By simplifying the FPS genre for consoles, thus starting a flood of FPS titles, the Halo series has been widely regarded as a console gaming revolution. It took a genre that had only previously been mastered with a mouse and keyboard and optimized it for home console controls, it became a huge success. Now with a new studio behind the franchise, can Halo work its magic on the real time strategy genre?
When Halo first arrives, what it essentially did was take console first person shooters as a starting point, simplified it in many ways, created a comfortable control scheme and combined it with a deep, interesting narrative and back story. This time around, the back story is already there for the taking, it was the controls that Halo Wars really needed to revolutionize upon.
Halo Wars does this with some degree of success. While only making minor changes to the controls of other RTS games on consoles such as Command and Conquer 3, it certainly feels more fluid and simplified. While Ensemble could have used voice commands such as in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, they have opted for just the controller this time around. Although these controls do not work perfectly or improve far on previous efforts, and certainly does not provide the same experience a keyboard and mouse can offer; Ensemble has done an excellent job of creating a control scheme that is fun and effective to use.
Along with simplified controls, the genre itself has been simplified for the console. Ensemble was clearly thinking of their audience for this game, as many will be fairly new to the genre or could be buying it for the further insight into Halo’s back-story or just want to cause mass destruction. This game is essentially a beginner’s guide to the RTS genre, as it does not bombard the player with complex tasks. The best part of the RTS genre has always been the building of a huge army and watching the destruction they cause. Halo Wars succeeds at this. However, its lack of depth will provide a far less satisfying experience for seasoned RTS players, as it is not nearly challenging or complex enough, and at times can feel a little patronising for them. The units available to play with include many obvious halo units such as Scorpion tanks, ODST, Warthog, though others have been added to beef up the armies to a playable RTS level. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable that the more units Ensemble makes up, the less it feels like a Halo game, but the less units of their own, the less of an RTS it is. Ensemble have struck an impressive balance, and made many of the new units fit perfectly within the Halo universe. Base management is also another mixed palette of good and bad. While the designated building locations in your base make it easier, many fans of the Command and Conquer franchise may miss being able to build their own style of base. Though limited, this again, makes the game much more accessible, especially with the controller.
The single player campaign plays out like the RTS equivalent of a Halo game, which gave the nature of the game, it is rather fitting. What is meant by this is that it is fairly linear with little freedom and a constant set of objectives to follow throughout each level. Although this provides some fantastic moments and set pieces that you may not find in many other games in the genre, the lack of ways to go about your mission certainly does not suit the RTS genre as well as it does in the FPS genre. It is also very short, coming in at around seven hours; it can leave you a little unsatisfied with the end product. The story itself however, is extremely well presented with stunning CGI cut scenes, which are well acted for the most part. The story does a good job of encouraging the player through each level, though at times it can be the only motivator to get through some of the less compelling missions. Unfortunately, the story is based around four uninteresting protagonists. The aging war general, who is half expected to grunt “I’m too old for this crap!” at almost any moment, the cookie cutter, wisecracking action hero, his love interest scientist that dislikes him at first, and finally, the ship AI, providing some female tension with the scientist character and sarcastic humour regularly during both missions and cut scenes. Luckily, the clichés are never too much to bear, but it certainly detracts from the immersion. The plot itself focuses on the back-story of the Halo franchise, only really explored in the novels. Set 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved, the game tells the story of battles that took place on the planet Harvest, a human colony, and later, a planet called Arcadia. As the story plays out, your army will face many setbacks which you are then tasked with putting right. Whether it is an experimental covenant weapon, or the loss of a city. A few twists and turns create plot holes and unanswered questions, as well as player confusion over a certain character’s identity towards the end, but for the most part, the story remains simple, and the character identity crisis can be figured out just by thinking about it for a few seconds. It is a little disappointing that the game did not allow you to play as The Covenant to add more play time and an interesting second view on the conflicts, but as it is, the single player campaign is satisfying for the most part.
The multiplayer, on the other hand provides much more freedom and depth. Basically, skirmish will dump you on a map with an empty base with an opponent in the same position somewhere else on the map. It quickly becomes a tactical arms race, and you may incorporate many of the tactics forced upon you by the linear campaign to help you overcome your enemy. There is nobody holding your hand, telling you what to do here, and it makes a refreshing change from the campaign mode. This mode may provide a daunting experience for new players, though with the single player offering the skills needed to succeed, it is easy to get into once you have ploughed through a reasonable amount of the game. Experienced RTS fans will find the multiplayer the best part of the game, though it is still not nearly deep or complex enough to stand up to the likes of Dawn of War, though it will provide a satisfying experience to newcomers, and is easily the best multiplayer RTS available on consoles yet.
The presentation is mostly unimpressive, though it does not exactly look bad either. The menu will be quick to give a strong sense of déjà-vu to Halo fans; the audio is on par with other games in the series, from the fantastic music track to every gunshot and laser blast. The visuals, on the other hand, look muddy and dull; it can often be hard to remember this is a Halo game at times when only UNSC troops flood the screen. The covenant’s presence to the screen will always bring back the Halo vibe, as will some of the environments of later levels, but many environments are bland, very low detail has been put into units in the game. It is a very mixed palette; you will often see things that impress you but just not enough to stop the dull visuals being noticed.
It is clear that the consumer market for this game is split in two categories; there are the experienced RTS fans, and the Halo fans. Though this game will provide a satisfying experience for Halo fans and newcomers to the genre, it will not provide enough for the veterans. In short, if you are a Halo fan or interested in exploring the RTS genre for the first time, it is worth a buy. If you are an experienced player of the genre, this game may be worth a rent if curiosity gets the best of you. Lastly, if you are in the unlikely position where you are an experienced RTS player that does not own a PC for various reasons, this is possibly the best you can get at this time. This game is unlikely to cause a flood of real-time strategy games, and it does not do enough to become a standout game, but if it has sparked your interest so far, it is likely that this game will be a welcome addition to your collection, and will allow you to diversify your gaming experience away from what you are used to while keeping you in a comfortable, familiar setting. Ensemble has struck the balance between accessibility and depth perfectly, adding their own fiction to the franchise without replacing what was already part of the Halo universe, and overall created a satisfying experience. While not a brilliant RTS game, it definitely deserves the Halo name.
FINAL SCORE: 8.4/10