The Definitive Console RTS
Ensemble Studios is a name known throughout the entire video game industry for their expertise at crafting fantastic RTS experiences such as the Age of Empires series and Age of Mythology. Unfortunately, however, the studio has been closed, but it went down fighting. Halo Wars is a huge success and a worthy last hurrah for the storied studio.
When I first saw the game, I was a bit skeptical of its graphics. They didn’t look very polished and looked a little cartoony but they fixed that for the final product. The quality of graphics you get is what you would expect from the RTS genre. Huge scale battles look awesome while focusing really close to a single unit reveals a little less polish. While that is expected one thing that can be said is that the cutscenes look very, very impressive. All of the characters, objects, and happenings in the world look amazing. Back in the regular game though there is the occasional frame-rate hitch when the battles get really big but it doesn’t happen often enough to detract from the experience. Aside from that, the units look like they should and the Spartans . . . well let’s just say that when you see them coming, you definitely will feel better about your chances in battle.
Another thing I was skeptical about (along with everyone else) was the controls. In case you don’t know, RTS games are usually meant to be played on the PC because of the precision of the keyboard and mouse. Games have tried to bring RTS elements to the consoles from StarCraft 64 to Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth. The way the games control has become better (very slowly) but Ensemble finally nailed it. When you start a game you will be given a main base with empty nodes around it. The first thing you do is build a Supply Pad (if you’re the human faction). This is also the first difference. Usually in RTS’ you have gatherer units that go to a resource, gather it, take it back to the main base, and repeat. In Halo Wars all you have to do is build these Supply Depots and they will automatically gather your money for you. Other nodes can be filled with tech upgrade buildings, barracks, air pads, vehicle depots, and more. When it comes to selecting units the A button is your best friend. Press once to select highlighted units, twice to select all of that kind of unit, or hold down A and a circle will appear; any unit it touches will be selected. Other options are to press RB which will select all of your units on screen and LB which will select all of your units. Some people will complain that this oversimplifies things (such as resource gathering) or that the controls are as well as it makes trying to put together specific squads of units difficult. During the course of the time I played with the game, I felt like the controls worked perfectly fine. Since no one else has a keyboard and mouse, everyone is going the same pace and it is balanced.
There are two playable factions in the game, the UNSC (human race) and the Covenant (alien race). Both play similarly but have very different units especially their hero units. For the UNSC, the heroes usually are not on the battlefield, but you can use their specialties such as a unit exclusive to them or special effects you receive for the overall match. The Covenant heroes on the other hand are on the battlefield and have special combat abilities.
The campaign in the game takes anywhere from 5-10 hours to finish depending on difficulty level. Storywise, Halo Wars takes place about 20 years before Master Chief shows up on the scene in Halo: Combat Evolved. The story involves 5 or 6 characters who are all after a Forerunner relic. Overall the story is satisfying and there are some awesome moments. And in true Halo fashion, the entire thing can be played co-op online with a friend or system linked. This adds to the fun immensely and also contributes to the replayability of the the campaign later on. One downside is that there is only one storyline to go through (only the humans) when most RTS’ have one for each race. Granted this could have been due to time restraints or pressure from the studio’s imminent closing, but it cannot be ignored.
Ensemble nailed multiplayer. You can play 1 v 1, 2 v 2, or 3 v 3 in a skirmish mode against the A.I. or other players. While the multiplayer may be short on modes (only skirmish and deathmatch, which is a variant of skirmish) it makes up for it in sheer fun. There are 14 maps that ship with the game with those being split up into maps that support 1 v 1, 2 v 2, 3 v 3. Each of them are varied enough to where they don’t get old.
As in the original Halo trilogy, the music in Halo Wars is outstanding. Stephen Rippey did the soundtrack which a lot of the time sounds like Martin O’ Donnell’s music from the original games. Voice acting is very strong as well with strong performances from Captain Cutter, Sergeant Forge, and the Arbiter. Besides the voice acting, the sound effects are top notch as well. From the explosions of scarabs to the beeping sound of damaged shields on spartans, Ensemble nailed the Halo atmosphere perfectly.
Ensemble put a Halo timeline in the in the game that chronicles the time from a little before the story of Halo Wars to the brute takeover over the elites in Halo 2. Along with that there are things to collect in each mission along with skulls to obtain. Along with the aforementioned co-op which adds a ton of time, there is also the multiplayer which lasts a long time as well.
Overall, Ensemble could not have had a much better swan song. Halo Wars the premier console RTS and the one that other developers will use as a blueprint for many years to come. Its great blend of multiplayer, single-player, and co-op adds together to be a package that no Xbox 360 owner should miss.