With a new iteration to the Halo universe, it’s hard not to have high expectations. This franchise has arguably made the Xbox. Microsoft has made a brand name staple that is clearly here to stay; however, this time it’s time for Halo to leave Master Chief’s shadow and prove it doesn’t need the lone Spartan to save the day — or does it? Halo Wars attempts to gain support from two clear constituencies: Halo fans and RTS lovers. But at the end of the day, can it appeal to both groups? In short, the answer seems to be yes.
Ensemble has clearly captured the classic Halo feel. Every detail is there from exploding methane tanks on the grunts to the way the suspension works on a warthog. It’s a different type of gameplay, but from a design standpoint it’s exactly what you expect. If you felt Halo’s design wasn’t real enough in the past, this won’t change your mind in the least. It’s all about excitement and some pretty sweet explosions.
In the game there are two playable factions, each with their own unique set of units and powers. All the traditional units from the past Halo games are there: grunts, elites, ghosts, marines, scorpions, etc. Even more interesting are the new entries into the universe. The new units are both exciting and varied, and I can’t help but hope Grizzly Tanks are here to stay. Each faction also has three leaders with different powers and special troops.
The game’s presentation is extremely fluid and well-crafted, and that carries all the way over to the cut scenes and plot. Without going into details, it’s easy to say that you won’t miss Master Chief. The new characters are fairly well developed, and the plot is strong enough to hold your attention. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a Halo title; not quite the next great American tale, but it sure is entertaining. And it helps that the cut scenes look absolutely gorgeous, as CGI rivals just about any other game on the system.
Halo Wars offers two main methods of play: campaign and skirmish. Campaign follows the crew of the Spirit of Fire through 15 missions, and lasts about 8 hours. After you’ve cleared through this, replay value comes in the form of high scores and hidden items. Each mission has a black box with additional info on the Halo Universe, and a skull which serves as a cheat code system of sorts. After you finish each mission you will be rated on how well you did, and are given a medal (4 types in all). This sounds fine and dandy, but it’s almost impossible to not earn the top medal from the start. The game’s biggest flaw is by far the lack of intelligence on the part of the computer AI. At the end of the day your accomplishments mean so much less when they take so little effort to attain. It’s easily accessible for those who are unfamiliar with the RTS genre, but for anyone else there is no challenge at all.
This, unfortunately, carries over into the skirmish game mode. Thankfully, Ensemble added an additional difficulty mode (automatic) to attempt to please their more “hardcore” fans. Ranging from 0 (Is the AI even playing?) to 200 (This is a little harder?) the automatic difficulty adds an additional layer to the AI. When we asked Microsoft, they responded that 100 would be the equivalent for legendary; however, I’ve yet to lose a match and have currently played about 125. Beyond this point I can’t comment, but it still feels quite simple compared to other games where even the most ardent fans can’t compete against the AI without fail.
As far as the RTS elements go, it would be best to classify this as RTS Lite. It plays like a title that’s built for people who are just becoming acquainted with the genre. Gone are the elements of micromanagement from traditional RTS games. This seems like a bad thing at first, but given the genre’s shady history on consoles it makes sense. By removing the micromanagement of resources, players can focus more on the combat and less on trying to make sure particular workers are doing what they should be doing.
Players can also only build at a base location. This limits the amount of buildings you can have which actually ends up adding a bit to the strategy. Instead of just always building more, players have to consider what is the best use of their scarce resources (in this case land) is. It’s that dreaded instance of opportunity cost that everyone is probably still trying to forget from economics classes from school.
The biggest problem I had was that it was nearly impossible to select a single unit. The game offers two main methods of selection, a paintbrush and drop down screen. By holding A and moving the cursor around on screen like a paint brush,, players can select units with which to command. By using LB (all units) and RB (all on-screen units), a menu will come up with which units can be selected by type. The only issue here is when trying to split unit types up (one tank and one anti air one direction, etc.). It’s pretty hard to quickly select units in the heat of battle. Instead, it’s easier to rely on the drop down selection tool, which can only select by unit type. It’s a bit frustrating at times, but as a whole the controls are extremely fluid.
The game offers online co-op for campaign mode, which makes it entirely more interesting. It does, however, pool your resources, which may be frustrating for many players. Ultimately two heads are better than one, allowing for more focus to be placed where needed. And this is Halo; it’s so much more fun crushing grunt skulls with a friend.
Players can also play against human opponents online in skirmish mode. The game offers matches as large as 3 v3 in one of two game modes: traditional skirmish and death match (a high resource match clearly deserving of its name). [I have every reason to expect this feature to be functional at launch, but we were unable to test out the online with anything larger than a 1 v1 match due to the game not being out yet.]
Essentially, Halo Wars plays just like it looks: flashy and exciting. It’s what you would expect from Halo. If you’re looking for some more “real” feeling, then maybe it’s not for you. It’s a fast-paced adventure, and an exciting addition to the Halo universe. It has a few annoyances, but what game doesn’t? For the traditional RTS fan it might feel too watered down, but for everyone else you should be able to play – and enjoy – at your own level.