Halo Wars was first introduced back at X06 with all the hype and subtlety of a flash grenade blinding your senses. Since then, the FPS turned RTS game has seen numerous delays and revisions before finally hitting store shelves in March 2009. So, was it worth the wait? Did the game live up to the Halo brand? How well does this console RTS play? Let’s talk about that.
One of the first things that I feel I need to get out of the way in this review is that Halo Wars somehow feels just like an entry into the Halo universe. Everything from the user interface to the sound and music, I felt like I was kicking up Halo 2 or Halo 3, as I have done oh-so-many times in my past.
For the uninitiated, the game takes place several years before the events of Halo, on the planet Harvest, where the Covenant first made contact with the humans in their holy war to cleanse us from the universe. The story of the main campaign follows the humans fighting to gain ground again- only, they stumble across a grander scheme by the Covenant in the process.
While the story is grand and somewhat engrossing, some of the levels gameplay-wise really are more of a chore than they are fun. Objectives are sometimes unclear, missions are either too easy or too difficult, and very rarely do you get to pit your army straight up against another. It’s nice that they tried to vary up the mission objectives, but I really just wanted to go toe-to-toe with a big Covenant force.
However, for fans of the Halo mythology, crunching through the sometimes painful campaign levels is totally worth it for a glimpse into more of the backdrop that makes up this huge franchise. Seeing the planet of Harvest and some of the other Spartan IIs is awesome, particularly in a scene where we see several Spartan officers facing off hand-to-hand against a horde of elites.
One of the biggest questions about Halo Wars was about its controls. In terms of its control scheme, the game handles very well for a console game with limited options. Though you can’t assign hot keys to squads and queue up abilities at a moment’s notice, Halo Wars does allow you to find your units with ease. With the addition of several shortcuts via the control pad keys and the triggers, there really is a lot that you can do in this game very quickly.
Where the controls fall short, however, is in terms of micro-management. Trying to send two different squads to two different places is an exercise in patience, though a “select local units” key does wonders to make this somewhat easier. However, trying to manage a couple of groups at a time becomes daunting and overly difficult. It’s easiest to just select attack-all in a battle, even though the unit balance should technically keep this from being an effective method.
Speaking of unit balance, Halo Wars works on a paper-scissors-rock method. There are three types of units (infantry, vehicle, air), and they all work to counter-act one another. Infantry beats air, vehicle beats infantry, and air beats vehicle. Because of this, multiplayer matches become a balancing act of figuring out what your opponent is doing and then reacting in the best way possible to counter-act his units. It makes matches a lot of fun, and when it works, they can drag on epicly for hours at a time.
All in all, the multiplayer is tremendous fun, especially once you get several friends involved for some insane Halo battle action. While I think the Covenant are a tad imbalanced (wtf heroes), in general, Ensemble has done a great job with crafting a play experience that is both deep and accessible. The matchmaking works just like Bungie’s, too, so this is a nice bonus as well. Finding a game is quick and painless, and there’s no shortage of Covenant rushes waiting for you.
In the end, Halo Wars is a respectable RTS that has been designed very well for the XBox 360. Even though it’s missing things that mouse-and-keyboard players have been used to for years, the game is simplified enough for novices yet deep enough for hardcore players. The campaign could have been much better, but the real draw here is the hours of multiplayer matches that allow nerds like me to see Spartans, banshees, scarabs and everything else we love from the Halo series thrown together in all-out war. It’s not a perfect game by any means, but when it’s good, it’s great.
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