So the majority of core users on our fine site, I know, are either PC purists, or old-school PC lovers/players who have branched to the console realm of gaming without forgetting their roots. To that end, reviewing Halo Wars from RTS stalwarts, Ensemble Studios is a daunting task for a number of reasons. One, it's a Real Time Strategy title on a console, and consoles don't
have a keyboard and mouse combination, they have those filthy
controllers. Two, it's a sacred PC genre that has been proven to ostensibly suck outside the desktop platform (ie on consoles). And three, it marks the end of the aforementioned RTS stalwart studio, Ensemble. So coming into this review, Halo Wars, by our core (and generalised by me for the sake of this intro :P) user-base, is already well and truly behind the pack.
But I'm here to attempt to bring the game back up to the rest of you, because all of the above aside (elements all of which I'll broach shortly), Halo Wars is incredibly worth your time, and a game that is a fitting end to one of the great strategy studios of our time. RIP Ensemble...
Before we get down to the nitty gritty, let's set things up. For the Halo watchers out there, Halo Wars is set some 20 years before the events of the first Halo title (Halo: Combat Evolved
). Here we see the war between the Covenant and humans in full swing. The Covenant believe humans to be a slight against their gods, hence their initial aggression which has lead not only to war, but stands as a worthy pretext to dropping the player - seemingly mid-skirmish
- on the human colonised planet, Harvest.
You play the role of traditional RTS Hero
, Sergeant John Forge (uber original, I know), who has been thrust into the heart of the conflict. Things heat up at every success Forge has and the story of the Covenant's desire to make humans an extinct species unfolds at a desirable pace, thanks largely to the absolutely stunning CG arcs that represent this Halo Universe Prologue, along with stellar voice performances and some great scripting.
There may be some issues found with the tacky names, but ultimately this is a great story, and may actually become the driving force in you wanting to finish the game.
What's equally compelling about Halo Wars (beyond its incredibly strong narrative), is just how well the universe and idea translate to the RTS format. Though, Halo itself did begin life as a RTS in the minds of the Bungie boys, it has still manifested itself as a staple FPS with some of the best enemy AI, an incredible physics engine, and was arguably the first game to fully maximise the bottleneck concept of five minutes of traversing with intervals of 30 second(or-so) fire-fights. So taking that first-person experience and creating a full theatre of war style Real Time Strategy outing does seem like it would have been a daunting task, however, thanks to their pedigree and a seemingly throw back style of play, the late, great Ensemble Studios have more than pulled it off. And yes, even with that
controller in tow.
If you've played an Ensemble RTS before, you're not going to be in for any new treats beyond the new setting. However, this isn't a bad thing. Instead of attempting to rewrite the RTS rulebook like Creative Assembly are with Stormrise, Ensemble simply carried everything across you'd expect such as resource management, base building, Hero units and technology advancements, among much more. Where they've spent most of their time is in simplifying controls for the console platform, and having units and skirmishes work in conjunction with not have as quick a reaction time to everything that may be going on. It hasn't dulled the experience, and it also seems somewhat fitting given you'll likely be playing this from the comfort of your lounge as opposed to hunching over your keyboard and mouse at your desk.
There's still plenty of challenge here, and all the bells and whistles you'd expect rear their head. You have the obligatory three races (human, Covenant and Flood), along with aerial units, ground units, infantry, engineers, etc. In fact the entire experience just feels (in a cool way) 'old school'.
You need to improve your economy through smart resource management and technology advancement. Doing this quicker and better than the enemy will assure you victory. You can jump between bases with the D-Pad while the bumpers are used to select all units or all units on-screen, respectively. The A-button is used to select individual units (or more) with your cursor.
For the most part the camera movement is fast and concise, and levels (and level design) are also factored into the idea of camera/controller/console limitations, though they're not overbearingly small. You do get the idea while you're playing that everything has been formatted for the console platform, but somehow it's pulled off with a quaint charm that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The console will never truly recreate the true RTS experience, but like a little brother attempting to do everything an older brother does, because he's cooler – you can't help but appreciate the effort.
So the real catch here is playing through the Halo universe some 20 years before the first game, and learning more about what it is the Covenant hate about the humans so much (it is actually a bit annoying you can't play as any of the other races in the single-player campaign) and watching the awesomely incredible cut-scenes.
There's a fairly neat co-op mode on offer where two people can play across any of the single-player maps, except you have an allotted amount of resources to spend, which, in a cop-op situation, may or may not piss off your teammate.
As far as multiplayer goes, there's a tremendous amount on offer. Up to six people can play with one on one, two on two or three on three and there are 14 different maps to play through. You can choose either human or Covenant (no Flood), and a skirmish can last anywhere between 10 minutes and two hours depending on play-styles. It's very much standard RTS fodder, much like the single-player portion, but again, given the platform and universe, we're not really complaining.
Halo Wars is easily the most competent RTS to grace a console, and it is so because of elegant design. The ethos here was clearly on accessibility and working within the confines of the platform, and for that Ensemble really ought to be applauded. The game is a little short, and does leaving you wanting more (especially because this is Ensemble's last game), but it's satisfying, and the multiplayer and co-op components will keep you coming back. Pursists may find it difficult to swallow, but don't shun it until you've tried it – you never know, you might actually enjoy a simplified RTS experience from the comfort of your couch.