It’s interesting to see the Halo series come full circle with Halo Wars. I’m not sure how many fans actually know this, but before Halo rose to fame as the Xbox’s star FPS, Bungie first began developing it as an RTS game for Mac and PC. Ten years later and a hit Halo FPS trilogy in the record books, recently disbanded Age of Empire developer Ensemble Studios has helped bring the original vision of Halo to fruition.
For the longest time, real-time strategy games were the square peg to console gaming’s round hole: the two just didn’t fit. But not so any more. While hardcore grognards will always see RTS play without a keyboard and mouse as blasphemous, technology has reached the point where, for most of us, building bases and controlling armies of units can be incredibly accessible and intuitive with a console controller in hand. Halo Wars is one of the finest examples of this yet.
Much in the same way the original Halo brought intuitive FPS play to consoles, Halo Wars adapts RTS play to consoles with much better results than most previous attempts. Obviously, the immense depth and intense micromanagement that’s commonplace in PC RTS games had to be toned down, but overall I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed by how many of the core RTS values Halo Wars managed to successfully translate to console play. Sure, the unit cap is fairly small (50 is the max after upgrades), base building limited to designated spots rather than allowing for free-form base layouts, and the sheer volume of everything in the game is somewhat scaled back, but ultimately these things don’t matter because the game as a whole is just so well designed, offering solid controls, a healthy selection of heroes, unit types, special abilities and upgrades, breathtaking music, detailed graphics faithfully coated in the Halo franchise’s distinct color schemes and art style, and an epic storyline all wrapped up in a spectacular 15-mission campaign.
Halo Wars’ control scheme is streamlined but effective. Selecting and managing units is easy thanks to multiple selection hotkeys. With the shoulder buttons you can easily select all units, all local units, or cycle through groupings of each unit type you have on the battlefield, and by holding down the A button you can pull up a circular selection reticule to drag around and paint-select desired units. Keeping tabs on multiple fronts is simple as well. Using the D-pad, you can jump around between your base, armies and alerted areas at the push of a button.
What Halo Wars lacks in scale or depth compared to most RTS games it makes up for with its incredible pacing, diverse mission objectives and cinematic prequel storyline that easily eclipses the core Halo trilogy in every way. Honestly, I’d put Halo Wars’ single-player campaign up against almost any RTS ever made, PC or console. Each mission is different from the one before it – you’ll build and defend a base in one, take on a giant immobilized Scarab in the next, protect and escort civilians to escape transports in the next, move around a large map hitting switches in the correct sequence to activate a portal in the next, etc. – and the pacing is cranked up to where you’re always moving and doing and never bogged down in the cyclical resource-gathering, base-building routine so many RTS games suffer from. It’s just disappointing that Ensemble was only afforded enough time and assets to create one UNSC campaign – alternate Covenant and Flood campaigns would’ve been amazing, I’m sure.
As amazing as the solo campaign is, however, the multiplayer is very mediocre in comparison. The Covenant are playable in multiplayer along with the UNSC, which is great, and both factions seem pretty well balanced, but unfortunately the game’s more action-oriented RTS approach lacks the depth needed to make for compelling competitive play. It’s fun in small portions, but doesn’t hold up very well over repeated sessions. Co-op, on the other hand, is an unexpected yet very cool bonus option if you don’t feel like tackling the campaign by yourself. Multiple difficulties, a score and completion time-based scoring system, optional mission objectives, and hidden Skulls and Black Boxes also inspire extended replay value for solo players. A Theater mode is also included so you can go back and watch the game’s jaw-dropping CG movie sequences anytime you want – a feature I’ve always thought cut-scene-intensive games should have.
Halo Wars is more than just a great console RTS game, it’s an engaging and memorable all-around videogame experience that defies any platform or genre comparisons you may want to throw at it. Lacking multiplayer and no alternate faction campaigns is a bummer, no doubt, but the thrilling, highly-replayable campaign alone is well worth the price of admission.
+ Engaging, highly-replayable campaign
+ Diverse, well-paced mission objectives
+ Intuitive control scheme
+ Stunning CG cut scenes, some of the best I’ve ever seen; Theater mode included
+ Masterful soundtrack
– Shallow multiplayer experience
– No Covenant or Flood campaigns
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: 3/3/09
ESRB Rating: Teen