Review by PyroDillbrain
"A console RTS done right."
Halo Wars, if it's not obvious enough from the name, is the latest addition to the incredibly popular Halo franchise; set 20 years before the plot of Halo: Combat Evolved, its storyline revolves around the endeavours UNSC Spirit of Fire, along with Captain James Cutter, Sergeant John Forge and Professor Ellen Anders as they come up against the Covenant forces across a number of worlds.
The game itself, developed by the now-dissolved Ensemble Studios, is an RTS similar to the likes of Command & Conquer with some Starcraft and Age of Mythology elements. You command the UNSC in the 15-mission-long campaign (which can be played in Single Player and XBL/System Link co-op), and also have the option of commanding the Covenant in Skirmish and online Multiplayer. Further to this, similar to recent Ensemble Studios games, as part of the two races, there are six individual leaders (three per side) that slightly change the base UNSC or Covenant forces and give some extra personalisation.
The UNSC and Covenant forces are fairly different from each other, with the leaders only amplifying this fact; the UNSC leaders, for example, differ through economy perks (Cutter adds a level to your bases, while Anders halves research times and costs), along with unique units and 'super' units (which are upgraded versions of common units). The UNSC leaders also have leader 'powers'; expensive abilities that can easily change the course of a battle, similar to the God Powers in Age of Mythology (Forge's Carpet Bomb sends a Shortsword to deliver a huge explosive payload while Cutter's MAC fires depleted uranium for huge damage in a small area). The Covenant leaders, however, actually appear on the battlefield and have their own unique abilities and units, all of which upgradeable; the Prophet of Regret has a Cleansing Beam at his disposal, the same beam used for 'glassing' planets, and the weaponry on his hovering chair can be upgraded from weak lasers to a fully-fledged flying Fuel-rod firing fortress. The Covenant leaders also get their own unique units. This does enough to differentiate the three leaders in each faction in order to make your leader choice an actual serious decision rather than a matter of 'ZOMG ARBITERRRRRRR'.
There's still the same Halo classics that we all know and love. Wraiths, Scorpions, Banshees, Warthogs, Ghosts, Hornets, and yes, even Spartans (but not Master Chief) are all present and buildable, along with some new additions including, but not limited to, the Covenant Locust (pretty much a miniature Scarab), UNSC Vulture (a flying weapon platform), UNSC Wolverine (an anti-air rocket vehicle) and a number of other new vehicles make their inaugural appearances.
These two factions are actually very well balanced; the Covenant are strong in the early game while the UNSC get better the longer the game goes, however if the Covenant can hold off long enough, a Scarab can be built for an enormous amount of resources to tip the balance back in their favour. This makes for an intense game at all times, from the early game where you forage for supplies with your scouts to the late game where ODSTs are raining from the sky and multiple Scarabs tower over the battlefield.
Resources in this game are extremely simple; you have Supply, which is basically what you use to build everything, Tech, which allows you to get stronger units and better upgrades, and Population, which limits the number of units you can have at once. Each unit requires a set amount of supply (ranging from 100 for a simple Marine squad to 3000 for a Scarab), a high enough tech level (between 0 and 3 for Covenant, and 0 and 4 for UNSC) and a chunk of your population cap (which is 40 at maximum for UNSC and 50 at max for Covenant). The pop cap is indeed fairly low, however the fast-paced gameplay tends to keep your army size, even after an hour of playing, pretty low.
The gameplay is very fast paced; basic units and buildings only take a few seconds to create and it's likely that you'll be fighting heavily before the 2 minute mark against an experienced foe. You spend the first minute or so searching for resources in the form of supply crates around the map with your handily provided scout unit, before moving your Supply generation to a more automated method in the form of Warehouses or Supply Pads, built around your base in 'sockets'. Once you've got a decent economy up, units are made in categories; Infantry, Aircraft and Vehicles.
Halo Wars follows a rock-paper-scissors (or RPS) balance method; Infantry > Aircraft > Vehicles > Infantry, with the usual counter-units (Hunters are Infantry but counter Vehicles, and Wolverines are Vehicles but swat Aircraft easily, for example) thrown in to keep things interesting. What you'll usually find is that there is a general-purpose unit (Marines, Grunts, Scorpions, etc), and two counter-units (eg Flamethrowers, Jackals, Wolverines) that are strong against certain types of units and very weak against others. Both sides also have Uber units; the aforementioned Scarab, which costs multiple fortunes and takes 20 population slots gives the Covenant a wickedly powerful endgame unit while the Vulture, a more modest 900 Supply and 6 Population, dominates the skies for the UNSC. Indeed, the UNSC, despite only having one mainstream air unit, has a dominant air game while the Covenant have excellent infantry.
What this means is that diversity in armies, rather than just massing a single unit type, tends to be particularly strong; Scorpions are powerful units, but faced with an army of Banshees and Hunters they just don't cut it. However, mix some basic infantry in with those Scorpions (Marines > Banshees and Flamethrowers > Hunters) and you have a whole different story. This 'RPS' balance method, while not exactly the most creative or original, makes the game even more well balanced and makes every leader and unit useful and viable.
The multiplayer modes, while lacking in quantity, are definitely great quality. There are only two different match types, Regular and Deathmatch (with Deathmatch giving you all techs and a huge amount of resources at the start of the game so you can get right into the action), both of which having their ups and downs in terms of strategies. You can play as any of the six Leaders in Skirmish or Online; that means you can have Covenant v Covenant, or UNSC + Covenant + Covenant vs UNSC + UNSC + UNSC or whatever. As you would come to expect from a seasoned multiplayer RTS developer, the multiplayer is fairly lag-free (with only a .5 second forced delay to make latency not so big an issue, as is the standard in most RTSes now) and quite popular. It takes only a few seconds to find a game, and there is plenty of party support as well as extensive leaderboards for multiplayer and single-player.
The single-player campaign is deep and varied; you won't see two objectives the same. The first few missions have you liberating a base, then entering a relic and rescuing trapped units; and, depending on difficulty settings, the campaign could take anywhere from eight to twenty hours if you go for the achievements, bonus objectives, Skulls, Black Boxes, gold medals and Legendary difficulty.
As you can see, there is plenty of replay value in the campaign; high scores are uploaded to the leaderboards, skulls can be unlocked for use in private Skirmishes and future missions, there is an extensive timeline showing the events leading up to the Halo: Combat Evolved storyline, the Legendary difficulty is, as usual, a complete pain in the ass and there's a full 1000 Gamerscore to be unlocked through the vast array of achievements.
Single-player skirmish is surprisingly good fun. The AI has been very well made, not due to its difficulty but due to how it actually plays as a human would. It can only see what is on its screen (and in team games, you can actually see where the AI is looking in the minimap), it responds only to what it sees (so if you kill its scouting parties, it won't know to build Cobras in response to your massed Wraiths) and as far as I can tell, outside of the campaign there is no 'cheating' element where the AI has extra resources or stronger units. The difficulty settings are the same as that of the FPS Halo games; Easy, Normal, Heroic and Legendary (with Legendary obviously being the hardest), but a great feature is included in the Automatic setting. When playing the Automatic difficulty AI, after each match the game assesses how well you played - did you completely destroy the AI or was it a close battle? - and raises or lowers the difficulty setting accordingly, even past the Legendary difficulty. This not only allows for much closer-matched skirmishes, but also gives you something to practice on as your skills increase over time. While the difficulty in 1v1s isn't exactly stellar, you can expect the AI to work extremely well as a 2v2 or 3v3 team; just like a team of 2 or 3 humans using voice communication.
The maps are detailed and varied; in Multiplayer you can find 'hooks' dotted around the map, each with its own perk; you can get Supply Lift Hooks to increase your supply rate, Sentinel Hooks to allow you to produce Sentinel units, Building Hooks give you extra slots to make buildings and of course the enormous Mega Turret can give a 'tug-of-war' feeling as you fight over it and its incredible destructive power. In Campaign, you go from an icy wasteland to a sprawling city to an enormous alien colony and even to the outside of the Spirit of Fire - to name a few of your destinations.
The graphics in this game, while they have received mixed reviews, are quite good for a game of such scale on a system such as the Xbox 360. While the graphics aren't quite as detailed as in recent PC RTS games such as Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and Company of Heroes (and to a lesser extent Dawn of War II), the framerate remains fairly solid in all but the most intense fights, which is a positive in its own right.
While the graphics aren't exactly jawdropping, the music is fabulous. A combination of orchestrated and synthetic music produces an excellent score with a huge range of diversity (there's a song for each map, pretty much), and the audio cues in the game are an integral part of gameplay. The music crescendos in the middle of a huge fight, and if you're winning it becomes triumphant and victorious; get pushed back and you'll have a more solemn theme.
The controls are somewhat of an issue. Being a console RTS, it's hard to expect all control aspects that would be normal in one on the PC while still retaining functionality and simplicity. Ensemble has done a decent job of the control scheme for Halo Wars; selection, especially regarding the excellently-designed 'paintbrush' tool and a number of other selection options, is a complete breeze and the circle menu, despite already being done to some extent in other console RTS games, is very intuitive. That said, however, a few rudimentary basics have been left out; the ability to form control groups is practically non-existent (with the only actual method of doing so being through manual grouping); while you can form pseudo-groups by moving troops together and using the D-Pad to cycle through these groups, it's both unintuitive and cumbersome. Furthermore, while the selection interface is intuitive in itself, the lack of any ability to 'shift' select units, i.e. adding units to your selection (performed using the 'shift' key on a PC RTS, hence the name) can make intense micromanagement extremely difficult.
Halo Wars appears to have been designed as a 'simple' version of a PC RTS; its control scheme, fairly low unit count both in terms of population available and actual unit diversity, graphics and few multiplayer modes does give off an air almost of lacking. While what is there has been polished to a mirror shine; the maps are excellently designed, the balance is great, the units that we have are both true to the Halo canon and have a definite use, and multiplayer is very well done (even with a Bungie.net style online stat tracker), one can't help but feel that the game does have some things missing. That said, however, I can safely say this game is the best console RTS I've played so far, and I'd say it'll stay that way for quite a while.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/04/09, Updated 03/06/09
Game Release: Halo Wars (Limited Edition) (AU, 02/26/09)
Got Your Own Opinion?
You can submit your own review for this game using our Review Submission Form.