Ensemble’s Halo Wars is to RTS as Bungie’s Halo 3 is to FPS. Neither was developed with the intention of redefining their respective genres through cutting edge ideas or groundbreaking technological advancements. Their existence is deliberately designed to transcend the shrinking cleft separating hardcore and casual gamers by minimizing excess features and speaking a common language both groups converse fluently: “Halo.”
Halo Wars is set 20 years prior to the “Halo Event” we’ve all played countless times in the original Halo on Xbox. Much of what your mind already associates with the world of “Halo” is already in place: Spartan Soldiers, Marines, Warthogs, Scorpions, Brutes, Arbiters, Profits, Wraiths, Scarabs and even the Flood. There is no Master Chief and there doesn’t need to be. The Spartans are capable of his tricks like jacking Ghosts and wielding really big guns. Resolving the predicament requires the use of hundreds of soldiers, vehicles and structures, not one incredibly brave and blessed with the “luck of the Irish” Spartan.
Understanding controlling either UNSC or Covenant armies in Halo Wars is like plug-and-play software for your computer. Programming behind-the-scenes does most of the heavy lifting while you’re left to click a button every now and then to keep things moving along. Units can be selected either individually, as local units visible on the screen or as all units in play. One click selects them and another puts them somewhere else. If they are within range of an enemy they will attack automatically. Otherwise, you can command them to attack a single target with, once again, a single click.
Units generally originate from a fortress which you’re responsible for building out. Following the simplification theme to appeal to casual gamers, each fortresses position is pre-determined with a maximum of seven build spots on any given fortress to build structures on. Supply pads are crucial for any fortress as they generate the “currency” required to train new groups, construct new vehicles and build or upgrade fortress structures. Reactors, on the other hand, generate energy allowing for greater technologies such as more sophisticated vehicles. If this doesn’t sound complicated that’s because it isn’t. Fully understanding fortress construction and operation, the most complex part of the game, takes two minutes or less.
Single-player campaign, which is also available to play cooperatively with another player locally or via Xbox Live, consists of 15 missions that follow a new Halo-universe story told from the perspective of the UNSC Spirit of Fire command ship. The ships travels to multiple diverse worlds providing an excuse to mix up mission maps with green, snowy, brown, manmade and even alien terrain. Though the maps are intricately designed and three-dimensional from a birds-eye view perspective, unlocking new maps and missions is not what pushes you to forge ahead.
What CGI cut-scenes propelling the story forward between missions lack in strong scriptwriting and drama, they more than make up for with silky smooth and incredibly life-like animation. The bridge and observation deck aboard the Spirit of Fire are intricate enough to look like movie sets. Each cut-scene sequence is legitimately a short film unto itself. All my mind could conjure while unwrapping the next is, “If Peter Jackson and WETA got to make their Halo film already, this might be an indication of what it would look like.” Someone needs to get a Halo movie off the ground, and stat.
If the highlight of Halo Wars is the cut-scenes then the lowlight are some buggy sporadic gameplay quirks. The right analog stick zooms the camera in and out of the map. Simple enough, except sometimes a quick camera move will turn a Wraith or pack of Brutes invisible. The draw line is extremely finicky when the camera straddles it forcing you to make an extra camera move or two than you might have liked to lock onto an unintentionally poorly positioned enemy.
Strong AI can be a sore spot for PC-based RTS games and to an extent this holds true for Halo Wars as well. UNSC, Covenant or Flood enemies will perform basic and predictable attacks when you decide to enter their firing range. Outside of forced conflicts, there are scripted attack patterns that don’t carry much common sense. What good are one or two Covenant Grunts who appear every 60 seconds or go just above your base and attack it? What chance do they really have without a Leader and their unique attack skills? Since all of your fortress locations are predetermined you can bet every one of them has scripted assaults against it. You, in turn, now must pen your own script that erects a tower turret early in each fortresses existence.
A cure for the common script is found online playing in skirmish matches with up to five other players. With predictable AI out of the picture, Halo Wars requires a strategic understanding of your units and equipment to come out victorious. Where the campaign serves a purpose to tell a story and teach you the ropes, online skirmish matches lets you put those skills into real practice.
A nearly uncontrollable urge to swoop into the world of Halo Wars and go at it FPS-sytle is natural when the first mission kicks off with Warthogs running over hapless Grunts. It will return each time the Halo theme music kicks in during specific checkpoints during missions. Once the urge subsides, Halo Wars is an enjoyable and accessible RTS with gorgeously rendered cut-scenes providing incentive and six-player online play with supporting Achievements providing extensive replay value.
“Halo” is a universal language amongst gamers whether you thrive on deep RTS experiences or prefer to use two buttons max and hit the ground with guns-a-blazing. Microsoft piggybacking Halo’s familiarity to bring simplified RTS gaming to a console crowd is as safe a bet as any. The result is like an old college buddy who showed up out of the blue wearing a three-piece suit instead of the frayed jeans you’re accustomed to. The least you can do is take him out to dinner and see what the new look is all about.
– Dan Bradley