STAFF REVIEW of Halo Wars (Xbox 360)

Monday, March 16, 2009.
by Adam Dileva

Halo Wars Box art One would think that a Halo game that doesn?t feature the iconic Master Chief would not have the same appeal as the previous trilogy. What if that game wasn?t even a first person shooter or made by Bungie Studios? Ensemble Studios which is known for their Age of Empire series has been given the chance to put the Halo universe into a Real Time Strategy game. It?s a complete change from what we?ve known to expect from a Halo title, but it still feels very much like it belongs in the series due to the diligence put towards making everything look and sound authentic to the universe from the environments and units.

With myself being a terrible RTS player, but a huge Halo fan, I was somewhat nervous before giving Halo Wars a chance, as I thought that I wouldn?t be able to micromanage or do very well like previous titles in the genre. I was pleasantly surprised when the controls were very easy to grasp, I wasn?t overwhelmed with complex trees with branching unit development, and missions that flowed well and varied with different objectives.

Set twenty years before Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars sets the stage of events of things to come in the later titles. At first the story might be a little difficult to understand, but eventually it all comes together and is brought together with amazingly beautiful cutscenes before every mission that are on par with the quality of CGI that Blizzard has shown in its titles.

The campaign?s story is lead by USNC Sergeant John Forge along with the Professor Anders as they are watching over the Covenant. You don?t have Cortana as your aid, but you do have a similar AI named Serina, though she is nowhere near as memorable or charming.

Because the campaign is only played through on the Human side, an average play through should take 5 or 6 hours on the normal setting, but in standard Halo fashion, you can bump up the difficulty to Heroic and Legendary for more challenge. It was quite disappointing now to have any campaign playable with the Covenant or event the Flood, so here is to hoping for future download content to allow another viewpoint of the war.

Playing through the campaign with a friend is possible with the inclusion of co-operative play. Two people can now go through the story and making things much easier in some of the more difficult missions. The two players share their resources and you have direct control of any units you build, but any units can be transferred to either player at any time. This can really cater to any play style, as one player can stay at the bases and built units and upgrade while the other receives the newly built units and can go explore or battle.

Because all resources are shared, good communication is key and since there are many types of missions such as defending, escorting, and all out front line pushes, having a partner to help definitely helps, especially in the harder difficulties where enemies have much more health and harder to kill.

For all the completionists or achievement hunters, there is a decent amount of replay value with trying to find all the hidden skulls; like in Halo, which unlock modifiers and settings. Certain optional objectives must be met in each mission before the hidden skulls will appear and they are usually just ?killing X amount of certain unit. Black boxes which will unlock back story timeline entries are also hidden in each level to be found as well.

Before being able to build a sizable army; like any other RTS you must first gather the resources beforehand. This has you choosing whether to build more supply pads to keep resources consistently coming in or to use the small amount of building slots for other buildings such as a barracks or vehicle depot. Luckily with Halo Wars, once you have your supply pads up and going, you don?t really have to worry all that much about your resources as it?ll continue to stream in unless destroyed. It was a relief for me to not have to micro-manage this aspect of the strategy.

While playing through the campaign, you are only able to control the USNC forces, though in multiplayer you are also able to command the Covenant. Ensemble has done a great job at giving each side an equal footing of types of units and no side is harshly more overpowered than the other. There aren?t many choices for actual types of units (with only a few land and airborne vehicles on each side) along with different types of ground members but the ability to upgrade different units in alternate ways that can easily change the outcome of a hard battle.

You are able to train different types of marines from your standard front of the line grunts to flamethrowers and medics (depending on what leader you control). Marines can be commanded to take cover behind bunkers and lay fire from there, the only problem with this is that if you forget to order them out of cover, they will stay there permanently even if you are ordering ?all units? somewhere. Spartans are also researchable and have a low cap on how many you can make due to their strength and ability to hijack enemy vehicles if commanded to do so. The Spartans are much more durable in battle and even if you pretend one of them is Master Chief, seeing them using Lasers and taking over a Scarab is something to see.

Seeing your army of Scorpions, Hornets, Warthogs, Spartans and marines is impressive; that is until you need to traverse them through some narrow areas and a traffic jam ensues. Sometimes some units get so in the way that you need to specifically choose the larger tanks and vehicles and move them out of the way so that the smaller units can get by. It was a little disappointing to see some AI that would infinitely get stuck until fixed, but this really only happened to myself once or twice.

The humans aren?t the only ones with awesome forces though. Covenant can research and create Grunts (literally, that can then be upgraded to suicide Grunts), Jackals, Hunters, Brutes, Ghosts, Choppers, Banshees, Wraiths, and the amazing massive Scarab that will definitely put some hurt to the USNC. It will take quite some time to save up enough resources and also use a good portion of your maximum unit numbers to create your Scarab, but if the other team is not ready for you, you will have a huge grin on your face while you plow your way through their bases and army with ease.

The Covenant is quite enjoyable to play and offers a great variety of change from the normal USNC units and strategies. It?s quite disappointing that there is no campaign portion for them or even the Flood for that matter. Sadly you don?t even get to play as the Flood even in multiplayer, so once again here is to hoping for future DLC for added longevity. With so many units on screen at once, every now and then the frame rate may drop for a moment, but generally it?s not an issue or hindrance.

When playing multiplayer, each faction has a choice of one of three leaders. These leaders each have their own unique powers and units that can be created which will give an inviting change from previous strategies.

Up to 6 players can compete on Xbox Live though with odd team choices such as 1 vs 1, 2 vs 2, and 3 vs 3. Oddly that is it along with Skirmish and Deathmatch; so the lack of multiplayer choices was slightly disappointing. So there are always only 2 teams, regardless how many people join. Deathmatch is an interesting change from the standard Skirmish game type and has you start with an ample amount of resources to start amassing your army right away. Regardless of the multiplayer shortcomings it is still quite enjoyable since you can help allies by sending them units or creating needed buildings while they focus on what they are doing.

What I was most surprised with in Halo Wars is the ease of use of controls. Everything you need to do is only 2 or 3 button presses away and it doesn?t feel like Ensemble has tried to map a keyboard onto the controller which was a problem with other console RTS?. It?s a relief to know that the game was built for the controller specifically and controls appropriately. The only downfall to the controller is the amount of functionality you have with it. You are able to select all units, all on the screen, or hold down the button to highlight specific units you want. You aren?t able to command units into custom groups so the best bet to fight on two fronts is move the two ?groups? of units away from each other, select all on screen and do what you need to with them while you move the screen to the second ?group? and do the same thing. It makes it slightly difficult, but once you have a firm grasp on the controls, you learn how to work with it rather than against it.

Moving and attacking is even mapped to the same button, so with a simple press of ?X?, so if the spot you bring the unit to is empty, they will move there, and if an enemy, they will attack. Some units also have a secondary special attack that can be used by attacking with ?Y? and are much more devastating.

All of these controls are taught within the effortless tutorials and while it gives you just the basics, it?s enough to start getting by, though a few more in depth tutorials would have been favored for new players to the genre to learn the different types of units more clearly.

Because you are only able to build in specific areas some players may find it somewhat confining, but not being that experienced of an RTS player, I actually preferred it this way as I could focus more on building everything in general and knowing where all my assets were at all times. It also makes it simpler to defend as you only have to defend your bases and not random obscure buildings anywhere else. Being able to instantly return to your bases is effortlessly done by tapping the D-Pad and it will also cycle through them in the order built.

Since you usually only control between 30 and 40 units at a time maximum; along with the map sizes, the scale of battles may not look huge, but Ensemble has done an awesome job at making the battles feel like they are on a much larger scale. This is also in part due to the camera that allows you to zoom close up to any unit and see much detail, yet you are unable to pull the camera out far enough to get a bird?s-eye view of the whole battlefield.

Even though Halo Wars wasn?t made from Bungie, everything looks and feels authentic. The menus have the halo style to it and match the symphonious soundtrack throughout the game. Warthogs sound exactly like their counterpart in the series all the way down to the individual Grunts and Hunters and weapons. The voice acting is on par and made everything feel believable throughout.

Ensemble has done an amazing job at creating a new game in the series with a completely new style yet nothing too foreign for Halo fans to shun it. What I found early on was that while it is quite fun for me as I?ve never been a huge RTS player (but also a Halo fan), it?s going to appeal to that specific audience much more than those wanting a deep and intense strategy title. While it is very simple and easy to play once you grasp the controls which makes it very easy to pick up and start playing, it may be a little too simple for those used to having to micro-manage on the PC counterparts.

Halo Wars is attempting to be a great console RTS and succeeds in that respect and should not be completely compared to other PC strategy games as the same depth is not there. This is not a fault to the game, as it?s done its job by bringing in new players to the genre and appeasing the Halo fans. Even without having the iconic Master Chief fronting the heroism, Halo Wars brings a great story along with matching gameplay that even players unfamiliar with the genre can learn and enjoy easily.

Simple. Covenant (and Flood if we are so lucky)campaign story. More DLC with possibly unit variants.

Overall: 8.4 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.3 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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