Review: Halo Wars

Finishing Halo Wars must have been bittersweet for Ensemble Studios. On one hand, they’ve created a fine addition to the Halo franchise, but on the other hand, it was their final project and they had the pressure of turning a shooter into an RTS for a console. It could have ended up brilliant or absolutely horrendous. But you need only look at their pedigree and know that the franchise was in good hands.

What started out as an indie developer over a decade ago, eventually manifested itself into a juggernaut within Microsoft, but was ultimately disbanded upon completion of this Halo project. They were the ones behind Age of Empires and the studio that built the Genie Game Engine, which was used in Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. So the question on everyone’s mind has been whether or not Ensemble could turn a console shooter into an RTS. And the answer is unequivocally, yes. And I don’t even like RTS games.

You’ve all had a chance to play the demo, which consists of the first three missions, so you’re all aware of how the game actually plays out. The control scheme is surprisingly easy to pick up and the storyline is fantastic but it does have its faults. In case you didn’t know, Halo Wars is a prequel to the Halo trilogy we’ve all come to love or loathe. The cut scenes are amazing, but the in-game graphics are a bit of a letdown. I was always drawn to the storyline in Bungie’s Halo trilogy and Ensemble manages to keep up that tradition and make it a smidge better. The in-game sounds and soundtrack are pretty spot on and flow fluidly. It’s an experience that any Halo fan won’t want to miss. I’ll reiterate by saying that I don’t like RTS games or Halo if we’re being completely honest, but Halo Wars is pretty cool.

Some of you might not have Live, so I’ll quickly touch on the control scheme. Controlling your troops and whatever else consists of a series of hot keys. If you want to move your unit to go attack something then you simply need to select said unit with the A-button and scroll over to a group of bad guys and hit X. Each unit, like a Warthog, has a special attack that’s triggered by the Y-button. I suggest going through the advanced tutorial just so you get comfortable with the myriad of controls. It’s easy once you’re done with that. I suspect my ADD affected my learning curve here. What? I like my old-school side scrolling games.

But as I said, the game does have some glaring faults that are worth mentioning. For instance, you can’t zoom in or zoom all the way out to see the entire map. I mean, the attention to detail in this game is great, but I really want to see my Spartan kick some Covenant ass up close and personal. And while the control scheme is easy to pick up for non-RTS types, I’d imagine the gamers who do play RTS games would find reason to scoff at HW. There’s a certain degree of control that is required in traditional PC RTS games and that’s clearly missing in Halo Wars. While it’s not the happy median I think it should be, I think it appeals to the mass market of gamers that never played an RTS on the PC.

Halo Wars consists of 15 missions with varying degrees of difficulty. I think it took me roughly one hour per mission, but I’m pretty ADD, so the hardcore types will probably finish in half the time.

There are six commanders that you can choose from and each has their own take on warfare, so it’s highly likely that you’ll find one that meets your standards. Your mother ship, the Spirit of Fire, provides resources when you need them, but you already knew that since you’ve been playing the demo.

I haven’t had a chance to play multi-player over Live, but that’s sort of the norm when it comes to getting advanced copies of games. There aren’t very many people that I personally know who have the game that I can play online with, but I’ve contacted a few folks and we’ll be getting it on this weekend.

So, the question still remains whether or not this RTS game works on the console. I honestly can’t answer that question. I don’t play RTS’s but I sure had fun playing this one. Look for it to drop on March 3rd Stateside.

As a special treat, we’ve included all four developer diary clips that Microsoft has released over the course of the last few months in case you missed them.