To the young Xbox 360 gamers who are so often bashed for their foul-mouthed diatribes on Xbox Live, the Halo franchise is the preeminent first-person shooter. To gamers with a slightly more historical game-industry perspective, Halo is one of the few examples of a game that successfully jumped genres. Case in point: Halo Wars.
Halo Wars marks a return to the series’ real-time strategy roots, a “homecoming” of sorts. The irony, of course, is two-fold. First, Halo Wars is returning to its RTS roots not by the studio that had the original Halo concept (Bungie), but by Ensemble Studios, the development team best known for its outstanding Age of Empires games. Second, however, and perhaps even more ironic, is that Halo Wars represents Ensemble’s last RTS as a game-development studio, as Microsoft shuttered the studio shortly before Halo Wars shipped for Xbox 360.
In some respects, Halo Wars is the perfect send-off, a solid RTS by any measure, but particularly considering it’s one based on a console. Viewed through another lens, though, Halo Wars’ grand sendoff to its creators is all the more perplexing because of that quality, a veritable head-scratcher of a game that makes me wonder what on Earth Microsoft was thinking by closing the studio that pulled-off a console RTS better than most developers ever could.
Halo Wars is set 20 years before the original Halo, so most of the key characters, classes, vehicles and weapons are immediately familiar. Yes, even the Flood makes an appearance. However, although this is a prequel of sorts, Halo aficionados may be somewhat disappointed at hearing there’s no Master Chief or armies of Spartans, just a whole mess of UNSC soldiers, Covenant, vehicles and structures.
Ensemble made the wise decision to do away with tedious resource gathering, mining and micromanagement, probably because they realized the traditional Halo gamer wants to blow stuff up, not sit there turtling for hours on end. One click selects a squad or class, and another click puts them somewhere else, simple as that. Units generally originate from a fortress that you’re responsible for building out, but the “less is more” gets a bit out of control here, as each fortresses has a maximum of seven building spots, thus limiting the number of structures you can have at each location. Although resource gathering is essentially done away with, Halo Wars does include “supply pads” to generate the credits necessary to train new groups, construct new vehicles and build or upgrade said structures. There are also reactors to generate energy and thus upgrade your technology. In terms of PC RTS games, Halo Wars is about as basic as you can get while still retaining some depth. But for traditional Halo gamers and the newer console gamer, the balance is just about right.
The single-player campaign, which is also available in co-op via Xbox Live or same-screen play, consists of 15 missions that span multiple worlds and effectively mix up the maps and terrain. Like any RTS, the new terrain introduces new challenges and opportunities to strategize, but the biggest obstacle — pulling the camera back far enough to really manage everything going on in these large environments — unfortunately is a thorn in the game’s side throughout the entirety of the campaign.
The more-pressing issue, though, is an occasionally weak AI that can often act a bit too predictably when within firing range, whether the troops are UNSC, Covenant or Flood. Halo Wars also occasionally suffers from some illogical scripted attack patterns, such as enemies that send troops to their obvious demise rather than truly strategizing as a human player might. Of course, with all fortress locations predetermined, every attack has scripted assaults, which is why it’s all the more important to play games online against up to five other players. And really, that’s where the challenge lies anyway.
Halo 3 is a shooter. Halo Wars is an RTS. They share a name, but that’s it. Bungie’s out of the picture, the genre’s entirely different, and other than the music, character classes and Microsoft marketing budget, these are two entirely separate games. I’ve had several people tell me they wanted to get Halo Wars so their kid had a new Halo game to play. Wrong move. Halo Wars, as solid as it is from a gameplay perspective, is not an appropriate game for kids weaned on teabagging and fragfests. Instead, Halo Wars is like a gateway drug to a more-refined, more mature genre, a title that’s a bit too strict and confining for hardcore RTS fans, but gentle enough to provide an entry into the genre for newbies and just deep enough on Xbox Live to get a few RTS junkies to crack a smile.
Buy Halo Wars from Amazon.com.
- Score: 8.3
— Jonas Allen