The Halo brand has grown to become one of Microsoft’s staple pieces of software. The series has spanned three games across both XBOX consoles, giving gamers the opportunity to lead the human race in a war against the alien Covenant. The Halo games are known for their accessibility as FPS’s, allowing even the most novice of gamers to master the quick and highly enjoyable form of gameplay through decent single-player campaigns, great co-op modes and extensive multiplayer experiences.
For the first time, the Halo name moves on to another genre in real-time strategy with Halo Wars, and while there will no doubt be more adventures in a first-person perspective for the franchise, this latest entry should tied over die-hard fans until the next installment. Halo Wars is the first Halo game to not be developed by Bungie, yet developer Ensemble has created a solid RTS strategy game that not only stays true to the Halo universe, but plays surprisingly well for a console RTS title.
It really feels like Ensemble wanted to make this RTS as accessible to newcomers as the first three Halo games were to shooting newcomers. The mission structure is very straightforward and basic – much like the previous Halo titles – and you’ll very rarely be bogged down by multiple objectives and goals like in titles like Command and Conquer. Throughout Halo Wars you’ll definitely feel like the game is holding your hand, but that doesn’t really matter because the gameplay is engaging and enjoyable enough to counter that. It’s clear that Ensemble didn’t want this game to be overly challenging, but it’s definitely not a walk in the park either. Even though you can probably finish the single-player campaign in a few hours on one difficulty, your skill dictates how well you actually perform and what ranking you get, as the game really pushes you to aim for the best. You can choose to blast through each mission and avoid the optional objectives, but the game really puts an emphasis on these side goals as part of the true Halo Wars “experience” and you’ll get the most out of the title if you try to complete each mission 100%.
The main area in which Halo Wars differs from other genuine RTS titles is that it strips away many of the complex and time-consuming aspects of the gameplay associated with the genre. It has a very basic formula, forming a core gameplay experience that is simple and highly accessible. With typical RTS titles, where and how you build your army, as well as how you approach a particular objective, is integral to your success. With Halo Wars, that’s been stripped down to allow for a more free-flowing and approachable console experience. Creating an army isn’t going to dictate a whole amount of time and you’re free to build bases in almost every area. Through this, you get an engaging experience not otherwise felt through a console RTS. Console RTS titles in the past have tried to mimic the experience had on the PC counterpart, but Halo Wars genuinely feels like a console RTS experience – it’s stripped down to allow both newcomers and veterans to the genre to have a quick Halo experience without the hassle of tedious battlefield chores.
Halo Wars has been built from the ground up for the XBOX 360 and that’s clear. Previous RTS titles on the console have suffered from average to downright horrendous control schemes, but Halo Wars incorporates a scheme that fits the 360 controller perfectly. It’s as if Ensemble have experienced the typical RTS console problems themselves and rectified them with this title. You can pretty much perform any action with the touch of two buttons and you can build and upgrade products from a pop-up menu that never has more than eight options. Moving units is as simple as selecting one with the A button, be it a soldier or tank, and directing them to a new position by pressing the X button on a deserted piece of land. If you direct them to within striking distance of an enemy, they’ll automatically engage. While in battle, you can direct them to use their special attack by selecting an enemy and pressing the Y button. If you’re army consists of tanks and soldiers, both will use their special attack on the enemy. These attacks can be upgraded and you can purchase different soldier units and vehicle units that each have their own abilities on the battlefield. You’re ability to build these units is dictated by how strong and developed your base is; so don’t expect to be upgrading your soldiers with RPG launches if you only have one reactor.
When building your base you have to ensure you have a steady flow of supplies coming from a Supply Pad. These supplies are used to upgrade and build units and are coupled with reactor technology to achieve more powerful upgrades. The base system highlights the importance of a tactical approach in the battlefield, as simply going in with a full army probably won’t win you a battle. You have to be able to maintain a steady flow of supplies and upgrades to counter destroyed units as there’s nothing worse than losing a whole bunch of soldiers in the heat of battle. The more Supply Pad’s you build at your base, the more supplies that are coming in and the more often you can upgrade your base, research new technologies and train new soldiers. A Supply Pad may be the cheapest building to get up and running at your base, but it may very well be the most integral part to your success, especially in multiplayer.
While the single-player campaign offers a welcoming new spin on the console RTS experience, Halo Wars just wouldn’t be a true Halo experience if it didn’t have a solid multiplayer offering. Thankfully, it does. The most encouraging aspect of the multiplayer is that you can play as the Covenant, which you unfortunately can’t do in the single-player campaign. There are no standout differences between the UNSC and Covenant in multiplayer and you’ll notice that a lot of the Alien units are similar to the UNSC ones, bar a different title. There’s the basic matchmaking system that looks almost exactly the same as the system in Halo 3 and it runs pretty smoothly even with a good online population. You can also play skirmish against local friends against AI opponents and go through the main campaign with a friend in co-op. The final and best mode in multiplayer for Halo Wars is the competitive match, which can be played in 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 modes across 14 maps.
While the single-player campaign is enjoyable and very accessible, the more intense feeling of the multiplayer experience really highlights how far away from the real RTS experience the actual game is. Because you’ll most likely be playing against veteran RTS gamers when you go online, the experience changes completely and differs immensely from what you’ll get playing single-player. The game really holds your hand and while it offers a new level of enjoyment for the RTS genre through its ease and basic layout, there really isn’t a lot of depth in the gameplay and that may turn-away seasoned RTS gamers.
Halo Wars has some of the best CGI cutscenes we’ve seen all generation, with fantastic character design and voice-acting right across the board. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the scenes, but that’s to be expected in an RTS title. Still, the main story has nothing on previous Bungie outings and while Halo Wars looks and sound like it’s part of the Halo universe, the story definitely doesn’t. However, the development team has done a wonderful job of creating intense and action-packed sequences to drag you in, even if it is a dull story.