The chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know all about Halo, and the franchise needs no introduction, so I’m not going to bore you with lore and facts about the trilogy. All you need to know is that this game is based 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved, and you see the war from the perspective of Sgt. Forge of the UNSC. What you will want to know, however, is how the game plays, if it feels good and if Ensemble has cracked the RTS genre on the console.
Ensemble Studios is regarded as the RTS king, and although Halo Wars is the last title it were tasked with before being dropped by Microsoft, one has to credit them for not bastardising Bungie’s original game. I decided to play through some of the more memorable levels again briefly before writing this, as well as re-visiting the beautiful cinematic cut-scenes just to make sure I had everything I needed. That was four hours ago.
One of Ensemble’s biggest tasks was making the RTS genre accessible on a console. What it’s managed to do is create a button mapping system for the 360 works. Pheoohsscrease bu left thumb stick moves you about the map, while the right thumb stick zooms you in and out of the map. Clicking the right thumb stick will reset your view.The left bumper selects all your units on the map, and the right bumper selects all the units on the screen. You can also flick through the grouped units using the right trigger, or you can select your own set of grouped units by holding down the A button which cunningly produces a circle that selects all the units within it’s diameter. The X button is the action button, or the conventional left mouse button; while the Y button is the special attack button, meaning that units, if equipped, will deal a deadly special attack on the enemy. The d-pad is used for cycling through different locations, jumping from base to base or army to army.
Despite seeming somewhat complicated in the written form, the controls are almost perfectly intuitive, and within five minutes you’ll find yourself rinsing the map and commanding units as if you’d been playing RTSs on consoles ever since consoles were conceived.
It doesn’t stop there though. Halo has a very distinctive feel. The music, the environments and the characters are all iconic Xbox classics, resonating deep chords with the hardcore Halo fan, leaving Ensemble with another mammoth task.
You’ll be glad to hear then the environments, the vehicles, the music and even the menus all scream Halo, comforting fans and cuddling them into the game’s bosom, almost whispering “Don’t worry, I’ve not changed really.”
From the offset you’re immersed into a familiar surrounding with the familiar Covenant using familiar weapons to foil your plans of suppression. Seeing the Banshees screaming over head, tracking the Ghosts ripping up the terrain, distracting the Scarabs so as to ambush them, or even watching the Wraiths closing in on your cornered units for the first time is brilliant. It’s a warm feeling, and an even warmer, nearly wet, feeling when you send your Spartans to hijack any of the above vehicles to use against your enemy. And any vehicle is fair game, as long as you have some Spartans spare. Oh, except the Scarab. Which is a shame. But hey, you couldn’t hijack in the FPS trilogy anyway.
So, Halo universe authenticity…check.
Every RTS game needs to have a rock-paper-scissor hierarchy, and Halo Wars is no different. The basis here is, whichever side you’re fighting (which only applies to the multiplayer and we’ll get around to that in a minute), infantry beats aircraft, aircraft beats vehicles and vehicles beat infantry. Obviously there are exceptions, such as the flamethrower infantry, which are more effective against other infantry units. As with any RTS you need to know your enemy and what they are most vulnerable to.
And as we’re talking about the general rules of RTS games, we can’t discount the resources, those things that enable you to expand your base and your army. Unlike other RTS games, you don’t have to spend time finding and gathering resources in order to increase your army. Instead you build a Supply building, which does exactly that; supplies you with resources to build more armies and buildings. As long as this building still stands, you will receive a constant stream of supplies. You can, if you wish, collect supplies scattered across the map (as well as skulls which unlock special bonuses) Obviously there are other buildings, such as barracks, vehicle depots and the like which produce all of the tools you need to overcome the Covenant. You do have a population cap, however, so building a ridiculously large army to overwhelm your opponent is impossible. Understanding which units are more effective against others, or which units to spend time and resources upgrading is vital. Having said this however, it sometimes feels that it doesn’t matter which units you have at your disposal, they’ll do the job regardless.
It can also be a little too easy to build multiple Supply buildings giving you ludicrously large amounts of resources that can be used to continually research new technologies, replenish lost units or upgrade buildings. Incidentally, initiating these upgrades or researching the technologies couldn’t be easier. Using the A button to select the building a circular menu pops up offering you either upgrades or units to train. Simply moving the left thumb stick to the relevant icon and clicking A again is all you need to do to get things going. The same menu is used when you’re calling in special weapons from the mothership, Spirit of Fire, which supports the troops on the ground with MAC blasts, Cryo Bombs and healing powers which can all be extremely useful if you find yourself in a spot of bother.
What Halo does beautifully, as it’s always done, is tell the story with urgency and feeling. The cut scenes are incredibly watchable with smooth animations. You’re given the chance to see the events that lead to the events in Halo: Combat Evolved by being privy to the conversations between the Prophet of Regret and the infamous Arbiter. Not only is the story engaging, it’s visually enchanting. I won’t go into detail, because I think it’s important for fans to experience this first hand, but if you miss any of the cut scenes you can watch them again from the main menu when you finish the level. Either watch them one by one, or watch them all back to back like a mini-movie, it’s up to you, but you must watch them if you are at all interested in the lore.
No matter how many times you watch them though, there is always that feeling of disappointment that you can’t play through the main campaign as the Covenant after completing the main game. Now I understand that the story is linear, and I understand that you’d have to lose if you were playing the Covenant, but surely there are battles the Covenant were winning, and surely a different story line could be pursued. This, to me, is one of the game’s greatest flaws, and what makes it more upsetting is that I walked through the game in just over eight hours. Now before you scream and shout, yes, I have played the multiplayer, and yes you can play the Covenant and yes, it is amazing in multiplayer mode, but it’s not enough.
Playing the Covenant gives you a whole range of different upgrades, some amazing weapons, and a richer gaming experience and it’s a trick that’s been missed. Couple this with the short walk-through time and the sometimes repetitive gameplay and Halo Wars loses some that charm which it so eloquently drew you in with.
In addition to this some maps are tedious and don’t vary too much from other missions you’ve already played. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game had tens of missions, but with only 15 missions, it’s a little bit of a shame.
This doesn’t mean that the game is bad, it just means that it’s not perfect, and what game is? What we have to remember is that this is an RTS game that works on the console and does justice to a beloved franchise. This game IS Halo and Ensemble have delivered where it counts. Now that the RTS format has been cracked, I have a sneaky suspicion that this game will be just as successful online as Halo 3 was. It will keep you hooked, it will demand and expect you to know your units and it will allow you to engage in some epic battles. The question is, will you come back to it again and again. I think you will, and for a last offering from Ensemble on an IP that wasn’t even theirs, it’s a pretty impressive offering and deserved to be one of our most anticipated games of this year.