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 Review - 'Halo Wars'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 2, 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.
Halo was popular for many reasons. It was a well-polished and graphically exceptional game, with interesting designs and a fun and easy-to-understand story. However, one of the most overlooked and underrated features of Halo was that it truly brought the first-person shooter genre to consoles. Games like Goldeneye and the various console ports of Doom may have given console gamers a taste of the genre, but there weren't any truly console FPSes. Halo changed that by creating a control scheme that was designed around taking advantage of the Xbox controller and the limitations and strengths of the system to create a game everyone could pick up and play. As a result, Halo Wars

has its work cut out for it as it branches out into another console-unfriendly genre: real-time-strategy.

One of the biggest difficulties with a console RTS comes from the controls. There's no way to get around the fact that a console controller just can't compete with a mouse and keyboard when it comes to games that are heavy in micromanagement. Halo Wars makes an admirable effort to create a console-based RTS control scheme, and it works fairly well, although it's not without its flaws. The analog stick moves your pointer around the screen, and the face buttons serve a series of context-sensitive actions. The A button allows you to select your units either by selecting a single unit, double-tapping A to select all of a specific type, or holding A to "paint" a group of commandable units. If you want to select every on-screen unit, the right bumper does this at a touch, and the left bumper will command every valid unit you have in your army. Units that have been selected are further grouped by their specific unit types. Using the right trigger lets you select all of a specific unit type in your group without losing control over the entire bunch, so you can order all of your Marines to a specific location or send your Suicide Grunts to blow up a powerful enemy while your Elites are busy mowing down weaklings.

Once you've selected your units, the X button issues them context-sensitive commands. Tapping the X button on an empty space orders them to move there, clicking on an enemy orders an attack, clicking on an interactive object in the environment triggers it, and so on. You'll have no problems with getting your units to move to a place and do what you want them to do, at least with basic commands. The pathfinding AI is great, so the "point and click" method is quick and easy, and very rarely will it cause your units to do something that you don't want. Most of the units have a special attack that's triggered by a press of the Y button.

The d-pad is a hotkey to four major locations in your army: Army, Base, Leader and Situations of Interest, depending on the direction you press. The Army button lets you cycle through your active swarms of soldiers, Base allows you to cycle through your active bases, and Situations of Interest instantly moves the camera to any major event, usually a fight between your soldiers and enemies. If you're playing as the Covenant, the Leader button moves the camera to your leader, but if you're playing as the UNSC, it opens up a special menu for the Spirit of Fire, which allows you to call down airstrikes or use special abilities.

The problem with the controls is that while they're great for mass rushes, they're not so great for more subtle work. You can split up your army, but commanding more than one unified force is awkward work, and it can fall apart quickly in the face of solidified enemy. Trying to pick a single unit out of the lineup during a hectic battle is frustrating. Most of the time, you'll end up asking for all of a unit type to use up the special attack instead of only the useful ones; otherwise, you'll spend so long trying to finagle the attacks that your moment of opportunity will have passed. For most units, this isn't an issue, but some of the special attacks just don't end up being very useful when you don't have the specific control you'd need. Fortunately, Halo Wars' gameplay is built in such a way that these situations rarely become problematic.

You begin your game by picking one of three leaders for your particular race. The UNSC version is actually split between the Spirit of Fire carrier and the on-the-ground Spartans. You can pick from one of three commanders for the Spirit of Fire: Professor Anders, Commander Cutter or Sergeant Forge. These commanders don't take the field, but they grant different superweapons, special units and passive abilities that can be accessed from the Spirit of Fire menu.

The Spartans are the ones who do the actual fighting. Unlike the Covenant, the UNSC Spartans don't have unique abilities, but they mix this up by allowing you to get three of them at a time, none of which count against your unit cap. A Spartan is like a soldier on steroids. Armed with more powerful weapons and equipped with energy shields, they're quite tough, but their ability to jack vehicles really takes the cake. Spartans can jack and take command of vehicles from either friend or foe, and any jacked vehicle functions at a much higher level of power. Even if the vehicle is destroyed, the Spartan survives unscathed so you can continue the fight on foot or head off to jack another vehicle.

Covenant leaders are a bit different. Unlike the UNSC leadership, they prefer to take a more hands-on approach to combat, so your Covenant leaders actually take the battlefield. There are three choices: The Arbiter, The Brute Chieftain or the Prophet of Regret. You get a Covenant leader for free as soon as you build a temple, and you can only have one of them at a time, but they tend to be ridiculously powerful and can easily take down multiple enemies. In addition to being extremely powerful units, each Covenant leader also has a special power that is on par with some of the UNSC superweapons. These can be activated at the touch of a button and are player-controlled, allowing you to focus the damage on the targets of your choice. Each Covenant leader also gets the ability to deploy a unit that's unique to that particular leader.

Once you've chosen a leader, you have to build a base. In Halo Wars, you have very little freedom about where to build bases; each map has a few pre-designated base locations, each of which is usually guarded by a weak AI-controlled enemy. Kill the AI-controlled enemy, and the base location becomes yours. For both the Covenant and the UNSC, once you capture a base location, you can begin building structures on your bases. A base is comprised of the primary base and the various upgrade structures that you build around it. The bases each have a set number of slots that you can use to build structures, and once your base is full, you can't build anything else there. This plays into the fact that the only way to get money, beyond the occasional resource box scattered around the map, is to build supply pads (or warehouses, for the Covenant). Each supply pad increases the resources you take in, but it also takes up a base slot, so balancing your income with a practical base requires a bit of thought. Each structure on the base functions as its own individually targeted part, which allows players to cripple certain parts of the enemy's supply line with careful strikes. However, destroying the center of the base destroys everything attached to the base, which can be far more efficient in the long run than trying to micromanage your enemy's defeat. Each base also has four "turret slots," which allow you to deploy up to four turrets to hold off your enemy's assaults.

The most important feature on your base is your tech building. For the UNSC, this is a reactor, while the Covenant has a temple. A tech building upgrades the tech of your army, which in turn allows you to make more powerful units or research higher-level upgrades. The UNSC gains one tech level per reactor, up to a maximum of four, and each reactor takes up one slot, although they can be upgraded for a fairly substantial cost to provide two tech per reactor. You can only build one Covenant temple, but it can be upgraded twice to provide more tech, and unlike the UNSC, the Covenant maxes out at three tech per temple. For either race, the tech building is the primary weakness of the base because if you lose it, your tech level drops and you lose the ability to build higher-level units, along with any upgrades and effects.

The base idea is fairly neat in concept, but it limits your strategies. The limited number of maps means that everyone knows where all the base locations are right off the bat, so there is little chance of surprising an enemy or coming up with interesting supply lines. Allowing you to attack different parts of an enemy's base is interesting, but it only gets played up if you decide to focus on an enemy's reactor or shield generator. Otherwise, it's generally faster and more efficient to just take down the base, which nukes anything attached to it. You may not know the enemy's forces, but you know its exact location, which means that many fights are going to play out in the same way no matter what.

Both the Covenant and the UNSC have a fairly wide selection of potential units in one of four types: air, infantry, uber or vehicle. Infantry units are your men on the ground: elites, grunts, jackals and marines. In Halo Wars, infantry units are the cheapest and easiest to upgrade. Vehicle units are ground-based machines, such as the Warthog, Ghost or Scorpion Tank; they tend to be heavily armed and armored, but they're more expensive than infantry troops. Air units are, of course, units that fly, with the Banshee, Wraith, and other flying units making up the bulk of this class. These units tend to be very strong and fast but balance that out by being less armored and more expensive than their ground-based counterparts. Each unit type in Halo Wars has a rock-paper-scissors element: infantry beats air, air beats vehicle, and vehicle beats infantry. To mix this up, however, there are also uber units. Each side has exactly one uber unit: the UNSC Vulture and the Covenant Scarab. These units are the cream of the crop and the most powerful machines available to either side. They are extremely costly, both in resources and in the number of unit slots they take up. There are also a few special units, such as anti-air vehicles or anti-infantry soldiers, but most of your troops are going to be one of these four types.

It's always difficult to judge a game's balance before the world has managed to get its hands on it, but what I played of Halo Wars made me a bit hesitant to call the multiplayer well-balanced. Certain units seemed overpowered, and I can say that I won fights that I should've lost based entirely on the power of these units. Other units seemed nearly worthless, and it felt bizarre to believe that I should be investing money in these units instead of far more effective ones. It could turn out that these units are not as ridiculous as they appear at first glance, but every attempt to use them in an online game was met with the same result. Since Halo Wars doesn't have a particularly massive selection of units in the first place, it has the unfortunate side effect of causing a lot of battles become repetitive. It grew very frustrating when the rock-paper-scissors triangle was basically thrown out the window in favor of massive rushes of the same few units, punctuated by the occasional superweapon attack.

The bulk of your time in the game is going to be spent in online multiplayer, which takes place on a handful of maps, either in Standard or Deathmatch mode. Everything is set to default in the Standard mode, and Deathmatch mode begins both sides with hefty resources and tech levels to encourage fast and brutal games. Players can choose to go one-on-one or work together to take down opponents in multiplayer team matches. The maps are interesting, but there are only a handful of available maps, and you're going to see them all very quickly. This can be a problem when the pre-set bases come into play, forcing people to play matches in almost identical ways each time. There are some fairly interesting twists, such as one level, where the NPC Flood are an enemy who can be unleashed on the map to swarm an enemy base, but these twists are more interesting in concept than execution. Whatever time you spend mucking around trying to release the Flood would be better spent simply building up your forces.

Aside from multiplayer mode, Halo Wars offers both Skirmish mode and a single-player campaign. Skirmish is basically multiplayer, but against AI opponents instead of humans. It's useful for players who want to brush up their Covenant skills or learn the maps before leaping into the maw of online play, but it won't provide as interesting a challenge as a human mind. The single-player campaign is a bit more involved, and it's where most of the gameplay is going to be for those who don't want to battle online. It follows the story of the Spirit of Fire, a UNSC carrier that is assigned to help liberate the planet Harvest from the Covenant forces. While battling the enemy, the Spirit of Fire's crew discovers that two Covenant leaders, the Prophet of Regret and the Arbiter (not the one from Halo 2) have found a mysterious Forerunner artifact that could lead them to a secret weapon capable of overwhelming any remaining human resistance.

The 15-level Halo Wars campaign is interesting in that it offers a few twists and turns that you won't encounter in the multiplayer mode. First and foremost, you don't get to select your leaders; instead, the game provides you with various units and abilities from all three of the UNSC leaders, depending on the stage. The game centers on Sergeant Forge, who is your "man on the ground." Functionally, Forge is a grunt marine, but he also happens to be immortal. If he's defeated, he'll remain on the ground until another ally moves near him for a short period of time, which brings him right back to his feet. Likewise, you won't get free access to Spartans as you will in the multiplayer campaign. Instead, they'll be special units that show up from time to time, with unique names and equipment. Like Forge, they're also unbeatable; lose a Spartan, and he or she will just get right back up again.

The primary difference is that the 15-level campaign is built around a series of various gimmicks and special challenges, as opposed to straight-up fights. No two levels are the same. One stage has you guarding retreating civilians as they evacuate to transports, while the Covenant do everything to ensure that no human escapes alive. Another may have you trying to find a way to destroy a giant Covenant superlaser, rescue stranded troopers from the infectious Flood, or set up a bombardment of powerful plasma attacks that can break through a Covenant energy barrier.

In addition to the primary objectives, each stage will also offer a trio of other objectives. Completing simple bonus objectives earns you a higher score in the level and sometimes makes the stage easier, but it isn't required to finish the stage. Each level has a unique Achievement requirement that somehow plays into the gimmick of the stage, such as using a Warthog to kill 100 grunts by ramming into them. Skull objectives, which are special cheats you can unlock during the game, can have a benefit or detriment to your army. Any beneficial Skulls will lower your score at the end of a stage, but any that you activate to make your life harder will reward you with a higher score so it's easier to get a good ranking on that stage.

Halo Wars' campaign is enjoyable, but it is far too short. Most of the stages can be finished very quickly, and the overall campaign probably won't last more than six to eight hours, assuming you don't have too much trouble with a mission. Once you're done, however, there isn't much left. Going for the high score will appeal to some, but those who are looking for a challenge that doesn't involve self-imposed limits will find their options shockingly limited. The lack of a playable Covenant campaign really sticks out like a sore thumb, and it leaves the game feeling half-complete. The game offers an online co-op mode, where two players can join together to take on the Covenant, but beating up on the AI together is a limited thrill. If you're not planning to take the gameplay online, Halo Wars should probably be a rental, since it lacks the variation and replay value necessary to really hold someone's attention for very long.

Halo Wars is a fun, if unexceptional, real-time strategy title. It does many things right and a few things wrong, but nothing about Halo Wars really stands out except for the fact that it provides a surprisingly solid RTS on a console. The controls work well enough for what the game asks you to do, the gameplay is quick and easy to pick up, and most of the interface has been extremely streamlined to allow for quick and intense matches. It feels weird to phrase it as such, but Halo Wars is very a much a beer-and-pretzel RTS, the kind of game you pick up to play with friends, and in that regard, it has succeeded surprisingly well. Unfortunately, it lacks the depth and variation to make it stand out as an RTS, and potential repetition and balance problems could make the online play less fun than Halo was for new fans. Halo Wars didn't quite succeed at making an RTS that functions as well as a PC game, but it's an admirable effort, and it is certainly the closest that an RTS console game has come to success in recent memory.

Score: 7.7/10

 


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