Name: Halo Wars
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Platform: Xbox 360
Back in 2001, Microsoft released Halo, the seminal first-person shooter that proved that the genre, previously dominated by the PC set, could play just as well on consoles. Obviously the plan worked, and the Halo series not only popularized FPSs on consoles, but it also became one of gaming’s most popular and beloved franchises, selling almost 125 million units to date. In recent years, a similar push has been made for the real-time strategy genre. The experiment has had its ups and downs, and for every success (Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2), there have been numerous failures (Universe at War, Supreme Commander). The problem has always been that consoles have received ports of PC RTS games, and converting a mouse and keyboard control scheme to a game controller has proved nigh impossible. With Halo Wars, the spin-off to the renowned FPS series, Microsoft, along with developer Ensemble Studios, looked to avoid these issues by crafting a real-time strategy game specifically for the Xbox 360 console.
Halo Wars takes place roughly 20 years before the events of Halo. The Halo characters you’ve grown used to are nowhere to be found. Instead of the Master Chief, the campaign mode focuses on Sergeant John Forge and his battles in the early years of the war against the Covenant. His journey is certainly an entertaining one, but not terribly impactful to the larger Halo-verse. If Forge serves as an analog for Master Chief, then sassy AI Serina fills in for Cortana, and Commander Cutter replaces Sgt. Avery Johnson as your commanding officer. Everything feels adequately “Halo-ish,” but, as a prequel, it doesn’t (and can’t) carry the emotional weight of the original because, for all intents and purposes, we already know how it’s going to end. Still, the cinematic cut-scenes, which tell the bulk of the game’s story, are beautifully rendered, and give a new perspective on the fictional war.
Like most RTSs, Halo Wars features a Campaign mode, individual skirmishes and online multiplayer battles. Campaign mode follows Sgt. Forge through several missions on various planets throughout the Halo universe. Generally speaking, the campaign consists of base capture missions, escort missions and timed survival missions. They are all fairly short, but the different mission types combine with environmental features like teleporters and Flood spawn-points to create relatively diverse missions that each require specific tactics to defeat. Sadly, there is no campaign for the Covenant side, essentially cutting the single-player experience in half. In skirmish and online modes, however, both factions are available. Online head-to-head play is essential for any decent RTS, and Halo Wars does a fine job with the mode. Playing against an online opponent is not much different than any other mode, but the experience is light on lag. There are only two game modes in multiplayer matchups; deathmatch and A third playable faction, like the Flood, would have been a welcome addition as well, adding not only variety to online matchups, but the possibility of three-way online battles. There is also a co-op mode (playable online or via system-link) that allows you to play with a friend; a rarity for the genre. It works very well, and allows for some strategies that would otherwise be impossible.
Converting a mouse and keyboard control scheme to a console controller is a daunting task. While Halo Wars avoids this by being an Xbox 360 exclusive title, the genre is so deeply entrenched in the realm of PCs that it’s nearly impossible not to think of its controls in PC terms. Ensemble did an admirable job translating standard RTS controls to the 360’s game pad, but long-time strategists will likely feel short-changed by the limited controls. Selecting all of your units is accomplished by pressing the Left Bumper, and selecting all units on-screen is assigned to the Right Bumper. Once a group of units is selected, the right trigger scrolls through the various unit types, allowing you to send a fleet of Hornets or a platoon of Spartans across the board while the rest of your units stay put. Units can also be selected manually by holding the A button and swiping the selection cursor over your desired units. The method is less precise than it should be, however, and most gamers will find it more frustrating than helpful. Once your soldiers are selected, moving and attacking with them is extremely simple. Pressing X anywhere on the map will move your selected units there. Pressing X over an enemy will direct all units to attack that enemy, and pressing Y over one unleashes your units’ special attacks. Ending all of your units to attack one group of opponents is rarely a smart move, though, and utilizing the game’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors” mechanic is paramount to success; ground vehicles are powerful against infantry, infantry is stronger against aircraft, and aircraft dominate ground vehicles. Both factions also have access to Leader attacks, which are massive strikes that do huge damage and often turn the tide of the battle.
For those who love the combat of RTSs, but quickly tire of micromanaging and resource gathering, Halo Wars may be the perfect strategy game. Resource collection has been stripped down and simplified, requiring players to simply build resource centers with the push of a button. Economic management is essentially non-existent, and even technology trees and research methods have all been streamlined as well, offering a fast, combat-heavy experience. This simplification is offset by a ton of content, including optional mission objectives, hidden skulls, and black boxes, which unlock pieces of Halo history, shown on the included Halo Timeline. Perfectionists will have plenty of reasons to go back to missions to find every hidden gem therein, and to get gold medal rankings.
The Halo franchise has always been known for its excellent production values, and Halo Wars is no exception. In addition to the previously mentioned gorgeous cut-scenes, the real-time combat action is always nice looking and occasionally spectacular. Character and vehicle models look great from a distance, and even better up close. What’s more, they animate more smoothly than in any RTS I’ve ever seen, and are even subject to a reasonably believable physics engine. Even more impressive are the environments in which you’ll fight. Despite the levels’ limited size, every inch of terrain is not only beautiful from any distance, but also feels plucked directly from the trilogy of shooters. This feeling of continuity with the rest of the franchise is pervasive, with an appropriately alien color palette, a haunting musical score featuring plenty of chanting, and unit voices and sound effects that are instantly recognizable. The effect even extends beyond the battlefield, with menus and an online matchmaking system that are nearly identical to those found in Halo 3. The only issue with the game’s visuals is a lack of on-screen info about your units. When selected, their unit type and quantity are displayed, and that’s about it. You can check their health by noting the bar over the unit’s head, but when dozens of units are bunched up, these health meters can be almost impossible to read. The ability to see detailed troop stats would have gone a long way toward fleshing out what is a very basic, somewhat shallow game.
It is probable that the version of Halo Wars that we currently have will be the last one; Ensemble Studios has gone out of business, so future DLC is highly unlikely. While the game would have benefited from some specific upgrades, the product as it stands is a good one. It may be too shallow for hardcore RTS fans, but for newcomers to an often overwhelmingly complex genre, it’s a great entry-level title. Microsoft may not have crafted the finest RTS of the year, much less the generation, but they set out to make a fully functional RTS that is optimized for consoles, and in that, they’ve succeeded.