Halo Wars Review

Dan Webb

The original Halo way back in 2001 was, believe it or not, originally meant to be an RTS game and it was only through repeat trips back to the drawing board that the title ended up in the FPS genre. Once you know that, it comes as no surprise that the Halo universe is finally getting the RTS treatment. The potential is there to deliver a heavily story driven RTS headed up by a goldmine license, and that is what Ensemble planned on doing. With Bungie out the picture, the franchise is still in safe hands with the legendary Ensemble Studios looking to go out with a bang.

The game has a very War of the Worlds feel, lasers ahoy.

The heavy story in Halo Wars precedes the actions of Spartan 117 in Combat Evolved by 20 years. A time where Harvest has just been brought back from the brink by the UNSC. A time when multiple Spartans roamed the galaxy and Master Chief was still in diapers. The story, loosely put, follows the actions of the UNSC’s Spirit of Fire who stumble upon some suspicious Covenant activity on Harvest’s surface. The once prosperous, now desolate planet, seems to house a relic that will lead the Covenant to an ultimate power that will end the war and it is up to you to play your part to stop that. As expected, the story of Halo Wars is a fantastic sci-fi heavy adventure that will suck in non-Halo fans as well as series veterans. All of which is complimented by some solid voice acting and some fancy rendered CGI’s to really cap it all off.

The license accuracy in Halo Wars is right on the money and it is a fantastic tribute to Bungie and their creation of the Halo franchise. Everything about the game has the Halo vibe, from the menus to the vehicles, the music to the matchmaking; even the guns sound like they are the real McCoy. Throw in some typically Halo environments and some authentic moving units, especially the Warthogs and you’ll appreciate the attention to detail to replicate the license perfectly.

The attention to detail extends further through the game's presentation in terms of musical score and general look. The units look great up close and look just liked you remember from the FPS. For an RTS, the textures on the maps also look fantastic and really give substance to the worlds; whether you're ploughing through the snow ridden fields on Harvest or rolling across the green pastures of the Shield World, they capture the feel perfectly. Part of that may be attributed to the chilling Halo-esque harmonic roars and ambient beats that play accompanies the title. The presentation of the game really does do the franchise justice and Ensemble should be commended for that.

Although Halo Wars might be typecast as an RTS title, we’d be more inclined to call it an action title, or even an RTS-light. The elements of strategy do exist but they tend to be limited to the extent that once you have a strategy locked down, you can be successful with it till your dying days ... even on legendary. There are elements of strategy of course, but not to the extent of traditional RTS titles.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning ...

Does the title sacrifice strategy by the non-inclusion of resource gathering? We’d say no, not in the slightest, but we would say that the limitations put on players by making them set up bases in predefined locations does hamper it slightly which is where the notion of the light RTS comes in. Don’t get us wrong, there is an element of strategy in your base with regards to how you micromanage and what you focus on, but there may not be enough of one to grip the hardcore RTS fans.

However, what the game doesn’t offer you in terms of strategy, it makes up with in terms of action and accessibility. Unlike other RTS games, you can play it however the hell you want. If you want to set up quickly and rush the Covenant, you can do it. If you want to build an army of Scorpion tanks and steamroll them like a patch of daisies, you can. The game lets you play how you want and won’t rush you at all. The whole feel of the title though is very fitting with the Halo universe and the non-stop, heavy on the action gameplay gives the game an edge that other RTS titles might not give you. When things get heated and busy on screen, and by busy, we mean 100 units, the game comes in to its own and maintains a solid frame rate as well.

Halo Wars adopts the traditional rock-paper-scissors formula that is fundamental to the RTS genre, but it takes them and adds a cool twist. Throwing the epic Spartans in to the fold allows you to jack enemy vehicles in the Halo way, something that to the best of my knowledge has never been done in an RTS ... ever. It’s this mix of traditional RTS aspects and the Halo universe that really makes you feel like you’re playing a Halo game, and it feels good again. Even the grunts throw sticky grenades at you in traditional Halo fashion.

As far as selection and map movement goes, the game rarely puts a foot wrong. You’ll have access to a whole load of short keys which make the game as accessible as any console RTS game has ever been; whether you’re talking about your local select, global select or the paintbrush select; you’ll rarely have problems in regards to that. Throw in the ability to cycle between unit types and everything you want to do, you can do, and that includes setting up multiple squadrons and out witting your foes. That isn’t all that Ensemble have done to make the whole console RTS aspect accessible for console player, they’ve also included a quick select via the d-pad that allows you to jump to your base, latest alert or to your armies, and proves to be a pricelss function. The underlying control aspect of Halo Wars is simplicity personified and a joy to get your mitts on.

One of the major flaws with Halo Wars is its inability of its units to path find and this can frustrate on so many levels; whether it’s the fact that your heavier units at the back won’t move forward because of the slower marines blocking their path in front, or that some of your fleet come across an obstacle in the middle of a map and just stop. It’s one of a few black marks that Ensemble failed to iron out the equation before the game’s release. This however is not an uncommon problem with RTS games in general, whether PC or console, but that does not make it any less excusable.

The online aspect of Halo Wars is where the title really gets its legs, offering gamers two main modes to tie them over; standard – start with nothing and build your way up, and deathmatch - where the resources are aplenty and upgrades are already made which means it starts fast and ends even faster. You can play either mode as 1 on 1’s up to 3 on 3’s with friends, enemies or even the game’s AI. There is nothing like lining up against 3 unknown foes with two of your closest friends to battle across the 14 maps of varying size. It is a worthy multiplayer mode for a franchise that has spent years being known as ‘THE’ online multiplayer game. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can even grab a friend and play through the campaign as it fully supports online co-op.

You’ve gotta love these odds.

The achievements aren’t too bad at all but don’t think they’ll come easy, oh no. The list is what we’d refer to as a looooooooong 1,000 points but you can reach around the 900 mark with around 20-25 hours of play; it’ll just be the online General rank that holds you back which will ask you to amass 3.2 million experience points and that isn’t an overnight task considering the average player can probably push 2,500 points out of a 20 minute match. There are plenty of progression achievements and achievements for collecting skulls & black boxes which are surprisingly fun to work towards. Mix in some tricky skirmish ones, some co-op achievements and some inventive 5 pointers that shape how you play, and we’d say we’re relatively happy with the Halo Wars achievement list. Uber satisfying.

Ensemble Studios with Halo Wars have managed to do what others before them have tried and failed with regards to the console RTS genre, and that’s create a system that doesn’t feel out of place with a controller. Sure, recent incarnations of Command & Conquer have been more than accessible with the controller and a joy to play, but there are moments in those titles where you do sometimes wish you had a mouse, Halo Wars' control system however, never leaves you longing for your trusty mouse and keyboard combo to get you through, but suffice to say, it’s not a flawless experience. Hardcore strategy fans may be underwhelmed with the lack of depth because as soon as you find a solid strategy, it’ll see you through any situation, even on legendary. The lack of ability to expand bases beyond preset boundaries and a poor path finding and unit movement system however does not taint the overall experience which is enriched with a powerful story, action packed gameplay, great visuals and a fitting soundtrack that will grip Halo fans worldwide. Throw in a great multiplayer mode and plenty of replay value with finding skulls and what not, and there is something in here for both the strategy fans and Halo addicts alike. If you love Halo, you’ll absolutely love Halo Wars, even if you hate it, you may still find yourself enjoying it. A noble way for Ensemble Studios to bow out the developing race indeed and an up yours to everyone who said that RTS games on consoles don’t belong.

Everything about the Halo Wars soundtrack is fantastic; the authentic Halo-esque sound effects of shields recharging, the Warthogs, shotguns, lasers ... everything, the list is endless. Throw in a fantastic score that compliments it as well and your ears will be on cloud nine. Very Halo ... which is a good thing.

The textures of the worlds and animations of the units make Halo Wars a visual treat. Everything from vehicle jacking, right down to the carpet bomb explosions look great, plus the frame rate never lets it down at all. Oh, and the cutscenes are pretty sexy as well.

Simple unit switching, easy unit selection and fluent field navigation means that Halo Wars is a great RTS to control. One or two issues with regards to path finding and unit movement but nothing to taint the overall experience.

The game has an epic single player campaign that can be played through with a friend as well and a great online mode that will keep you entertained for hours. Halo Wars is an action heavy title, but the strategy light element may deter some hardcore RTS fans.

Not a bad list here but not easy at all. Plenty of thought has gone in to the 5 point side mission achievements which can be really testing at times. The rest of the achievements span the game and reward you for mission progression, grabbing skulls and black boxes and plenty of tricky skirmish achievements which all carry a great fun factor with them. It maybe loses a few points for the ridiculously time consuming General achievement ... I mean, who has that much time on their hands? Other than that, nicely balanced and very satisfying.

Halo Wars brings with it huge feelings of joy and sadness; the joy that comes with a fantastic and hugely immersive title, and the sadness that follows the closure of an epic studio on a high. The action orientated RTS may be light on the RTS aspects in some areas but that by no means detracts away from the gameplay in the slightest. It just gives you a unique experience. Definitely a must purchase for Halo fans, action fans and those who are turned on by a good story.

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