Microsoft’s flagship Halo line-up is turning into quite the franchise with books, multiple games and more in the works. Even figurines and other memorabilia are available for purists.
Clearly there is a considerable fan-base for the series, and understandably so with the success we've seen so far from the Halo trilogy. The online gameplay in particular has a huge following, and next in line is Halo Wars, a real-time strategy Xbox 360 exclusive game set in the Halo universe.
Although not actually developed by Bungie directly, Microsoft have done the next best thing in requisitioning Ensemble Studios to oversee this project. Although Ensemble may have created one of the most widely recognised game franchises with the insanely popular Age of Empire series, Halo is an entirely different challenge. After all, as this is Ensemble Studios' final project, all that's really on the line for them is their reputation.
On starting Halo Wars we found ourselves immediately immersed in familiar surroundings. The game uses the same menu structure as found in Halo 3, which makes getting around all too familiar for fans. We're not going to complain about this as put simply, it works well and looks good. Jumping straight into the campaign with the UNSC, you'll be greeted by some pretty good looking CGI cutscenes, which will return periodically throughout the game to set up the story.
You play Sergeant Forge, a relatively uninspired marine best known for some of his irritating one-liners. This one-man-army concept is fine, after all, we can’t expect Master Chief as the game takes place twenty years prior to the events portrayed in the other Halo titles. As a benefit, this gives Ensemble some freedom to not only expand on their own world, but also to portray the back story of the series.
The story is an interesting foray into the Halo universe, and does present some new elements. Unfortunately, it feels like more of the same in the sense that it doesn’t really provide anything new, and simply ties in with the Halo trilogy. This might seem like a safe tactic, but it makes Halo Wars feel a bit tired from the outset. It does successfully tell the story of the way the war between Covenant and UNSC began, which is good to see, and what the game lacks in the story department it makes up for with the effort put into the RTS functionality on the console.
Halo Wars contains new vehicles that simply weren’t needed in the Halo trilogy, but are necessary in a real-time strategy for team balancing purposes. However aside from this, the game will be immediately recognisable for fans of the series, with well-known vehicles such as Warthogs, Wraiths, Scarabs, Marines, Ghosts, Spartans and powerful Scorpion tanks, amongst others. It really is an immense pleasure to see Warthogs and the like bouncing and sliding around in an RTS environment, all with accurate physics modelling, and seeing all the units behave just like they do in the Halo trilogy. This has to be one of the main attractions for Halo fans, and the units certainly won’t disappoint considering how beautifully they have been brought to life by Ensemble Studios.
Each vehicle in the game has some special ability or function, such as unpacking (for the Elephants, which act as mobile barracks), or ramming for the Warthogs. These can be used at any time, and once used you can reuse them after a short cooldown. As a rule, and again true to the rules set down in the Halo trilogy, Covenant vehicles are slightly weaker than those of humans, but are usually found in greater numbers.
As most people know, real-time strategy games are rarely successful on consoles simply because of the complex controls required to master them. Ensemble Studios have taken a unique approach here in the sense that less is more, and it does work rather well. The game primarily takes place with only four or five buttons on the Xbox 360 controller. Movement commands are given using X, special attacks or commands are given with Y, and A is used to select units. LB selects all units, and RB selects units on the screen. Most strategy fans will question how is it possible to make a good strategy game after cutting out unit groups and other commands, however Ensemble have proven that it can be done.
The way Halo Wars is structured, there is little reason to make up task-specific units, therefore making groups less useful. In combination with a play speed and gameplay style perfectly suited to the console, you will feel at home in Halo Wars from the beginning. The varied difficulty settings also means the game is adaptive to any skill level. Each of the campaign levels feel well designed, and usually it is relatively clear what to do and how to do it. This imbues campaigns with a somewhat linear path, however in addition each campaign mission will contain a host of secondary objectives which can boost your score, and generally require you to traverse most of the map to complete. This linear approach is necessary when considering the base building mechanics in Halo Wars.
Bases are constructed by placing down a firebase, which can only be done on certain points of the map. Often there are multiple points, which gives you the ability to construct several firebases. These are dropped off directly from the support ship, the ‘Spirit of Fire’. The firebase will contain a number of placement areas where you can place buildings, but these are limited and therefore require you to weigh up your options when collecting resources or building units. There are enough of these to always strike the right balance.
Resource collecting in Halo Wars is different to most previous strategy games, so gone are the days of protecting fragile harvesters as they venture into the world to collect precious resources. Now, by building a Supply Pad, you will have a continual stream of resources flown in.
Base defences are constructed similarly, with four turret placements on the outer edge of your firebase which can be built and upgraded to suit your needs. Buildings and units all contain a range of upgrades which are accessible through the base, with some improving your units considerably. On top of this, you have access to special powers through the ‘Spirit of Fire’ such as a MAC cannon which can target enemy vehicles and buildings to destroy them rapidly, and a chrono beam which freezes the units in a thick ice layer as well as providing a healing power to repair units in its radius. These superpowers are just what you need to tip the battle in your favour, and are balanced just right in the sense that they are not overly powerful.
The main campaign is very enjoyable to play, though as alluded to previously the story is not nearly as compelling as we would have liked. Likewise, the presence of a Covenant campaign is sorely missed, as it would have been very interesting to delve deeper into the Covenant mindset. But the RTS elements are in fact so solid that its hard not to enjoy yourself.
If you do find yourself getting bored, Skulls have once again been implemented as in Halo 3. These Skulls can be activated to either give your troops some kind of a disadvantage, thus boosting your score, or an advantage if the enemy is too tough. Not to mention Grunts that explode into Confetti and Scarabs that shoot rainbows of pure love, as well as enabling more intense destruction physics. These won’t affect your score, but can be a real laugh when you’re getting tired of the same old.