If you find yourself instantly suffering from a case of the stupid fingers whenever attempting to play one of those real time strategy games on a console, Ensemble Studios and Microsoft have something for you in the form of Halo Wars. The magic formula? Increase the streamlining, increase the style and get rid of as many menus as possible, all this accumulates into a great package for Halo Fans and real-time strategy fans. If you’re both, you might just find Halo Wars nothing short of magical.
For most, Halo Wars’ biggest strength is its implementation of the Halo Brand. The entire game is engrained in the Haloistic Haloism that Bungie has spent the first 3 Halo games Haloing, the box art even uses the same exact font as Halo 3, color and all. The entire front end of the game is borrowed from Halo 3, from the game start menus down to the now legendary matchmaking system. Even the difficulty tier uses the Normal-Heroic-Legendary labels we’ve all come to love (or hate). While all this is fine and dandy, it’s really just the wrapping on an even better gift to be found in the actual gameplay.
Halo Wars’ true credit is found in that it brings console real-time strategy to the limit, playing a balancing act so that it never feels too light or too heavy on the player. To RTS veterans, the game might seem like a gigantic step back for the genre as the strategies and tactics never approach that of Relic’s titles like Company of Heroes and Darn of War series, but Ensemble has done well to pack in as much as they could without making it feel cumbersome. Everything from the controls to the base building has been streamlined to the point of being almost second nature, which is the complete opposite of what was experienced in the console versions of the Command and Conquer games.
Halo Wars still makes use of the radial menus made famous by Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth 2. The menus never go further than 1 tier however, ensuring that the button presses happen on the fly. All the other management focused controls are allocated to shortcuts on the controller. There are buttons to quick select all units on the map, or all units on screen. There are also buttons to quick jump to your different bases and unit leaders. After a few games, most of this becomes second nature, which is fortunate, because it makes it much easier to get into the action, which is where Halo Wars shines.
The strategic gameplay of Halo Wars is really basic at its core, especially to anyone invested in the RTS genre. The game encourages either small groups of similar units, or large scale battles with a good mix of units. As per usual, early game is filled with rush/anti-rush tactics, but these aren’t really as dangerous as they are in other RTS game. Base building has been streamlined down to having a 3×3 grid, where the players only has to choose what to build. All defensive structures have been relegated to 4 turrets to place on the corners of the base.
Where some might be turned off is in the limited strategic offerings in Halo Wars. The game is very much focused on what you build as opposed to how you use your units. While it doesn’t truly detract from the gameplay, it’s something that a lot of RTS gamers have moved past with Relic’s RTS games on the PC. However, for a console gamer, it’s probably best that this is the route that Ensemble has decided to take, as executing elegant strategies might not be so easy given the hardware and control scheme. Whether or not this is a case of a snake eating its own tale is up for debate, but in my experience, it doesn’t detract from enjoying the gameplay.
All of the usual suspects Halo fans have come to love are present and accounting for: warthogs and Spartans doing battle with grunts and elites riding banshees and ghosts (If you’ve never played a Halo game, sorry for that sentence). If you’ve seen it in any of the 3 core Halo games, you can be assured that it will make some sort of appearance in Halo Wars and that includes the giant scarab units that played as whole levels in games previous. And while the units are on showcase here, the way they’re implemented into the action is almost twice as cool.
When two opposing sides converge in Halo Wars, it make for some kind of spectacle. Elites stick their swords through fleshy opponents, tossing their lifeless bodies out of the way, moving onto the next opponent. Big mechanized suits pick up infantry units and thrash them about on the ground until their breathing stops. A great attention to detail was spent incorporating the action into the game without just making it look like a revolutionary war battle where one side shoots the other side until someone’s gone.
Each unit comes with it’s own special ability, some of which have the ability to turn the tide of battle. These are great in that they also take a note from the source material. The Warthog’s specialty is found in that it can run down infantry units, killing them almost instantly. The Spartan mascot’s gift is its ability to hop right on top of an enemy vehicle and jack it from under their nose. It’s nice to see Ensemble incorporate some of the smaller aspects of the Halo games into the product in such cool ways. This is evident from the weapons, down to the sound design. It’s hard not to have your ears perk up when a Spartan loses his shields and the infamous shields lost sound pops up.
As far as actual game modes, Halo Wars has the stock campaign and multiplayer. The campaign sports some of the best looking cut scenes in recent memory, unfortunately it also sports a story similar to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in that the events can’t have a significant impact on the canon of the overall universe. The campaign mode is brief, easy and can be beaten in 8 to 10 hours. The fact that there’s no campaign for the Covenant and the Flood has been completely excluded from player control is severely disappointing.
Matchmaking benefits from Bungie’s tried and true system from the Halo games. You assemble your party in a lobby, press start and it takes you straight into a game. The ranking system comes straight from the Halo games also, emblems and insignia included. Most of the fun I found was in the 3v3 game modes which provided incredibly large scale battles, and the bigger teams allowed much more variety in how those battles played out. For most, matchmaking is going to be where the majority of time is spent, and there’s a slew of slid offerings here for those people.
Overall, Halo Wars is a solid offering for fans of Halo and RTS games alike. While it might not bare the strategic elegance of most modern day strategy titles, it’s still a ton of fun to play, and it does for console RTS games, what Halo: Combat Evolved did for console FPS games.
Beautiful cutscenes, impressive battle animations and a sleek front-end, all wrapped in a nice Halo Package.
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Good, while lacking the stategic depth that most RTS fans are used to.
Incredibly impressive sound design, great voice acting and a wonderful Halo soundtrack.
Weak campaign with a solid slew of matchmaking and skirmish options.
A solid package for Halo fans and RTS fans. Should be especially enticing for those that are both.