It's funny how things go, we move from one point in time to another and one concept in the game industry can be rejected, changed up and transformed. Take Halo for instance, some of you will know, many of you will have read or seen videos on the franchise and how it used to be an rts before it became an open-world style game and finally a linear first person shooter with an incredible zealous and loyal fan following.
Now Ensemble Studios (who are sadly no longer with us) have created an rts for a console, a working one no less that is a lot easier to control than C&C Kane's Wrath and much more accessible to the first time novice player.
Halo Wars is set 20 years prior to the 'Halo' event and chronicles the war between the Covenant and the Humans. The UNSC vessel Spirit of Fire and her crew have fought a long battle for the planet of Harvest and now it's finally theirs once more. Halo Wars story is told through lush CGI cinematic set pieces and decent enough in-game graphics.
Halo Wars is a simple game in terms of tactics and design, a lot of the depth and variety of units that is found in your typical rts are absent. Ensemble has sacrificed certain elements to craft a fun and accessible game, with a single player campaign that tells a solid story and gives a good insight into events pre Halo. Whilst it's not going to win any awards for originality, it does a good job of providing a decent entry level challenge for novice gamers and Halo fanatics will want to play just to see the story unfold.
The game has some hidden surprises, things to collect, bonus objectives to fulfil to earn medals and achievements. The skulls are back that unlock in-game modifiers and there is a bare-bones multiplayer component we'll come to later.
Building a base takes cues from the first Middle Earth RTS from EA and you're locked down to a specific pattern, you build various structures from this pattern and you can purchase additional structures and resources/upgrades from a radial menu activated by simply clicking on the building or structure in question. It's pretty quick and easy to get used to and this leaves you time to concentrate on amassing your army, Gameplay wise it's reminiscent of Starcraft and there's not too many units to utilise.
Special abilities can be called in from the d-pad and with a mix of the d-pad, left and right bumpers along with the left and right triggers you can command your army. You can hold down the A button to paint-select units and a quick tap of one bumper will select the units on screen, another bumper will let you select your whole army for one massive push against the enemy.
Mission types are set in a variety of locations and you only play the Human side of the story, you don't play the Flood or the Covenant. It would have been nice to see the divergent storylines and it might have added more to the whole packages value for money, as is, Halo Wars feels a contrived game at times and there are far too many escort missions. Some of these are given a limited time frame and it's quite frustrating to lose at the last second.
It doesn't have the tactical depth of many rts and you can often win through force of arms, using the biggest/best unit along with a couple of support squads for when things get troublesome.
Halo Wars has a lot of low polygon models and designs, the camera can be configured to several default zoom levels and the game looks nice enough. The environments are great and the actual level design is particularly in theme, it feels like the Halo-verse. Lighting and visual effects are up to par and there's only a tiny bit of slow down when things get really intense, not enough to actually mar the Gameplay experience at all.
Halo Wars animations truly shine, the bases look fantastic and have a lot of moving parts. When a new building rises up out of the depths below it does so in a pretty spectacular manner. The combat units are superbly done and watching a Spartan jack an enemy vehicle is just one reason to zoom the camera in as close as you can. The animations are a true highlight of the game.
A decent enough physics engine powers this title, things explode and react like they do in Halo. The Warthogs leaping around is a particularly heart-warming sight to see.
The AI is a mixed bag, the pathfinding can go from being good to totally boneheaded and if you have a massive army, don't send them through a small gap since a lot of the units get blocked by bigger vehicles and none of them seem to have a clue how to move out of the way of the others. Enemy AI varies and is up to scratch enough to provide a challenge.
Many of the sounds are taken directly from Halo, can't grumble there and they are used to good effect. So Halo Wars gets top marks on sound design.
Stephen Rippy has done a marvellous job on the music, it's epic, it sweeps nicely and compliments the action and events perfectly.
Voice and Dialogue
A mixed bag, the voice acting is good for the most part and there's a fairly decent script. There are some stilted moments in the delivery and that's partly where the script and voice direction falls down, a few more takes and it would have probably been better. I can't grumble though, it tells a cohesive enough story.
It has a 2 player online cooperative element, there's a bunch of versus modes that you can play as either the Human or Covenant forces and you can have a mix of Human or AI players with 3v3 on the maps. It rounds out the single player portion of the game nicely and adds replay value to the whole package.
It's a shame that the Flood were responsible for the destruction of the UNSC Ensemble, the studio had a lot of great games under its belt and they did the unthinkable, they managed to make a truly playable if somewhat shallow rts on a console. There are rumours that certain members of the Ensemble crew survived and are working on supporting the game however, so perhaps all isn't lost.