Halo Wars Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Feb 20, 2009

In this X-Play Review, we take a look at 'Halo Wars' the new real-time strategy game for the XBox 360. All that shooting's great, but what the Halo universe really needs is some troop management!

The Pros
  • Filled to the brim with Halo-y goodness
  • Great co-op and multiplayer action
  • Streamlined controls make it accessible for non-RTS players
The Cons
  • RTS fans might be put off by lack of deep micromanagement
  • Gameplay outshined by the insane cinematics

For all the pressure Bethesda Studios must have felt when they took on the task of releasing a new installment of a beloved franchise in a totally new genre (from top down and turn based to a FPS/third-person action RPG in Fallout 3), the team at Ensemble Studios surely felt just as much, if not more, during the development of Halo Wars for the Xbox 360. Yet despite the daunting challenge of having to turn one of the most fiercely championed FPSes ever into a real-time strategy game, the developers at Ensemble have managed to deliver a well thought out and well executed title.

Start the Fight

Halo Wars ReviewHalo Wars opens 20 years prior to the events of the original Halo. War is raging between humans and those Covenant jerks, who always seem to have their sights on some mysterious relic with which to perform galactic mayhem. Rather than relying on the efforts of a single armor-plated badass like Master Chief to win the day, this fight must be finished by harnessing the collective effort of various UNSC military divisions and personnel. Under the command of Captain Cutter, and led in the field by Sgt. John Forge, UNSC must repel the Covenant’s advances in a daring and desperate all out assault. Along for the ride is the knowledgeable and highly valuable Professor Anders, who is tasked with uncovering the nature of the Covenant’s intentions before humanity is given its walking papers.

For fans of the Halo universe and the all-encompassing history therein, Halo Wars offers plenty of narrative goodies to sink your teeth into. In addition to the fairly straightforward story told during the campaign mode, there is also a Halo timeline included in the game with over 50 pertinent story pieces that help flesh out the franchise’s epic narrative even further. And while Halo’s overall story might not be that original, and at times it can be needlessly convoluted and straight up uninteresting, it’s still encouraging to see as much effort put into a game’s story as its gameplay.

Sure Cinematic. Whatever You Say.

The only major downside to having so much story in an RTS is that 99 percent of it has to be told through cutscenes. Previous Halo games followed this structure as well, but at least there you were seeing through the eyes of a character once you started playing, so you instantly felt like you were part of the story if for no other reason than you were physically part of it.

Here, you’re just commanding troops around a battlefield, which makes it almost impossible to feel any sense of emotional or informational connection to the overall story. Sure, you’ll see/control main characters as you play, and take part in important battles, but RTS gameplay just isn’t as intimate or engaging (as far as story goes) as first or third-person perspectives. However, this is more of a personal preference than a fault of the game, which is why I’m not holding it against it that much. It’s just a shame, because there is a lot of story here, and most of it just gets dismissed once you start playing.

With so much of the story relying on the cut scenes, it’s a good thing they are gorgeous. They’re so polished and stunning in fact that when you actually jump in to play the game, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Not that the game doesn’t sport plenty of impressive graphical details, wonderfully designed settings and fantastic sound design. It’s all just simply outmatched by the quality of the cinematics. After watching a particularly gorgeous cutscene wherein a trio of Spartans takes out dozens of Covenant troops with a series of acrobatic flourishes and a few point-blank pistol shots, I found myself wanting to throw in a copy of Halo 3 and pop off a few rounds myself rather than simply directing a Spartan to do it for me.

Can I Hijack a Wraith Yet?

Halo Wars ReviewNow that we’re past all of that RTS/FPS business, we can get to the meat of this thing. The game features four modes: campaign, co-op campaign, skirmish (individual battles against up to three AI opponents) and multiplayer. There are four difficulty settings to choose from, and the length of the 15-level campaign will vary accordingly. On normal, it can around 8-10 hours to complete, but that can also vary depending on how thoroughly you play each level, since there are skulls to find, black boxes to uncover and optional mission-specific challenges (destroy all enemy bases, kill all hunters, etc.) to complete, all in addition to your main objectives.

The co-op mode (played either online or through a system link) is well done and is one of the more surprisingly fun aspects of the game. Since both players can control what their bases build, communication and compromise is key. Fortunately, you’ll usually have multiple bases at your disposal, so each player can design their own unique mix of forces. Keeping track of your units is a snap too, thanks to the blue or green armor they sport. In the end, the campaign offers enough unique challenges to warrant another playthrough with a friend, and at times, it’s even more enjoyable than playing through it alone.

Unlike the campaign mode, multiplayer (which can be played with up to six people) gives you the option of playing as the Covenant, and you can also mix and match up to three human and alien forces on the same side. There are three leaders to choose from on either side (Arbiter, Brute Chieftan and the Prophet of Regret vs. Capt. Cutter, Sgt. Forge and Prof. Anders), each of which has unique attributes and special abilities that play heavily into their battle strategies. For instance, the Prophet of Regret can call down a Hammer of Dawn-type laser beam that can be guided around the map with devastating results. The Arbiter wields duel energy swords that can cut through vehicles and buildings like melted butter.

On the human side, each leader offers bonuses such as faster unit training or lower supply requirements. The major advantage for the UNSC is the ability to call in air strikes as well as insanely powerful guided-laser blasts (compliments of the Spirit of Fire’s MAC cannon) that can decimate bases and Scarabs with ease. Both sides offer their fair share of benefits and drawbacks, and each feels unique and is equally satisfying, which is all you could really ask for in an RTS.

Constructing bases, creating units and guiding them around the map is identical on both sides, with just a few variations in terms of upgrading technology and the forces at your disposal. Rather than upgrading technology and weaponry by building power stations, the Covenant relies on researching Ages at their temples. And in addition to laser turrets, the Covenant can also build shield generators for an extra level of base protection. But perhaps the most useful base option is the Contact Pad, which lets forces teleport to your particular leader’s position anywhere on the map. You might feel a bit guilty the first time you quick spawn dozens of Covenant forces to an unsuspecting UNSC base, but that feeling quickly passes as you watch the massive battle that ensues as a result.

There are 14 maps in skirmish and multiplayer (divided into small, medium and large) and two modes (standard and deathmatch). The maps themselves are well balanced and beautifully designed. Only having two modes is a bit disappointing considering how much variety there is in the traditional Halo multiplayer. The only difference between the two modes is that in deathmatch both sides start with enough resources to build up large numbers of units right away. Both modes offer plenty of destructive enjoyment, but a few more would have been appreciated.

RTS + Console + Good Controls?

Halo Wars ReviewWe all know that RTSes and good consoles go together like pants and me in front of a webcam, but Ensemble has managed to create a control scheme that is functional, smooth and about as user friendly as any found in a console RTS to date. There are some camera and reticule issues that can feel a bit wonky at times, especially when you’re trying to observe/control a large number of units spread across several locations, but for the most part, it works really well.

For instance, clicking the left bumper selects all of your units while the right bumper only selects on-screen units. Each category of unit is then displayed along the bottom of the screen, allowing you to select individual unit types. The best part is that all of this can be done without bringing up a single menu. There is a radial menu that pops up when you interact with your bases, but it serves its purpose without ever getting in the way. The D-pad lets you jump to bases and leaders quickly and easily from anywhere on the map, allowing you to maintain constant contact with all of your forces at all times. This can be invaluable when you’re in control of four or five bases at a time, and thanks to its design, it’s never overwhelming.

When it comes to commanding units, it’s as simple as selecting who you want and hitting X to move them. The X button is also used to issue attack orders. Some units have special attacks (UNSC Marines can hurl grenades, Warthogs can fire missiles, etc.) which you can issue by hitting the Y button. When delivered in large groups, these special attacks can mean almost instant destruction. However, the special attacks must recharge between uses, so timing plays a major part in their effectiveness.

The rock, paper, scissors game played between the various infantry, vehicles and aircraft is well balanced and logical, and it makes strategizing all the more rewarding when you succeed and yet painfully fair when you fail. Things get even more interesting when you start combining human and Covenant forces, especially in three-on-three matches on a large map when you have hundreds of forces combining and exchanging very different technologies on a massive scale. Like most of the battles in the game, it’s a pretty awesome sight to behold.

Finish the Top-Down Fight

It will be very interesting to see what kind of reception Halo Wars receives, especially among hardcore Halo fans. It’s a decidedly different take on a massively popular franchise, but it’s one that ends up achieving what so many console RTSes have failed to by stripping away cumbersome control schemes and giving console players (and in this case Halo players) something that feels like it was made with them in mind. And while a lot of people will approach it with understandably dubious eyes, the game offers a lot of bang for your buck, and it’s an enjoyable ride. Now it’s just a matter of how many people are willing to take it.

Article Written By: Jake Gaskill