How well does the Halo universe translate to the strategy genre and can a real time strategy game be enjoyed with a controller?
Before the discovery of the iconic ring worlds and without the equally iconic Master Chief as the main character Halo Wars is played out in the expanded Halo universe. The setting provides us with an exciting campaign, and although Sergeant Forge and Captain Cutter have a hard time living up to Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson the story that plays out has a few interesting and unexpected twists and turns along the way. But as any RTS fan will tell you, the campaign and the story of a great RTS is only the prelude.
If the gameplay holds up it will be in the skirmish and multiplayer modes you will spend most of your time. This is true for Halo Wars as well, the 15 campaign maps will only take an evening or two to play through and they serve as an extended and polished tutorial where new units are introduced all the way until the end. My main gripe with the campaign map is that there are a bit too scripted and linear. It would have been great to mix it up with some more open ended skirmish like action along the way for a bit more variation. The campaign follows the journey of Sergeant Forge as he is confronted with the Arbiter and attempts to foil the plans of the Covenant.
It is only in the multiplayer and skirmish modes were you get to control the Covenant. There are three "hero units" for each faction, each with a special unit or ability that makes for a wider array of strategic decisions. The maps are designed for 2 to 6 players, and the nature of the two factions make for interesting battles. The Covenant have the extremely powerful Scarabs that are capable of incinerating most anything that dares stand in their way. The are costly and take both time and resources to produce so building them requires quick resource gathering and possibly a diversion or two.
The covenant have a slightly higher population cap as well, but building a Scarab takes up half of the initial cap (can be raised from 40 to 50 through an upgrade). Of the leaders on the Covenant side a took a liking to the Brute Chieftains as his unique unit is the cheap and devastating brutes. The Prophet of Regret has his Elite Honor Guard units and is a hero unit on the battlefield with a powerful cleansing beam that destroys anything in its path.
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On the UNSC side of things Professor Anders is an interesting choice as the cost for upgrades and time to research them are both cut in half. Sergeant Forge is perhaps my favourite choice as he can build the powerful grizzly tanks, probably the unit that is most efficient when taking the population cap in consideration. With all the unique units and abilities as well as the basic differences between the factions balance is a major issue and it is something that only time will tell if Ensemble Studios managed to nail. Professor Anders for instance is a bad choice if you are playing a deathmatch where her speedy research doesn't come into play at all.
There are two flavours of skirmish gameplay. The normal mode where you start with small base, the standard unit cap, and you have to work your way up the technology tree. The Deathmatch mode sees you start with plenty of resources, a large based and all upgrades unlocked. The unit cap is lowered and you have to capture more bases to increase leading to fast and frantic action. Simply put, deathmatch is not for the turtle.
Adapting a real time strategy game developed for the PC with mouse and keyboard controls onto a console has proven difficult in the past. Although EA have done a decent job with the recent Command & Conquer games you can't help but feel frustrated by the limitations of the controller when going from one to the other. It feels a bit like using my left hand to write, while it technically might look the same as my right hand, the writing is slower and well, not quite as elegant.
Ensemble Studios, however went down a different route and all of Halo Wars has been designed from the ground up with the controller in mind. While the game follows a classic RTS game design, reminiscent of Ensemble's work on the Age of Empires series, the number of units you control, the size and layout of the maps, the pace and the AI as well as the level of tactical micro management are all adapted to the controller. The end result is without a doubt the best RTS experience on console ever from a gameplay perspective.
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For the die hard Halo fanatic there is plenty to get excited about in Halo Wars as it provides a lot of back story to the other games and expands the understanding of what went on before the Halo trilogy. The timeline events that you can unlock and the brilliant cinematics will also please fans of the Halo universe.
Ensemble Studios were given a task of colossal proportions as Microsoft asked them to make a real time strategy game set in the Halo universe for Xbox 360. Not only did the game have to live up to the high standard of Bungie's first person shooters, but the gameplay also had to be tailored to suit the 360 controller. Something many had tried and failed to larger or lesser degrees in the past. The task was not made easier when Microsoft announced they were closing down the studio and that Halo Wars would be the last game to come out of Ensemble Studios. It took a long time to finish, but the end result is as polished as any of Bungie's Halo games, and the controller dilemma has been handled better than I had expected. Full props to the team on a job well done - a fitting swan song for a celebrated studio.
8 / 10
Great controls, plenty of great units to control, great value.
Some depth has been sacrificed for accessibility, somewhat flat characters.