It’s a little sad, really, knowing that Halo Wars is Ensemble Studios’ last project. It just goes to show how much confidence Microsoft has in the development studio, handing the creators of Age of Empires and Age of Mythology the keys to one of their most prized franchises. The final task at hand is a challenging one for the real-time strategy specialists: to create a game that will not only engage strategy purists as they’re introduced to the Halo universe, but also appeal to the millions of trigger happy Halo fans who might not ever have played a game in the genre before. Will everyone go home happy? Let’s find out.
Halo Wars has a number of things going for it. For starters, it’s identifiable. From the moment the signature menu system loads, there’s no denying you’re playing a Halo game. Halo fans will instantly recognize the human UNSC and alien Covenant units, from infantry troops like Marines, Spartans, Jackals and Hunters, to vehicles like the Warthog and Scorpion, Wraiths and Scarabs. There’s an assortment of new units on both sides as well, more so for the UNSC than the Covenant, including ground units like the Flamethrower and Cyclops, and vehicles like the Cobra, Wolverine and Gremlin. Leading the Covenant charge are the Prophet of Regret, the Brute Chieftain and the Arbiter, while newcomers Captain Cutter, Sergeant Forge and Professor Anders lead the UNSC.
The authenticity extends to the environments on which you’ll skirmish, the battle cry of the various infantry units, the sound effects for the different weapons and vehicles, and even to some familiar music tracks. The presentation is definitely top notch, highlighted by some amazing cutscenes. Even the infamous Halo skulls make an appearance, hidden across the battlefields waiting to be found and have a favorable or unfavorable affect on your mission score. In fact, the only thing missing from Halo Wars is Master Chief himself, but Halo Wars takes place twenty years before the events in Halo: Combat Evolved and so his absence is not unexpected.
The other thing Halo Wars has going for it is accessibility. The controls in particular are streamlined to allow virtually anybody to pick up and play this game. Whether it’s building your base, discovering resources or giving orders to your units to move and attack, it’s all very simplified; even a little too much so. For instance when you select units you can either select an individual unit, select local units (units on screen) or select all units at the push of a button. And when you select all your units you can then cycle through them to single out a specific unit type in order to activate its secondary ability or have it break away from the group. However there’s no easy way to create and manage small groups of units without cheating the system (two of one unit type and two of another, for example). Additionally, veteran strategy gamers are sure to feel constrained by the inability to set rally points for individual unit types among other, more advanced maneuvers. Ultimately, while the controls compliment the controller well and hold great appeal to newcomers to the RTS genre, strategy gamers venturing over from their PCs might not appreciate the simplicity quite so much.
It’s quite common for real-time strategy games to fuse role-playing or action elements into gameplay and Halo Wars is no exception, offering a decidedly combat-oriented experience. Other tasks, like resource management, are kept to a minimum. Simply build a Supply Pad or Warehouse and you’re off to the races, though you’ll want to keep an eye out for resource dumps around the battlefield. The added boost of capital could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Base building is equally manageable. You never have to worry about scouting out locations for your next base. These areas are pre-selected and so all you have to do is choose amongst the available sites. This makes finding your base in the heat of battle much less of a hassle as well. Last but not least, the tech tree in Halo Wars is of decent size but you’d be surprised how quickly you can climb up it and max out your tech, which leaves a lot of unit flogging through the second half of missions.
Halo Wars excels in multiplayer. The single player campaign is a fair length, but I couldn’t help but feel as though it was more like an extended tutorial for the UNSC. The real test comes online when you skirmish in Standard, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes. Multiplayer is also where you’ll get your first taste of commanding Covenant forces, which can be a little awkward at first. Not that the Covenant are better or worse than the UNSC – the two sides are actually balanced really well – it’s just that there’s no Covenant single player campaign and so you have to do all your learning on the fly. I definitely think there was a missed opportunity to include a Covenant storyline in single player. Rounding out multiplayer support is the ability to play through the campaign co-operatively, which is fast becoming a welcome trend in the RTS genre.
At the end of the day, thanks to its authenticity, accessibility, action-oriented gameplay and multiplayer suite, Halo Wars holds great appeal for Halo fans and newcomers to the RTS genre. Strategy purists, on the other hand, particularly those familiar with Ensemble Studios’ previous titles, I’m not so sure about. The simplicity of the experience might be a little off-putting for those of you. I can just see my fellow writer Phil Soletsky rolling his eyes if he ever got the chance to play this game. Having said that, Halo Wars is arguably the best real-time strategy entry on a console to date. With it we bid farewell to Ensemble Studios while welcoming in a new era of Halo games.