Review by Gruel
"Finally, an RTS that is playable and fun on a console"
Many developers seem incredibly persistent to win the honor of being the first great console RTS. Until now, the only ones that were serviceable were the Blizzard ports of Warcraft II and Starcraft 64. The competition has really stepped up this generation however, with EA releasing Battle for Middle-Earth II, and a few games from its highly acclaimed Command & Conquer line on PS3 & 360. With each release, EA stepped up their game in making RTS's more intuitive for the masses. Now the battlefield has changed power from EA to RTS veteran Ensemble Studios (of Age of Empires fame), as they step in with a release designed from the ground up for 360 based on one of its most popular franchises with the release of Halo Wars.
What sets Halo Wars apart from other console RTS games is the fact that Ensemble gets how to make this style of game on a console fun. Ensemble accomplished this by primarily simplifying resource and base management. There are tiny resource patches to harvest that are scattered throughout the map, but most of the resources are gathered automatically once a supply center has been constructed. The more of these that are built, the faster a player amasses resources. This does not rule out the RTS tradition of expansion bases however, as each base is limited to having only so many add-on slots which are used for supply centers, barracks, guard towers, etc. So in order to accrue resources and pump out more units faster, players will still have to expand. Sure, completely fortifying the base with a bevy of watch towers and missile turrets would be nice like in the old Starcraft days, but Halo Wars is gutsy at trying something different and succeeding.
While some gamers may be put off at the simplification of the genre, put those reservations to the side as there is still a lot of depth. The amount of unique units, buildings and tech upgrades for the UNSC and Covenant (unfortunately, there is no playable Flood race at this time, maybe as future DLC perhaps?) are nearly as equal to almost any other RTS out there. Even though there is a 40 unit character cap, the size and scope of the intense battles is almost comparable to most RTS games.
Halo Wars does feature a 15 mission campaign where players control the UNSC faction only. The campaign is set before the first Halo, when the armies of Spartans were still dominant on the battlefield and Master Chief wasn't their lone ancestor. Sadly the Covenant does not have their own campaign, which is a missed opportunity as almost every other RTS features campaigns for multiple factions. Ensemble alleviates that glaring flaw to a degree with some of the best CG cutscenes to be seen on the 360 to date. They look fantastic, right up there with the superb quality of animation in FFVII: Advent Children, and the campaign is really worth investing in to see this exciting story unfold. Another great thing about the campaign is that it is one of the few RTS games to boast online co-op. Neither player is limited in the controls as both players have free reign at base building and unit constructing, although some teamwork may be required so no one gets greedy over the resources, but it ultimately works well and is the preferable way to play the campaign.
Now while the Covenant is not playable in the campaign they are playable in competitive online multiplayer and offline skirmishes. Offline skirmishes are a great way to test the waters before facing the real competition over Xbox Live. Halo Wars uses an almost identical matchmaking service like Halo 3 so players are in and out of games in no time. From my play tests of over a dozen online games there have not been any serious encounters with lag unless a player drops out. When Halo Wars launched there was only two modes of online play available, the traditional start from scratch option, or Deathmatch where players start with max minerals and all tech researched for an incredibly fast paced game. Recent DLC has added three more game variants. Halo Wars also appears to be supported with more DLC in the future with rumors of downloadable map packs, and possibly even an Covenant campaign expansion download making their ways across the rumor mill.
As mentioned before the CG is some of the finest looking on this generation yet. It is too bad the same cannot be said of the in game graphics, which are fine in their own right, but nothing extraordinary. It is easy to make out trademark Halo vehicles and units such as Elites, Warthogs, Banshees, Scorpions, etc. and they all look decent, but understandably Ensemble had to make compromises to get Halo Wars locked in at a consistently smooth frame rate. Once again, it looks and animates fine, just do not go in expecting a mind blowing graphical display. On the audio side of things, Halo 1-3 composer Marty O Donnel could not make it to compose his trademark score, but composer Stephen Rippy stepped in and crafted a score that still retains that trademark Halo sound, and yet also manages to sound original too. The gunfire, explosions and other ambient background noises seem like they were remastered from the trilogy and do not feel shoehorned in at all.
Halo Wars gets playing an RTS on a console as good as it can possibly get. It is not picture perfect, and this gamer would still prefer playing this on a PC with hotkeys any day. It is shocking at how well everything came together and most importantly how fun Halo Wars is to play. Hesitate no more and pick up or at least give the demo of Halo Wars a try today. Hopefully its many competitors can learn a thing or two from it.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 07/02/09
Game Release: Halo Wars (US, 03/03/09)
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