OverviewPlatform: Xbox 360
The final swing of Ensemble Studios comes in the form of this Halo real time strategy, but is it a knockout?
Some things are just sad, Ensemble studios made genre defining games for the PC with Age of Empires and it seems somewhat perverse that their swansong to modern gaming should be a title which derived from a first person shooter. But it would be wrong to dismiss Halo Wars out of hand because what is accomplished here is an RTS built from the ground up to accommodate even the most cynical player.
First off lets get the obvious stuff out of the way, Halo Wars looks fantastic everything looks exactly the way it should in the Halo universe with enough particle effects to permanently screen burn any LCD TV. The cutscenes do a remarkable job of placing you in the universe and for fans of the franchise they flesh out the universe appropriately. Not only do they also look absolutely gorgeous but the action scenes employed are great to watch. Unfortunately they only mask the fact that essentially the game has no plot, or at least any characters which you feel any feelings for. It just seems as though the story is set so close to the great Master Chief or MC’s emergence that their wasn’t really any room for the plot to flourish. Instead it just proves as an excuse for the subsequent game scenarios which tend to be exactly the sort would expect, e.g. the boss level with a destruction beam which sweeps level from left to right, or an escort level where you have to guide precious vehicle B to point A.
Despite the predictable nature on Halo Wars however, it still remains fun and most importantly rewarding. Watching vehicles which you have come to know and enjoy from the Halo games, lovingly recreated capturing the essence of what made them such a joy in the first person shooters. Tanks are brutish, Spartans are daredevils and the Warthogs are looking for any excuse to leap joyfully into the air. When the game reaches full flow with units from both the Covenant and UNSC shooting bloom effects at each other like there is an over-abundance of colour in the world, you begin to realise what Ensemble wanted Halo Wars to be, an RTS which can be enjoyed by everyone and they have accomplished that.
There are some obvious staples from classic RTS which are unfortunately left alone, such as the repetitive unit sounds. Pressing the all units button means that the commentator on screen declares all units, this may sound like a simple explanation but imagine you have pressed that button for the twentieth time during a mission and yet the pitch, dialogue and tone are exactly the same. Its been a problem with RTS since Dune 2 but still rears its ugly head. Other problems are the lack of units, for a story mode which spans fifteen missions which usually last 30-45 minutes there is a distinct lack of variety. With two different types of tanks, two different types of aerial units and two different types of infantry it does seem to be lacking even the basic options of other titles such as Red Alert 3. But you can unlock more options from support powers menu and upgrade components on these base units, making each level slightly more powerful than the last, although this does take money and time.
This could be viewed as a negative by some players but the mission structure is so tight that it propels the missions forward and gives a clear goal to the player instead of shoot that guy he is painted red, while you are painted blue. Speaking of colours Halo Wars has an option to artificially paint your enemies red and your allies blue, a nice homage to the machinima of the same name and also very functional in distinguishing units. The story is well placed and the missions appropriately escalate as you continue unlocking the ability to use more units as you go. Seeing as this is a Halo game it is unfortunate but the Flood do make an appearance, but the problem is they don’t really fit in an RTS context. The real time strategy genre at its core is based on the rock paper scissors mentality and Halo Wars fits into this nicely but each unit class looking distinctly different from one another. Add the brownish yellow of the flood to the mix and suddenly you are straining to see what type of unit that Flood is and in turn how to counter act it. Assaulting bases is particularly annoying because all the flood buildings look similar from your lofty ‘commander’ perspective. Its a shame they have to appear in this game because when it is a simple fight between you and the Covenant the combat is satisfying and entertaining to watch, when the Flood get added it just over-rides the experience adding a dingy unpolished feel.
Multi-player options are also present such as skirmishes and, what every Halo game must have, a fully fleshed out competitive component. Much like Halo 3 party’s can be formed so you can do standard 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 both ranked and unranked further proving what works in first person shooters can easily make the jump cross genre. Its this reason alone which will make you come back to Halo Wars again and again because playing as part of a team for a strategy game is unheard of, on a console at least. Players can also bring a friend with them on the campaign as well, for co-op game- play, but to be honest this only serves as a glorified tutorial to the multi player combat. The online modes are functional and it scratches an itch which frankly, I never knew I had. Ganging up and torturing players mercilessly until you build up an army worthy of spamming his base into submission. In three versus three games these sensation is heightened when you torture the sole remaining player until his morality is utterly crushed and he or she is forced to accept the tide has turned against them. I really had a lot of fun with these modes and it is the meatiest part of this title, of which it would be easy to sink considerable hours. It certainly isn’t the best on the market and doesn’t employ much to shake the established formula up by the Halo name guarantees that players will be online from now until a long time to come, so it is worth a go.
There are some excellent highlights here, a compelling online mode, fantastic cut-scenes and a dogmatic commitment to the Halo universe which fans will undoubtedly love. But overall its rather unambitious, easy and lacks the depth of even the most pedestrian RTS. Although there is something to immediately love, an emulation of your cumulative experiences with a franchise which may be the most successful of all time. When you first see a Spartan take to the battlefield it is exhilarating and building an army of identifiable units can make you feel practically giddy at times. Halo Wars is best viewed as an entry level RTS to those who have either never tried one before or merely haven’t experienced a push the Master Chief can lovingly provide and at this basic level is succeeds wonderfully. Its just a shame there isn’t more depth, variety and indeed, content.