by Chris Scott
reviewed on X360
Taking a franchise into new territories
Halo is, without any doubt at all, Microsoft's biggest gaming franchise. The series has its own line of novels, toys, comic books, Slurpie cups and I think the Master Chief was even promoting a wacky red version of Mountain Dew at some point. Despite its immense success, the game was stuck within the First Person Shooter genre for the longest time. Obviously, that could not last forever. Microsoft enlisted the developers behind the popular Real Time Strategy series Age of Empires, Ensemble Studios, to turn Halo into an RTS.
This posed two mammoth-sized questions for Microsoft. Firstly it was far from certain that the Halo fan base would even be willing to play a Halo game. Would they be interested in playing a game in the Halo universe outside of its familiar FPS setting? The second question was whether Ensemble would be able to convert the intricacies of the RTS genre into a console game controlled with a dual analog stick controller. Traditionally RTS games have been played on PCs and the few console attempts at creating an RTS game in the past all failed to reach critical success. Surprisingly the answer to both these questions is an astounding yes.
Halo Wars holds itself up to the high standard for storytelling that Bungie has set for the series. The story is primarily told through cut-scenes between missions with a few in-game events to spice things up. Taking place two decades before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) discover an ancient artifact on the planet Harvest and must engage the encroaching Covenant as they in turn attempt to secure the artifact from the humans. For Halo fans it all sounds fairly familiar except for how the game is actually played.
Reforging the RTS genre
The game strips down a lot of the minutia that the RTS genre is known for and presents a streamlined experience that is able to remain tactical and even somewhat traditional. Resource gathering and base building, two highly traditional components of the genre, have been stripped down to their simplest form. Gathering is limited to one type of resource and after building a Supply Pad structure, gathering is no longer needed. From then on, resources will arrive automatically from your flagship in orbit. Base building is centralized on a single platform which can be upgraded to support additional structures.
Besides simplifying the resource gathering and base building, the other noticeable difference with tradition RTSs can be found in the way the game is controlled. Halo Wars uses the Xbox 360 controller and Ensemble has done a wonderful job at creating a solid control scheme via a radial menu. Through this radial menu, units are selected and ordered into position, buildings can be easily purchased and upgrades easily requested. Streamlining these core RTS actions in such a way may turn off some RTS traditionalists but the tradeoff is that the gamer who has spent the last five years playing as Master Chief can quickly jump into the game and get into the thick of battle.
Ensemble has done an admirable job capturing the spirit of Halo's gameplay. Combat is fast paced and frantic. Players are required to make split-second decisions that can just as easily result in the successful completion of a mission as it could in ultimate failure. There are a variety of different mission types, from search and destroy missions to escort missions and timed defense missions. The campaign is always pushing forward with new and challenging mission types.
While the campaign is a lot of fun to play, it will most likely only last you for about 10 hours. But this is where the multiplayer suite comes into the mix. Multiplayer is modeled after Bungie's Halo 3 system and there are a variety of different playlists that can be played with up to six teams on the field in total.
Halo Wars only sports two playable factions. The game counters this limitation by having each team choose a special leader character for their faction. Each faction has three leaders that provide unique powers, units, upgrades and bonuses to the player. This adds a fun, multi-tiered strategic approach to both the UNSC and Covenant factions as learning how to master or defend against each leader is something that can give a strong advantage in the multiplayer arena.
From a technical standpoint Halo Wars is much like Ensemble's previous efforts. The game is not going to win any graphical awards but it certainly looks like a Halo game. The sound design on the other hand, rivals the best games in the genre. Superb voice acting is supported by great sound effects. From the explosive battle effects to the background noise of the base at work, it all works wonderfully.
Not for everyone, but for most
All in all, Halo Wars is a very good release. It may not satisfy every Halo fan, it may not live up to the standards of every RTS fan. Overall though, more people will enjoy it for what it is than not. Sadly Microsoft chose to close Ensemble Studios down shortly before the launch of the game and while Microsoft has vowed continued community support, it is a shame that the creators of this game are no longer with us. The ex-Ensemble staff can hold their head high and realize that they went out with a bang, delivering quite possibly the best console RTS to date and a great addition to the Halo franchise.
A streamlined RTS experience that works wonderfully with a console gamepad.
Slightly short story mode.