot to counter-balance the horrendous trend of brown and greys in the Xbox catalogue of late.

I have no intentions of ruining the storyline, as it’s a triumphant but melancholy end to the first game in what I’m assuming is either a trilogy or a saga, as the achievement of gaining 100% completion is titled “Ready for the Sequel.” I’m aware Ensemble aren’t actually an existing studio anymore, but one of the new studios the staff have set up to take control of the DLC for Halo Wars would also presumably handle a new title in addition to continuing to support the game’s fan base.

Once you’re done with the campaign, taking from as little as eight to ten hours if you play hard and fast, you can explore multiplayer, though you’re always welcome to do so prior to your story-based experience. Multiplayer is a lot of fun, especially in matches comprised of three-player teams against each other, with a map list comprised of Flood, Covenant and Forerunner based levels, not to mention a map who’s title will make any Halo veteran smile “Blood Gulch”.

In multiplayer, the objective is simply to decimate the other team’s bases. In other RTS titles, winning conditions in multiplayer included units as well as constructed buildings, but here, Ensemble aims to make the process as simple as possible, to avoid the frustrating “one marine hiding in the black area of the map for ten hours” situations most RTS online veterans have found themselves in more than once.

The ability to play as the Covenant is both interesting and entertaining, as you’ll find the two factions are as similar as they are different. Also, different leaders for each faction are available, though this largely rounds down to different “powers”, from air strikes to explosive psychic attacks, and a few bonuses to technology and resources.

Co-op campaign is also an option, sensibly restraining itself only to system link and Xbox Live, as split-screen on an RTS title is fairly unheard of for the solid reason that it would be the most messy, complex game in existence from the word “go.” Personally, when it comes to campaign, I’m a fan of playing through solo as I find more than one commander and you’re losing the immersion a little, but the co-op function in Halo Wars is intelligently well set out.

The title is a huge success, and at the time of writing it’s been out for two days, and already there are thousands of online matches in all lobbies, with players already at top skill levels and grinding their way up the three ranks, much like the current FPS titles in the same franchise. Ensemble have done a wonderful job, taking an established, heavily fan-supported universe, and turning it into what was once feared as one of the most clunky, unenjoyable gaming experiences possible.

They’ve shut down the naysayers, and my hat goes off to them, speaking as someone who watched the credits simply out of respect for a studio that created a phenomenal title, not to mention the Age of Empires series, only to be shut down. They deserve a high score, not simply because they created a fantastic experience, but because they rewarded those who knew Ensemble had the expertise with the RTS genre to pull this off. A triumph.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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