Console real-time strategy sucks.
It does. Standard controllers simply can't handle the sheer number of command and control inputs that armchair generals need in order to manipulate their armies. However, if any game were to break this dismal cycle of failure and regret, it's Halo Wars. The esteemed (if sadly closing) Ensemble Studios and the rich Halo mythos provide the perfect one-two combo for an epic RTS. So, does their lovechild manage to revolutionise the genre?
The short answer is no. But the longer and infinitely more important answer is that it never intended to.
Rather than completely reinventing the wheel in order to make it roll on unfamiliar terrain, Halo Wars strips back the genre to its bare essentials. Each player is assigned a small modular base that can equip a limited variety of outbuildings; some of which produce units or contribute a steady trickle of resources to the cause. There's no harvesting or finnicky resource management to speak of, meaning that a few quick minutes of turtling results in a functional foundation for an assault. After all, we're here to control iconic Halo units rather than faff about with silos and refineries.
Right. About those units, then. The UNSC fields a familiar army of marines, Warthogs, Scorpion tanks and aircraft that can all be upgraded with extra firepower or alternate abilities (such as infantry grenades that can be deployed with the Y button)... but they all fulfil the cliched scout, heavy ground, air & anti-air roles that we've come to expect from every game that's come before. The addition of a dedicated anti-air unit that's never previously appeared in a Halo title helps to demonstrate this failure to innovate. However, the Spartan super units provide much-needed variety with the ability to hijack any enemy vehicle. The Covenant forces actually handle in a very similar way to their human counterparts, though a weaker overall strength is compensated for by powerful unique heroes. The conniving Prophet of Regret even makes a playable debut on his grav throne! Halo fans will get a huge kick out of commanding their (our, who am I kidding) favourite vehicles.
It's time to tackle the million dollar issue: how it handles. The left thumbstick controls a scrolling cursor that can select individual units or highlight multiple adjacent troops with a radial brush. Once selected, context-sensitive commands do the rest. Build queues and upgrades can be accessed through accessible radial menus, along with a couple of handy hotkeys for snapping between bases and heroes. It's nothing fancy, but it does the job.
Up to a point. This setup works reasonably well for simple 'tank rush' tactics, but unfortunately it's easy to get thoroughly overwhelmed when attacked on multiple fronts by the AI. More gallingly, however, it's nigh-on impossible to return the favour. As mentioned above, players can only select single units, proximal clusters or every single unit on the map... but there's no option to cherry-pick and designate specific unit groups. Unit grouping is one of the most basic and fundamental parts of any RTS, and its omission means that an essential tactical dimension has been lost. Battles usually descend into chaotic furballs rather than choreographed masterpieces, and diehard RTS veterans will quickly sling their controllers away in disgust.
But that's fine. Halo Wars doesn't pretend to cater for the hardcore. It's marketed squarely at the legion of shooter fans who have little experience with PC strategy gaming. The singleplayer campaign charts the adventures of the Spirit Of Fire: a retrofitted colony ship-turned troop carrier that's sent to take back Harvest from the Covenant. However, some early revelations soon turn the routine ground pounding into an desperate scavenger hunt of intergalactic proportions! A range of levels provide the usual selection of standard wars of attrition, timed objectives and escort missions along with a couple of unique challenges (including a memorable face-off with an immobile Scarab). Luscious cutscenes, an interesting plot and an unlockable timeline to pore over gives Halo fans a good reason to forgive the mechanical shortcomings... that is, if they even notice them in the first place. Newcomers will find it a perfect gateway into the otherwise intimidating RTS scene.
Multiplayer is competent if a little on the basic side. Six-player skirmishes (including tag-team modes) can be held over Xbox Live, and surprisingly the campaign can be played cooperatively with a mate. Though several selectable leaders provide slightly different unique units and powers, it's a shame that The Flood weren't included as a third playable faction. I fear that there's not enough variety between the two armies to hold our interest over the coming months.
Finally, it's important to note that the visuals are absolutely superb. The game engine combines luscious terrain with extremely detailed unit models that move, attack and even loiter realistically. The net result are absolutely gobsmacking engagements that look and feel quintessentially Halo. Fans will relish the opportunity to see their favourite units duke it out in glorious that make even Two Betrayals seem like a tiny skirmish by comparison. Copious plasma, bullets and explosions make every engagement more visceral than you'd expect from an RTS.
- Streamlined mechanics do their job reasonably well
- An incredible new experience for Halo fans
- Great visuals and authentic art direction
- Annoying lack of unit grouping and other basic RTS features
- Cliched unit roles, objectives and gameplay
- Two playable factions aren't really enough
The Short Version: Halo Wars is not the next giant leap forward for console strategy and will leave RTS veterans cold... but at the end of the day, that's not what it's for. It's pure fan service that provides Halo aficionados with a decent- if simple- introduction to the genre. The accessible mechanics and sumptuous presentation eclipse the niggling flaws long enough for RTS newbies to have an absolute blast.