Our immediate reaction to Halo Wars was as mixed as that of anyone else. One side of our collective geek consciousness argued that it must just be a quick Halo cash-in game and that the real-time strategy formula could never be made to work with a controller. Meanwhile, the other half of the Den hive-mind reckoned that it might just be worth playing anyway; Ensemble was a good studio before it closed and just because it’s set in the Halo universe didn’t mean it’s going to be totally bad.
As is usual for such disagreements, the final conclusion was mostly an amalgamation of the two. Halo Wars is a pretty fun game, though it is by no means proof that the conventional PC RTS can be made to work with anything less precise than a mouse. If that’s all you care about, you may as well leave it there – the rest is just details.
The singleplayer campaign for Halo Wars acts as a detached prequel to the first Halo game, taking place a good twenty years before the Halo itself was discovered. Master Chief isn’t yet on the scene, which means that all the key characters and crew of the Pillar of Autumn have been replaced with limp, stereotyped replacements. Cortana becomes Lt Anders, the battlefield scientist who’s tired of being babysat all the time, while Sgt. Forge is a clear substitute for Master Chief, boring nonchalance and all.
The story starts with Forge and Co. struggling to reclaim the Harvest colony (AKA Ice planet #1) back from the theocratic Covenant, but it quickly moves on from there when you stumble across part of the Covenant plan. Seems this race of evil, alien vicars is looking for something that could turn the tide of the war and you’ve got to stop them – but since we all literally know how this story ends there’s very few actual surprises in the plotting.
The one surprise that Halo Wars does have, though, is that the otherwise bland narrative actually forms the framework for a remarkably robust strategy game, controller be damned. The gameplay is tightly woven, even though the story is little more than a haphazard cross-stitch that links the levels together.
Those of you expecting an RTS in line with the conventions of PC strategies may be a little disappointed at some of the compromises Ensemble has had to make, but it can’t be denied that the game is better off because of it. Base building has been reined in so that you can only build in certain, preset places, for example. There’s an easily reached cap on the size of your army too, which is doubtlessly a limitation of the hardware. Oh, and no matter how far zoomed out you go the viewpoint always feels constrained to the point of claustrophobia. These are the core issues, or so it might seem.
To a hardcore RTS fan these all sound like bad things, but where Ensemble has shaken stuff up is in the balancing of the game. Single units can be upgraded constantly and are a lot more capable than you’d think, which enhances the personal feel of squad-on-squad battles. Whereas single units would die instantly in something like C&C, the units in Halo Wars are made of much tougher stuff, so population caps don’t matter so much. It also means you never have to zoom out so much to see all your assembled forces. Armies are smaller and tougher by design.
As for the way that players can only build bases in certain places, that’s helps focus the pacing of the individual levels by allowing the designers to make the missions more linear.
Halo Wars isn’t perfect; it’s still got more cliches in it than a teenager’s blog and the levels are the exact same mix of escort and assault missions that we’ve seen a million times before, but it’s solid in construction if not innovative in design. Multiplayer adds an extra dimension once the short singleplayer campaign is complete and as with past Halo games there’s a collection of Skull power-ups you can add-in to make the game more interesting.
In the end though, neither of these is enough to give Halo Wars the longevity that’s required to get much more than a quiet, but firm nod of approval from us. Halo Wars is good, but not remarkable, well-suited to renting if not buying.