Giant Bomb Review

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Halo Wars Review

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  • X360

Ensemble's new Xbox 360 strategy game is heavy on the Halo mythos but occasionally stumbles over its limited control scheme.


The more you play, the less you'll wrestle with the controls.
In this post- Halo 3 world, it's fallen to studios other than Bungie to keep the Xbox's most revered franchise afloat. Age of Empires maker Ensemble is the first out of the gate with Halo Wars, a PC-style real-time strategy game set a number of years before the first Halo. The game gets a lot of mileage out of the Halo universe and gives a respectable strategy experience, though the limitations of its gamepad-based control scheme can make for some frustrating moments in the thick of battle.

Ensemble wastes no time establishing this game's Halo-ness; all of the menu and front-end interface elements are straight out of Bungie's shooters, the score is likewise reminiscent, and though Master Chief himself doesn't make an appearance, you still get to see a few Spartans tearing it up against the Covenant--not to mention all the Warthogs, Elites, Scorpions, Scarabs, and Wraiths your Halo-loving heart could desire.

In a broad sense, Halo Wars pays a lot of service to fans, even if the game's specific storyline isn't much to write home about. You've got salty old Captain Cutter in command of the UNSC capital ship Spirit of Fire, Halo Wars' equivalent of the Pillar of Autumn. There's Serena, a sardonic British version of Cortana; sassy, no-nonsense scientist Anders; and Sergeant Forge, a square-jawed boy scout type who's your man on the ground in most missions. The characters are a little one-dimensional, and their interactions don't make them nearly as likable as the banter you regularly got between Master Chief and Cortana in the previous Halo games.

The bland storyline is at least really pretty to look at.
The Spirit of Fire spends most of the game chasing the Covenant around the galaxy, running up against other familiar Halo factions and ultimately getting involved in some events that very nearly changed the course of history in the Halo universe. The dialogue can get a little corny and the general flow of events feels disjointed due to all the abrupt planet-hopping, but it's all presented in lavishly produced CG cutscenes between each mission that are fun to watch, especially when the Spartans really get down to doing what they do.

The story campaign--which takes place only from the human perspective--does a decent job of introducing you to the nuts and bolts of Halo Wars' strategy gameplay and controls. Ensemble made some smart design calls here to simplify traditional RTS aspects that don't translate well to the console. You generate resources transparently in dedicated supply buildings; no worker drones or static gold mines to hassle with. Buildings go into preset slots that spiral from your main base, so you don't have to fiddle with building placement. In terms of the basic rules, the game feels nicely streamlined.

Still, I wish the controls were more fully realized. Halo Wars' unit management gets by on a minimum of controller shortcuts, offering only basic methods of selecting, grouping, and controlling units. You can select all of your units on the map, or you can select only the ones currently onscreen, and when you've got a group selected, you can cycle through the individual unit types, which at least lets you access their secondary abilities quickly.

But you can't split all units of one type up into subgroups, even though you may not want to move all eight of your Warthogs across the map at once. You also can't set fixed control groups that you can toggle between, once you do get the right units selected. To be fair, once units are in different parts of the map, you can cycle between de facto groups based on location pretty quickly. But when you've got a big clump of units mashed together in one place, it's a clumsy and time-consuming process to split them up manually.

The robust multiplayer is the best part of Halo Wars.
Then again, a big clump of units is usually all you need. Can you really fault the game for its lack of control subtlety, when the controls that are here are sufficient to get you through both the campaign missions and the back-and-forth attrition of the multiplayer? No, not really. As tempting as it is to go "Waaaah, RTS on a console! Mouse and keyboard for life," my frustration with Halo Wars' controls typically petered out at the academic level. From time to time I thought it would be cool if I were able to get into higher-level tactics, but I never found a serious need to do so in practice. And at least most of the campaign's 15 missions avoid the old standby "blow up the enemy's base" victory condition. There's some kind of unique mechanic going on in almost every mission.

The familiar Halo trappings extend all the way down the game's feature list, including the campaign, mission scoring, and secret goodies. You rack up a score during each of the campaign's levels--based on your completion time, enemies killed, and finished secondary objectives--then you get a bronze/silver/gold medal based on your score. Heroic and Legendary difficulty modes are available, and you can play the whole campaign cooperatively if you want. There are even secret skulls to find in each mission that will provide various positive and negative effects on subsequent plays, just like in the Halo shooters, and you can unlock entries on a lengthy Halo timeline that fill in the broad picture of the series' history. From a top-level perspective, this is certainly a complete Halo package.

There are worse ways Ensemble could have gone out.
And of course, no Halo game would be complete without a robust multiplayer mode. You've got the Halo-style party system here to facilitate matches for up to six people on a healthy variety of maps, and you can mix and match AI players on either side at different difficulties to fill out slots if you want. There are two modes, starting with the regular skirmish that has you starting from scratch, building up a base and teching up the tree to get the best units. The other mode, deathmatch, turns the game into nonstop total warfare. You start with all units and tech fully researched and with a huge amount of capital, so you can launch straight into building war machines instantly. Your population in this mode scales to the number of expansions you control, so the matches here can get huge and intense as you expand your territory. The scale of the battles that resulted from playing a one-on-one match on a map meant for six people was laugh-out-loud funny at times.

Ultimately, I had more fun with the multiplayer than the campaign, perhaps because I'd completed the latter and used it as a kind of extended tutorial before getting into competitive play, and already had a handle on the controls and all the UNSC units. You can also play the Covenant in multiplayer, and there are three unique hero units on each side that give a good variety of additional unique units, attacks, and abilities. The UNSC and Covenant are pretty different to begin with, design-wise, so between your choice of race and then subsequent choice of a leader character, the two modes, and wealth of maps, there's a lot to come back to in the multiplayer here.

It's also worth noting that by the time I'd gotten to the multiplayer, I really wasn't sweating the controls. On the contrary, I surprised myself a few times when I managed to make some units do what I wanted them to do without consciously thinking about the required controller inputs. Call it a steep but surmountable learning curve.

If you haven't heard, Halo Wars marks Ensemble's last project as a development studio. There's no doubting many of its longtime fans (and perhaps some of its employees) would have preferred to see the company go out by doing what it does best with a traditional real-time strategy game on the PC. Still, Halo Wars is a mostly successful effort to bring the strategy genre to the Xbox 360, and not a bad way to kick off a new era of Halo games, to boot. Brad Shoemaker on Google+
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Posted by FallopianTube

Definitly a rent. I would have like if it were on the PC too.

Edited by Coltonio7

Nah, still not doing it for me.

Posted by Synister_Gamer

Great review, looking forward to picking this up :D

Posted by TheIneffableBob

Sorry, but Halo Wars is a sub-par game. Play it and you'll know what I mean.

Posted by StarFoxA

I played the demo, and I didn't like it that much. I think I'll be skipping this one.

Posted by OriginalSeed

I will buy it for the story alone.

Posted by PowerSerj

Oh man, this is the first I've heard of Ensemble's disassembling. Now I feel crappy : /

Good review though.

Posted by HatKing

I don't think it is bad, certainly functional and it looks pretty good.  I mean I guess the controls could be better, but really it is just the unit select thing and that wasn't that big of a deal once I got used to it.  I'll say the game is a bit simplified for a RTS, but this isn't always a bad thing...I mean not everybody wants to run a government just so they can fight a war.  Sometimes it is a good thing when you can just get into things quick and I think that is actually a good setup for multiplayer matches, now instead of playing for four hours you can finish a big battle in under one hour.  I am sure if I had the money I'd buy it, but there are more important things right now...rent and food come to mind.

Edited by MeatSim

Nice review, I might pick this up but to bad this is Ensemble's last game.

Posted by wh1terav3n

I'm happy with this review, though I'll miss Ensamble, at least there will be post-launch support from one of the two split-off groups, Robot Entertainment,  I believe.  I'm looking forward to picking it up tomorrow.

Posted by musdy

Seems cool enough.

Edited by TooWalrus

I'm probably going to pick this up. It's too bad everyone at the Giant Bomb office has a history with PC real time strategies. It must be a pain having to translate PC commands in your mind for an entire game. I'm curious to know how the controls feel to a RTS virgin who doesn't game much on PC's. Hmmm... Maybe I'LL write something when I finish the game.

Posted by HT101

When I played the demo, I found it nice that the control scheme was very simple because I played C&C3 on the 360 and the control they had did not fit the 360 controller at all and I really just wanted to play it on the PC.  This game works perfectly for the 360 and if they had added some of the stuff they had in C&C3, it would not have been as good of an experience for me.  Ensemble did it right by not making the control scheme complicated.

Posted by theMcNasty

     From what I saw in the demo, the characters felt a little cartoony to me (Especially the new A.I. character).  I think it would have been fair to mention the flood isn't playable in this game.  I believe it would have been more Star Craft-like and accessible if they had.  Not to mention fun.

Posted by Bioderm

Some people are saying bring Halo wars to pc I totaly disagree its way to simple for pc

Posted by TomA

Nah i'm good. 2 of my friends are going crazy over this game and I'm just like "no thanks I'll stick to my Dawn of War 2 and Company of Heroes thank you". Developers should stop trying to make console RTS games, they don't sell well and for good reason.Although this game is quite good from what i've played of the demo(which is quite a lot), it is only one among a myriad of other mediocre RTS games on consoles........except Goblin Commander,that game was awesome.

Posted by hunt_ad

From what I've seen and played from the demo the game is great. I like the middle of the road pace: not too fast, not too slow. C&C RA3 was too fast to be fun for me. It felt more like a job or chore than anything else. Planning felt rushed. In this game the pace is really nice. I enjoy time to think while my units are moving or training. Can't wait to pick it up. I'd say if you just want a change of pace try it out. Don't try and compare it, just play it and see if you have fun. :]

Posted by TheHBK

I am wondering how much of this was brad just not liking that he couldn't do specific things.  I mean, he said it himself, for the game you really dont need to get all detailed with different groups, but yet he finds it annoying that he cant.  I would say that you could argue Gears is not as good as it could be because you cant jump.  Though you really dont need to, the game never makes it necessary and here control groups are not either.  I am not saying this game is a 5 or anything, far from it, just think we need more detail as to why it is not a 5 star because i dont agree with that point about the control groups, though I do feel that with the short and not so engrossing single player, and the lack of real other civilizations, it is not 5 stars.

Posted by EmillKim

Waffles Rock !!!!

Posted by JJ

Looking forward to picking this up after work tomorrow. So... work, gym, then game or work, game, gym, then game?

Edited by Scroll

From what I remember the demo allowed you to select all of a certain type of unit with a double tap of A. Seems a good way of getting those precious warthogs to scout ahead.

Posted by Dovey

For me personally I am a bit of an RTS buff and have been playing the likes of starcraft and warcraft for many years, I have recently recieved DoW II but have yet the chance to play that.  The thing is, that RTS are very time consuming and when 50 hours of my leisure time a week is dedicated to job it gets pretty hard to get into a RTS.  Halo Wars whilst it does have it short comings (Brad pretty much pointed them out clearly), It is very easy and accessible.  Missions take no longer than about 40mins to do and multiplayer is short but very enjoyable.  Halo Wars has easily satisfied my longing for RTS experience that is rich and deep yet short and fun.

Posted by Death_Unicorn

This is the review I wanted, not other reviews comparing it to hardcore RTS, or knocking off points because it lacked another campaign. Thank you, Brad.

Posted by Kohe321

Good review Brad! I just started downloading DOW2 on Steam, so i think I got my RTS fix for March. I'll maybe pick this up later!

Posted by Willy105

I'm going to miss Ensemble.

Posted by RHCPfan24

Not a surprise. Too bad Ensemble is going away.

Posted by Kiemoe

I love how these reviews take fanboys into account and makes sure to tell them that they're wrong, no matter what the matter is. All fanboys need to feel equally bad lol.

I think any deserving RTS needs a map/gametype editor. They could call it Forge and totally make the game awesome. Also, does multiplayer have bots? I hope so. Great review once again Brad.

Posted by Colonel_Fury

I might rent it. It would be cool if there was a covenant campaign also. DLC perhaps?

Posted by Predasus

surprising you liked this so much ... thought it might have been a bomb

Posted by MichaelBach

I just got it yesterday, playing thru the campaign. I like the controls but I agree with Brad that sometimes you would like to be able to do some more unit control. But maybe we just need to get use to the concept.

Posted by sneakysnake128

I hate this game, but I'm willing to let 4 stars pass out of respect for Ensemble.

Posted by CitizenKane

I'll definitely give this a rental.  I liked the demo a lot, but I don't think it's worth shelling out $60 for me.

Posted by GunnBjorn

As always, an excellent review.
Damn, i wish i could write like that...

Posted by Media_Master

Not surprised that the story isn't that good.

I remember playing the first Halo on PC and being disappointed by its thin story as well.

Posted by Jayzilla

i just don't think this is a deep enough RTS for my tastes. I think it will be great for players who are new to the genre though.

Posted by Dudacles

Definitely interested in this one. I'll pick it up sometime.

Posted by SolracFB

This is one of those games that will be judged very differently by different people. In my specific case it is kind of god-sent. I have never played an RTS and was always curious. However I only play console games and was intimidated by extensive micro management and complex tech trees (even though I don't really know what does that mean). And while I may not be the biggest Halo nut, I like the presentation and universe enough and have invested some time in Halo 2 and 3. This game is custom tailored for me then it seems. I have it since sunday and have been enjoying it a lot.

Posted by TheHBK

I think people may be put off because it is an RTS, not a real Halo FPS, so I am worried it wont sell that well.  Though most people enjoyed the demo, I am not sure it is enough to convince people just because it is an RTS.  Maybe this will drop the price then I will pick it up.

Edited by Crono

A watered down RTS with a boring storyline?  I think I'll pass.  Not that I buy any game for its paltry attempts to be "novel" (I'm from the school that believes Gameplay trumps all) but if the gameplay is going to be watered down then the least it should have is a story for the hook. 

I'll stick to the PC's  mouse and keyboard for RTS til developers either overcome the controller's lack of control (for this genre) or decide to add mouse and keyboard support (not likely).

Posted by AutomaticSnake

4 stars for this crap? weird.

Posted by Kombat

I'm actually very thrilled that Halo Wars managed to grab four stars in this review, and it really does sound like Brad enjoyed the game despite the shoddy campaign story and difficult control scheme, but I just can't seem to justify picking this one up after playing the excellent Dawn of War 2.

Posted by JJOR64

Nice review.  I wont get this game right off the bat but, I may get it when the price drops.

Posted by Ottosmann

Nice review Brad.
I'm just not sure about this game... I'm trying to convince myself to get it.

Posted by Nate

I have only one thing to say: Brad needs a bearded picture for these reviews to more accurately reflect his current appearance. 

Posted by KinjiroSSD

Sold my 360 few days ago so I have no choice but to pass. At the same time, I could care less about any console RTS. RTSs belong with a keyboard and mouse and Starcraft 2 will show us the path.

Posted by Joseppie

This, and basically any other reviews I've read, seem to match up with what I thought the quality was going to be. Good to see Ensemble coming through again with another solid effort, even if it is their last. AOE 4EVAR!!!1!1!1!!

Posted by JCisG

Sounds pretty cool to me.I really like RTS's,but I really suck at them.So, this sounds like the game for me.

Edited by JCGamer

I played the demo and found it to be a lot of fun.  I did have problems with moving that reticle around, but that was about it.  I am a bit disappointed that this game is really just a simplified PC RTS put on a console though.  Would have loved if this game was more like dawn of war II and ditched the base building stuff for more tactical combat and RPG elements.  

Posted by Vgsounds

I am sorry but no. Without the word Halo in it this rts on a CONSOLE would not even be known by me and these people. It would be passed on. Comand and Conquer and Starcraft and Warcraft 4 LIFE!!!!!! I saw everyone almost playing it on my friends list yesterday. They are fools. I rather would of and did by the way bought Killzone 2 for my ps3 and was not dissapointed.

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