Platform: Xbox 360
Category: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
2 player system link
2 player cooperative
2-6 player online multi-player
1 MB game save
HDTV 720p/ 1080i/ 1080p
Halo Wars is a strategy game based on the legendary Halo universe. This game has been created from the ground up exclusively for the Xbox 360 console by Ensemble Studios. The team is well versed in the real-time strategy genre and are responsible for such hits as Age of Empires and Age of Mythology in the PC arena. While I do love the Halo story and its style of gameplay, I was quite skeptical on the new style utilized for this prequel. This incarnation of the game is strictly a top down, real time adventure which is lathered in the back story and a lead up to the Halo series we all know. With the guidance of Serina (an artificial intelligence persona) gamers will be able to direct legions of UNSC soldiers, Warthogs, Scorpions, and many more into battle with Covenant forces. The premise is very good, but how is the gameplay?
The Halo experience is projected from a new point of view. Most gamers will be delightfully refreshed as they go from first-person shooting to virtual commanding. All of the necessary and functional elements that make the Halo games of past stand out have transitioned into the top-down perspective. You can see everything from the shields refreshing on MJOLNIR armor, the recognizable blue streaks from the wingtips of Banshees, and even smoke from burned out hulks of downed ships. They of course eventually disappear, but the effect is a nice touch. In my opinion Halo Wars looks outstanding. The shading and textures are all very well done and even though the camera can be high above the action the detail is almost as noticeable as if you were playing it from the first person perspective. When in battle with the enemy some incredible explosions can take place that fill up the entire screen with color giving you that unique perspective from afar. Map design has been tailored very well and players get the chance to battle in many different environments ranging from snow filled expanses to foggy flood infested planets. The environments look stunning and are a joy to play on. Halo Wars really pulls the player into the game with its graphics and it really is candy for the eyes.
While the in-game visuals get the job done in spades, it's in the game's cut scenes that really blow you away. You would think that you were watching a Hollywood feature with the production values used. Even if the Covenant-Human conflict never makes it to Hollywood, you will believe that it is entirely possible to make a stellar animated film based on the cinematics between the games levels. Not only do the cut scenes look good, they help drive the story and by pulling you in and engaging you as it unfolds.
Unfortunately I have a few bones of contention regarding the graphics. In some levels the battlefield is split into sections where the action takes place. Fighting the enemy in one section the entire area of the battle will light up, whereas the immediate surroundings are darkened over. So instead of looking at a whole picture, you can only see a part of it. It makes me wonder why this is so? It couldn’t be processing power. I would much rather have my shiny HDTV showing me the whole picture. I can surmise that this effect may to lessen confusion on screen, but it really can distract from the overall presentation of the game. Another minor gripe is that the framerate takes a pretty good hit in action intensive scenes, which is disappointing. It never gets out of hand, but it does tend to hang around. Most gamers will probably not notice, but I noticed it right off the hop.
I’ve always loved the sounds of Halo, and Halo Wars is no different The soundtrack for Halo Wars is close to perfect as the music fits in very well with the flow of the game, especially in the long battles. The contrast of soundtrack when playing in different environments really sets the mood for the missions. It can span from hard rocking guitar riffs to the haunting, but beautiful and recognizable main theme of Halo. I am a game soundtrack collector and I’ll be on the lookout for this one.
As good as the music is, what’s most pleasing about the sounds in Halo Wars are the sound effects. You can hear all of your favorite weapons from previous Halo games including the trademark clanking of the Assault Rifle and the click when you pull the pin on a grenade. The Covenant soldiers are also audible as you hear them barking out orders and screaming in agony as you pile drive through them. All of these sounds combined with the explosions and the voice of the narrator provide a complete audio experience. The game is encoded in Dolby digital Surround, so those with an uber-home theater systems will really feel the full auditory effect.
Most gamers were introduced to the world of Halo on the original Xbox. The battle between humans and the Covenant is well known throughout the video game world. The franchise is on its 4th chapter, with the newest chapter being an old one, or prequel if you will. Halo Wars brings us back to the beginning of the conflict as the two sides vie over humanity's outer most colonies. Despite five years of gruelling battle, the Covenant has been pushed back to the brink and it's time to finish the job. You assume the commanding role of Sgt. John Forge and recapture a UNSC base; however the Covenant find something in the arctic region of the world that leads to 15 missions of army-building, objective-based gameplay. This is the basis of Halo Wars and its new style of Real Time Strategy (RTS) gameplay. While the genre is not new, fans of the other Halo games will now be treated to an all new aspect of gameplay, story, and focus.
Your pursuit of this generation's Arbiter takes you across all kinds of differing locations and terrain. Instead of falling back on the RTS genre's reliance of capturing evermore base points, Ensemble Studios has done an impressive job in implementing different kinds of missions that break up the tempo of game. This allows or keeps the player engaged for the relatively short, and in my opinion deep, single-player action.
Each mission consists of nearly the same process of building up an army and assigning tasks that you can hopefully accomplish. I’ve never been a fan of RTS games as the layout and premise seemed a bit too extreme and time consuming to me. I found out early that by creating an air of uniqueness between each mission Ensemble Studios has made it easy to overlook a console-friendly setup that might seem a bit short-changed for hardcore strategists out there. Moreover, the easy to learn controls is most inviting to the RTS newbie or casual player like me. Halo Wars uses simple button commands to execute simple and complex tasks in relative ease. Mind you, it did take a bit of time to figure out the nuances of the buttons, but it came pretty easy after some gameplay. I would almost recommend any gamer to play the tutorial where great instruction of the buttons and commands are easily explained throughout.
In my time with the game I found delegating troop movement or unit selection is easily accomplished by two or three buttons, but the RTS faithful might find it frustrating to not quickly be able to group specific units together. It is really all or nothing if you want to set up squads quickly in the heat of battle, as trying to pair infantry units, a tank, and/or anti-air vehicles will be noticeably slower and may become tedious to some of the PC brethren. While the setup works very well for the console, the inability for some users to customize your layout with hotkeys will feel quite strange. I think the developers made a conscious decision to elevate some of the confusing button layouts and ride the line to please both console players and PC users, which is marvelous.
The thumb sticks allow you to look around the map and zoom in on your units, while the A button is used to select units that are highlighted by your cursor. The X button is your main interaction button, allowing you to move units around the map and interact with other units or attack enemies with your primary attack function. Additionally, aside from the basic functions of the face buttons, the game also streamlines the controls to allow you to select the units you want a lot more easily. Using the bumper buttons, you can select all of your units, or all of the units currently on-screen, with a simple button push, or you can use the right trigger to switch between different unit types. Additionally, the D-Pad is used to utilize any Heroes that you may have, using their special abilities, as well as cycling through your Bases, Armies and any Alerts that may come up. Halo Wars uses every button on the controller, but fortunately it never feels overwhelming or cluttered. It may sound confusing, and it is, but after playing for a while the chunkiness disappears.
With that being said it is not to say that the game lacks in delivering fast-paced and strategy-laden play. While some RTS games are more of the classical and typical type strategy game that tend to focus on micro-management of every detail, Halo Wars does well in delivering the same type of play without the clutter. For instance, instead of detailing where you want to place different buildings and worrying about where the next whatever it is you need, you can command your way through the campaign with pre-designated areas to build upgradeable bases. They will all contain a limited number of spaces for additional weaponries and housings, along with buildings that are specifically meant for gathering your resources. Essentially the game takes the worry out of the smaller details, which in turn opens up the gameplay to more action. Your job for the most part is with the types of units you can deploy and how you can upgrade them. You must also deal with how many you can train due to how long your resources last. This shift in fundamental focus is what essentially separates this console-specific strategy game from its mouse-and-keyboard counterparts. For me it seems the transition is amazingly well done and effective, but RTS purists may balk at the lack attention to detail.
I’m finding the single player campaign so far quite engaging and fun. The game moves at a pretty good pace with each mission lasting around the 20-30 min range on average. There are 15 missions in all with plenty of action throughout. One of my favorite battle areas is where a Covenant Scarab is in mid construction and is unable to move, but its gun turrets are fully operational.
As with any Xbox LIVE game, the online component is a highlight for me. While the online modes may not be as robust as Bungie’s (developer of the first three Halo games) there is plenty here to get you excited. Halo Wars multiplayer includes 2 different online modes, skirmish and death-match. There is a 14-map complement split into 1vs1, 2vs2, and 3vs3 breakdowns, and a team play mode which really is the star of the show. You can send up to 6 players on your team into battle and have them strategize and manage their own units. The gameplay reminds me of EA’s online hockey where each player on the ice is a friend. The potential of online clashes of will and wit is almost intoxicating. This is the kind if interaction that gamers look for in an online environment. Lastly, the online co-op mode is also great for a couple of buddies making headway though the game and unlocking some of the online achievements’. The co-op is has become one of those necessary options for online play, it adds another dimension to any game and prolongs as it prolongs the fun factor throughout.
There are four difficulties to play and upon completion of optional objectives during a missionyou will unlock a segment for the Halo timeline, which arranges all the battles into a timeline complete with times and dates. Although the UNSC campaign is 15 missions long, something that I missed was a Covenant campaign. In most other RTS games you get to play multiple campaigns as the different factions and this is something I feel could have been very interesting in this game.
If there is one flaw to Halo Wars, it is the lack of Covenant and Flood campaigns. This seems like a missed opportunity when each seems like a natural fit for the real-time-strategy framework that Halo Wars establishes. The inclusion of each perspective would drive the games overall story tenfold. Perhaps there may be future downloads available that addresses this gap. It is in these small details where Halo fans are going to feel at home, but it is also where newcomers to the series, who are looking for a solid strategy game on the console, are welcomed into the universe.
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