Halo wars is an attempt to broaden the Halo universe, taking out mostly everything that the previous three games comprise of and leaving only the universe itself. The game is set in a time period earlier than Halo combat evolved. There are Spartans involved in the game, however, Master Chief does not make an appearance. The story is told in a series of cinematic and outstandingly well rendered cut scenes. The game begins with the humans starting to lose the war against the Covenant.
On a planet called Harvest the humans have won back the planet after a long fight. The Covenant remains stubbornly dug in around a structure buried in ice and seem intent on keeping the humans away. The structure turns out to be forerunner in origin. It leads to another planet where the Covenant also make life hell. The plot unfolds to show that forerunner technology could also create Dyson spheres as well as Halos. The Covenant wants hidden forerunner super-weapons and it's up to the humans to stop them.
The characters and art design of the Halo universe are already well established, the Covenant with their religious zeal and the differing alien races that comprise them. The soldiers of the UNSC are also drawn with the same broad brush strokes. Flippant ship a.i. seems to be the norm, gruff commanders and gung ho soldiers.
Forge is a fairly cookie cutter main hero, although no harm to him he does his job. Anders comes through as showing a bit of character as the feisty female scientist trying to decipher all the Forerunner shenanigans.
The story excels in its cinematic action sequences. In particular the ship near miss entering the Dyson sphere is as good a sequence as any sci-fi movie of the last ten years. The obligatory scene where we see the Spartans in action will have hardcore Halo fans wiping away a tear.
This being a real time strategy game rather than an fps means that the cut scenes feel more distanced from the actual game action. It feels like you are watching a movie where you only get to see the next scene by completing a task. I know a lot of games are like this, it's just that there seems to be a bigger divorce between the story and the game than usual. That is not to say that the missions are unrelated to the story, they all follow the story perfectly. It's just a feeling I came away with due to the real time strategy genre being far from cinematic.
The story is interesting, I found myself eager to see the next scene. I felt nothing for the characters but the story itself I enjoyed. Grand space opera on a massive scale, clearly and simply told.
Halo Wars is a real time strategy game (RTS). They have taken the tried and tested RTS formula created by Westwood in Dune and Command and Conquer and simply applied it to Halo with no real attempt to do anything other than just that. This isn't an RTS that is trying to break any moulds or innovate in any way. The brief seems to have been to make a Command and Conquer clone with a Halo theme. If any innovation exists it's the fact that the whole thing is story driven.
If we work on that theory that all that was wanted was a solid RTS with a Halo skin then how did Ensemble studios do? Rather well actually, the game seems to tick all the genre stalwarts. Small square maps, tick. Fog of war that obscures your view until a unit is there to scout, tick. Clicking on a unit, moving the cursor to where you want to go or what you want to attack and pressing go, tick. This game would have been so much better if they had just let you plug in a mouse, I have posted rants about this before, so won’t go on too much here. How hard can it be to write a mouse driver? As it is the controls work, though the entire time you are playing the mantra "better with a mouse" is playing in your mind. The controls are designed to make it easier to fight against the pad, why bother though when mouse would have been easier? You can select all units on the screen easily and also all available units with one button press.
The units available to you progress throughout the game, starting basic and progressing as you learn the game. All units have basic and special attacks. These special attacks are triggered by pressing Y on an enemy rather than X to attack, once used they have a recharge time before being able to be used again.
Soldiers come in many types, from lowly grunts to Spartans. Each has their own upgrades and special attacks. Spartans in particular are one unit wrecking machines, able to capture and drive enemy vehicles and use powerful weapons. There are the signature Halo Warthogs which drive around recklessly like they do in other Halo games. Tanks and special units include Elephants, Rhinos etc. There are air vehicles including fighters and bombers, also airlifting equipment in the form of Pelicans. Special units like the Gremlin which release EMP burst wrecking themselves in the process. The Covenant has their own armoury of creatures and hardware, all familiar as adversaries from the Halo series.
Fights tend to become less than strategic. Lack of precision fast control means that you tend to select all available units and throw them at the enemy, selecting what you want attacked in order and clicking on the next as the first target is destroyed. There is scope for splitting up teams of units and using pincer attacks etc. Though in practice it's far too fiddly and the results tend to be the same anyway.
It's possible that the brief included making the RTS genre less complex and it certainly needs to be as a pad isn't suited to making complex control easy.
Base building and resource management is the real mainstay of an RTS. There is no real disappointment here. You start with a Fortress and attached to it are little plots that you can fill with other buildings of your choice. At the four corners of the base are turrets that can be upgraded with various types of weapon. These turrets take care of most base defence, freeing your units from having to guard it.
Cash to buy new buildings is in the form of supply pads. You need landing pads to bring down resources from your base ship in orbit. The more supply pads the more money builds up. Upgrading the supply pads also makes the cash count grow faster. Reactors supply power and also when upgraded increase your base tech level which allows more complex units to be manufactured. Other structures include barracks and field armouries which allow for better weapons to be created and added to your soldiers and hardware.
There is a unit cap for each single player mission which increases as the game progresses. You will find yourself butting against this level cap frequently. It really is trying to tell you that you have enough units to win. I tend to build huge armies in RTS games and then steamroll the opposition finding I only needed a third of what I have built to win.
At certain points in the game you come across units under different control than your own. These either do their own thing or become available to you to control. When you destroy a Covenant base the site become available to you to build a second base. There are environmental features in the landscape, rivers and mountains are impassable. Force field bridges can be turned on and off, hopefully off when the enemy are crossing them. You can also use your mother-ship to lance targets from orbit, there is of course a slow recharge time on this weapon.
Halo has its own Borg type enemy in the flood, the hive mind which takes over dead corpses of both sides and reanimates them for its own ends. The flood has its own structures and units.
Inventive mission design is evident in small doses, mostly the design is traditional RTS fare. The mission where you fight flood forces on the outside of the mother-ship as it flies into a solar system sized forerunner Dyson sphere has to go into the top ten of RTS mission designs.
The objectives in the missions are story based and varied, mustering scattered forces, retaking bases, storming bases, escaping from locations overrun by Covenant/flood and destroying various locations and pieces of hardware. I played on normal difficulty, only the occasional time limit and the final mission gave me any real trouble.
I played for roughly 10-15 hours and got 285 achievement points. I felt this was a little mean, the remainder of the achievements being given for playing on the harder difficulties and for the multiplayer component of the game.
The game allows you to save progress at any time which is welcome, A word of warning though to consider when you save. I saved once and found myself having to restart the level after finding I hadn’t left enough time to complete the against the clock objective, my own fault, however, a point to consider when playing yourself.
The multiplayer is fairly solid as seems to be expected in Halo games. They might be known more for their multiplayer than the single player. This is no exception; if you are into RTS multiplayer then I am sure you could find a lot here to occupy your time. There are many maps available. You can play as either side, Covenant or human, choosing from a range of commanders who have different super weapon abilities. You can play online or offline skirmishes against human or a.i. opponents. This lengthens the game considerably if you really love your RTS gaming.
RTS games can be graphically punishing, though I question the need. I tend to play with the zoom feature out at maximum, never zooming in close at all. I tend to keep the view facing north unless I need to move it to see units. What I am trying the get at is Command and conquer got by well with 2d sprites on bitmap landscapes, and personally I feel that nothing has been improved by the switch to 3D engines in RTS games.
Comparing this to other RTS on the Xbox360 like Command and Conquer and Supreme Commander this comes of as adequate and certainly has nothing to be ashamed off.
Music is excellent throughout the game, the Halo musical theme was good to start with, a mixture of Gothic synth chants and rock guitar on a truly cinematic scale. The music comes with familiarity due to being remixed from the other Halo games and as such is already in your head and suitably stirring. Weapon sounds are also familiar from the FPS games.
Being an RTS there are no real boss battles. The level design is adequate, cities, landscapes of the snow jungle and grassland variety. Animation of the units is fairly good for an RTS, though comparing it to animations in an FPS for example would be unfair.
Halo wars suffers from being a reasonably good concept on paper, or as a PC game. In practice the game is supposed to appeal to RTS fans, however, they will find it too simplified to tear them away from Starcraft, Command and Conquer and all the other huge PC RTS franchises. Where does that leave us, with Halo fans, caricatured as screaming 12 years olds who love to frag you and shout obscenities, will these fans buy Halo wars and enjoy it? I doubt it, which is a shame as this is a good game hampered by design choices firmly based on it being a console game. I think people who have dabbled with RTS games in the past and found them overcomplicated and intimidating would find this a good game to introduce them to RTS games in general.
Having just soundly rubbished the whole existence of the game I have to confess to enjoying Halo wars. The story is good fun and stylish, the replay-ability is there for those who want to spend time with the games multiplayer.
Microsoft obviously wanted to broaden the Halo franchise, I can’t help thinking that a Mass effect style RPG or Arbiter skinned God of War would be more in keeping with the roots than an RTS.