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Halo Wars

Platform(s): Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: March 3, 2009 (US), Feb. 27, 2009 (EU)

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Xbox 360 Preview - 'Halo Wars'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 27, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m. PST

Halo Wars is a new strategy title that expands on the universe that has made the Halo franchise so beloved and provide gamers with an unparalleled strategy experience. Set in the Halo universe, Halo Wars predates the original first-person shooter Halo, giving fans the opportunity to experience the early battles between the UNSC and Covenant, as they follow the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire's discovery of an ancient artifact during a journey to the planet "Harvest," the first planet to be attacked by the Covenant.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: March 3, 2009 (U.S.) / February 27, 2008 (EU/JP/AU)

Halo Wars does not feature Master Chief. It doesn't even mention him, except for a few offhand references that only the most dedicated of Halo fans will notice. Halo Wars finally shows us what the rest of the universe was doing prior to Master Chief's great adventure, following the story of the battleship Spirit of Fire and three of the humans stationed onboard: Professor Anders, Sergeant Forge and the ship's Captain Cutter. While attempting to take the planet Harvest back from the alien Covenant forces, they stumble upon a mysterious Forerunner relic that the Covenant has excavated; the relic leads them on a wild chase across the galaxy to discover why the Covenant wants it so badly. Along the way, they match wits with the Arbiter and the Prophet of Regret, two of the Covenant's most powerful and dedicated soldiers.

Unlike the rest of the franchise, Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game that places you in control of all the soldiers you fought alongside as Master Chief — the expendable cannon fodder, basically. As with most console RTSes, Halo Wars tries to find ways around the lack of hotkeys and mouse and keyboard, with a surprising amount of success. Movement is quick and easy, with your thumbstick guiding a cursor and allowing you to select units with extreme ease. Pressing the A button selects a single unit, while double-tapping A selects all units of the same type as the selected unit. Holding A creates a small bubble to highlight any unit you choose and group them together. The right bumper selects every unit on-screen, and the left bumper selects every valid unit under your control.

You issue commands by pressing the X button, which is context-sensitive. Press it on empty space to order your selected units to move there, on an enemy to order them to attack, or on a garrison to hide your units inside. Pressing the Y button orders units to perform their special moves, which can range from a powerful grenade to an EMP blast, self-destruct or even vehicle hijacking. You can order everything you've selected to perform a special move, or press the right trigger to cycle through each unit type to order them to use their special moves. The d-pad functions as "hotkeys" to move your camera to specific major events; down switches the camera between your armies, left cycles between bases, right pulls the camera to situations of interest, and up activates the Spirit of Fire menu to use special abilities summoned from your carrier.

Your primary goal in every level will be to establish at least one base, although some levels reward you with Achievements and extra points if you can survive without doing this. Bases are the center of your army, and without them, you're almost helpless. Each base is built around a central command surrounded by build spaces and turret spaces" This command center is the heart of the base, and if it's destroyed, so is the entire base. The build spaces function as locations for you to build various structures that let you start up an army. You can build something on any of the available spaces, and once something is built there, it's connected to the command center. Build spaces are extremely limited so it's simply not possible to build everything you need on a single base, even if you use every single square.

Perhaps the most important usage of build spaces is to gather resources, which are the monetary unit in Halo Wars, so you'll want a hefty supply. By building a supply pad, you receive a free shipment of resources from orbital drop carriers. As long as you have a supply pad, these resources keep coming, and the more pads you have, the faster the resources come. This is perhaps the greatest balancing act in Halo Wars: Each pad you build increases the money you have, but it also decreases the number of slots you can use for other things. Each pad can also be upgraded, which increases the output but costs even more money. The Covenant has a matching building called the warehouse that functions in the exact same way, with the same advantages and limitations.

The second most important space goes to your reactor, which determines the tech level of your army. A tech level, in turn, determines what you can and can't build. Having one reactor gives you a tech level of 1, which allows you to start training your troops or improving your supply pads. Each successive tech level grants you more potential upgrades, but at an increasingly greater cost. Each reactor only gives one tech level, and to get more, you have to build more reactors or upgrade an existing one. Both are expensive propositions, and the only way to make it cheaper is to waste valuable build spaces on reactors instead of upgrading existing ones. Reactors are vulnerable targets; if they're destroyed, you lose the associated tech level until you rebuild, which can be devastating if you're trying to launch a counterattack on an enemy.

Finally, you get to the buildings that let you actually fight. You can create a handful of buildings, each of which specializes in a specific unit type. Barracks create ground-based infantry troopers, vehicle factories create tanks and other powerful vehicles, and air pads create flying units. Each unit type in Halo Wars has a rock-paper-scissors element: infantry beats air, air beats vehicle, and vehicle beats infantry. There are some unique units, such as anti-air vehicles, that you can use to switch this up. The buildings can also be used to upgrade units with more powerful abilities, assuming you have the requisite resources and tech.

Perhaps the most unique unit in the human army is the Spartans, of whom Halo's Master Chief is the last and greatest. The Chief doesn't make an appearance in Halo Wars, but his fellow Spartans do. They're incredibly powerful and armed with regenerating shields, so they're very hard to kill. They can equip machine guns, chain guns, or even the Spartan Laser, which only augments their killing power. They can even use a special ability jack to hijack an enemy vehicle (as long as it isn't a Scarab or Vulture, which is immune) and bring it to your side. You can also have a Spartan commandeer a friendly vehicle, which places him in the driver's seat and boosts the vehicle's attack power and effectiveness. The only downside is that you can only have three Spartans at a time, but the number doesn't count against your unit limit, so even if you're maxed out, you can still have a squadron of Master Chiefs. In the single-player campaign, you can't summon Spartans, but the game provides them as the plot dictates. The single-player Spartans are unkillable; if they lose all their health, they get knocked down until a friendly unit stands by them, at which point they get up again, ready to finish the fight.

The 15-level Halo Wars campaign takes you to many different locales, ranging from the besieged planet of Harvest to a distant Forerunner planet that houses ancient technologies. Your primary character in the single-player game is Sergeant Forge, who functions as a special unit not seen in multiplayer mode. He's basically a Marine, but with better stats; like the Spartans, he is unkillable and can be revived as long as someone stands nearby. Taking command of Forge, you're tasked with completing a number of objectives. One mission has you destroying a powerful Super Scarab unit, which sweeps a deadly spotlight across the battlefield. You have to avoid this spotlight and move your troops into position to destroy it before the Scarab's deadly plasma cannon burns through the slim defenses protecting your only base. The entire time, you're fighting off Covenant troops and vehicles. Each mission has a special gimmick that you have to figure out, and not all of them are going to be as "easy" as destroying an immobile superweapon.

Beyond your primary mission objectives, Halo Wars also grants you a lot of bonus objectives. Optional objectives appear from time to time during the mission and often exist to make the level easier on you. Completing them can extend the time you have to complete an objective, weaken a foe, or simply grant you access to new and more powerful units. You don't have to complete them to finish the stage, but doing so earns you more points and a higher ranking. Achievement objectives don't give you any in-game rewards but grant you gamer points. Skull objectives unlock new features and options, including the ability to "cheat," which is not universally beneficial. Most Skull-unlocked cheats have an effect on your score, so if you choose something that makes your units more powerful, your score takes a hit, preventing you from getting a Gold medal. Choose something that makes them weaker, and you get a score multiplier, which can make things a lot easier, assuming you can survive with weakened units.

You'll also find that the Covenant is not your only threat in Halo Wars' single-player campaign. As the story progresses, you'll come across some familiar Halo enemies: the Flood and the remnants of Forerunner technology. Neither of these races is playable, but they're not a picnic to encounter. The Flood are very reminiscent of the Zerg from Starcraft and are built around organic structures and massive swarms of weak enemies. While they're fairly easy to kill, the pure number of Flood you encounter can be overwhelming. The Flood buildings are also impossible to destroy with human technology; the best you can do is knock them down, which causes them to become dormant until they regenerate. The Forerunner technology remnants are rare and powerful foes that show up whenever the Flood does. The Forerunner's goal is to destroy the Flood infection, but the easiest way to do this is to wipe out every living creature in the vicinity — including your troops. You'll rarely have to fight them because they're more worried about the Flood infection than your troops.

Once you've finished the single-player campaign (or if you're tired of crushing the AI), you can pop over to Halo Wars' Skirmish mode, which is the real meat of the gameplay. Skirmish mode can be played either multiplayer or against AI opponents and lets you take control of the human or Covenant armies. You can play 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3, in standard mode or Deathmatch, which isn't quite what it was in Halo. Deathmatch begins the round with a ridiculous amount of money, a maximum tech level for all sides and all upgrades. Everyone starts on an equal level, which allows for a very quick and brutal game.

In Skirmish mode, the human forces are fairly different from how they function in the campaign. You'll choose from one of three army leaders: Professor Anders, Captain Cutter or Sergeant Forge. Each one brings a distinct playing style to your army, which grants you a number of unique abilities. Each leader has a special attack that he can call down from the Spirit of Fire, specially customized units and a passive power. Picking the right leader can bring you victory, while the wrong leader can lead to ignoble defeat. These leaders don't drop onto the battlefield like in single-player mode, so the choice won't grant you an extra unit.

Professor Anders is the choice for those who prefer to use a bit more finesse in their tactics. She gains access to the powerful flying Hawk unit, which grants her air superiority, and the tricky Gremlin, which is an EMP machine that takes out any non-infantry units. She can also call down Cryo-Bomb strikes, which don't do much damage but freeze everything within a certain range, which is devastating to anything that's in the air. Her biggest advantage is her passive power, which cuts in half the costs and research times for unit upgrades, allowing her army to reach its full potential much faster than another leader's forces.

Captain Cutter is all about Marines. He has a unique unit, the Elephant, which allows you to deploy Marines from anywhere and can upgrade Marines to the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, who can be dropped from orbit to anywhere on the planet. He also has access to a Magnetic Accelerator Cannon, which can fire guided blasts on enemy targets; upgrades allow you to fire up to four extremely powerful targeted blasts. He also begins with extra building slots on bases, which means you can get your troops up and running faster than usual.

Sergeant Forge, the main character of the campaign, is focused on brute strength. Under his command, your forces gain the powerful Grizzly supertank, which is one of the most powerful units available, and the Cyclops-powered armor, which is great for building destruction and repairing damaged buildings. Forge can also call down a Carpet Bomb, which isn't quite as impressive as a MAC but still devastating to enemy forces. Perhaps his biggest advantage is that Forge's Supply Bases all begin as upgraded Heavy Supply Bases, which means he earns money faster and doesn't have to spend as much to start earning.

Humanity in Halo may be facing an alien threat, but that doesn't mean that it's going to be a pushovers. Human weapons are made for killing things, and they're darn good at it. As far as the two playable races in Halo Wars go, humans are the powerhouses. They lack the powerful shield technology of the Covenant, but their weaponry makes up for that. Humans are slow to get started, but they're juggernauts once they do. Their major disadvantage is that they can't take damage as well as the Covenant, even if their individual units are stronger.

The Covenant, on the other hand, gets by on superior manpower instead of technology. That may seem a bit odd, considering their habit of using advanced plasma weapons and personal shield technology, but human technology may be less flashy but is more effective. The Covenant base unit cap is higher, so they can deploy more units on the field at once, but its units are a bit weaker, so you need those extra units to make up the difference. Covenant mecha also have greater access to energy shields, which in turn allows them to sustain a bit more damage as long as their shields are up. The end result is that the Covenant is a more defensive race. They also can't build up technology as quickly as the humans, as they're limited to only a single temple instead of multiple reactors.

However, the Covenant has one particularly large advantage: While human forces issue commands from their orbiting carriers, Covenant leaders take to the battlefield. Before a game begins, players can pick from one of three leaders: the Arbiter, the Brute Chieftain or the Prophet of Regret. Once a Covenant base has built a temple, your leader takes the field and becomes the centerpiece of your army. Each leader also brings a unique type of buildable unit that's only available when that leader is in command, much like the special units available to human leaders.

The Prophet of Regret is a fairly heavy hitter. He has a built-in plasma cannon, which can be upgraded to a heavy Fuel Rod Gun, and a hoverchair that can eventually fly. He can call down an orbital laser beam that can be guided by the player. However, like all Covenant leader abilities, this beam costs a ridiculous amount of resources per second and should be used sparingly. The Prophet also gains access to the Elite Honor Guard, who is a unique unit that is only armed with swords but has the ability to cloak.

Compared to the other two leaders, the Brute Chieftain is all about … well, brute force. He's armed with the powerful Gravity Hammer and uses it to crush anything in his path. He also can create a powerful Vortex field that drags in anything nearby into a crushing gravity well; it can also be detonated to send anything it has gathered, be it debris or unlucky soldier, flying outward to cause damage to anything nearby. While the Chieftain is a powerful ally, his biggest advantage is that he gives players access to the Brute and Brute Chopper units. Brutes are brutally powerful foes, equipped with huge guns and jump packs. The Chopper is the vehicle version of a Brute: big, brutal and capable of crushing anything in its path.

The Arbiter (not the same one as in other Halo games) is basically a super version of the Prophet of Regret's Elite Honor Guard. Armed with a sword and capable of cloaking, he can reflect damage upon enemies and become capable of permanent cloaking. He can activate a brutal Rage Mode at the cost of resources, turning him and nearby allies into a whirling dervish of destruction. His special units are Suicide Grunts, who function much like the Covenant's most basic unit, except they have the ability to blow themselves up for very substantial damage.

Once a player has chosen a side, he is thrown into one of the game's many maps. Some of the maps are brand new, but there are also some familiar Halo favorites in the mix. Those looking to recreate their favorite fight in Blood Gulch will be quite pleased to discover that it has made its way to Halo Wars almost unchanged, although there are some concessions to the difference in gameplay.

Multiplayer gameplay tends to be very quick and brutal, with both sides rushing to gather extra bases and stop the opposing side. While your primary enemies are the other side, there are a few scattered nonplayable factions on some maps, who primarily exist to be something you have to destroy in order to get a new base. You can't simply run to base locations, even at the very start. If you want those extra building slots, you're going to have to fight for them and hope the other side doesn't get there first. Victory comes to those who wipe out the other side's home bases without losing their own.

Indeed, Halo Wars is Halo as an RTS. Everything you can do in Halo can be mimicked, in some regard, in Halo Wars, be it hijacking vehicles, sneaking up behind unsuspecting soldiers with a plasma sword, or blowing an enemy emplacement with a tank. Halo Wars is shaping up to be a solid title, with an interesting unit balance and gameplay that's easy to pick up. The controls are solid, if not yet a match for anything that a keyboard and mouse can offer, and even inexperienced strategy gamers should have no trouble picking up the minutia in a few rounds. Anyone interested in the Halo universe or looking for a fun RTS will want to check out Halo Wars when it hits stores.


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