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Review: Halo Wars 177

Posted by Soulskill
from the now-for-something-completely-different dept.
The success of the Halo franchise is unquestionable. Bungie's trilogy of first-person shooters established a standard against which most similar games have been judged for the past eight years. Thus, when Ensemble Studios picked up the task of bringing the Halo universe to real-time strategy, they faced two separate mountains to climb: maintaining the high quality demanded by fans of the series and developing for a genre that traditionally translates poorly to console play. Fortunately, they had a head start on the latter, bringing in a wealth of experience from the Age of Empires series. Creating an intuitive and dependable control scheme was a top priority, and their success in doing so makes Halo Wars a worthy addition to the series. Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
  • Title: Halo Wars
  • Developer: Ensemble Studios
  • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
  • System: Xbox 360
  • Reviewer: Soulskill
  • Score: 7/10

A solid camera system is the foundation of a good control scheme, and here Ensemble gets off to a running start. The left stick pans around the map at a variable speed determined by how far you push the stick. You can scroll slowly or quickly, and you can also change the maximum speed in the options menu. It's very responsive and easy to get from one place to another. You can hold the left trigger for even more speed, going all the way across the map in about a second. The right stick controls the zoom function, which is largely irrelevant — you'll probably want to keep it zoomed out as far as it will go most of the time — and pushing the stick to the sides rotates your view. You won't need to use this very often, but it's convenient and useful if you want to see things from a different angle.

The other way you can move around the map is with the directional pad. Hitting left will cycle through your base positions, and pressing down will cycle through your unit positions. Occasionally you'll get an alert — for example, a few of your units will be under attack somewhere on the map — and pressing right will take you immediately to the position of your latest alert. Getting around the map is definitely not a problem in this game. It's about as close as you can get to the ease of use that comes with a mouse and keyboard.

The next big hurdle was unit selection, and again, Ensemble did a fine job, giving you all the options and speed you're used to in these types of games. The A-Button selects units individually, but if you hold it down, you get a good-sized circular area which you can then sweep over multiple units to select them at the same time. This takes the place of the typical click-and-drag rectangles on the PC. It's slightly slower, but not by much, and you get the added benefit of being able to grab everyone in a circle around a unit you want to stay put. On top of that, double tapping the A-button on a unit will select all of that type of unit nearby. The right shoulder will select everything on screen, and the left shoulder will grab all units period. The only notable missing function is the inability to save certain groups and switch back to them, and even then, if your groups are spread out, it's not an issue.

If you have multiple unit types selected, the trigger buttons will cycle through the different types, making it very easy to send all your marines in one direction and all your vehicles in another. Once you've had a few missions to get used to the myriad selection options, you won't even need to actively think about what buttons to press. It's a good system because it doesn't get in the way of the actual gameplay. Finally, the means of controlling your units and buildings are simple and intuitive as well. The X-button is your standard "go here," "attack this," "grab this" button, and the Y-button activates any special attacks your selected units have. One nice feature is that you can hold down the X-button for a few seconds and a unit will finish walking to where they were already headed before they go to the new location. This lets you set up paths to take the long way around if the short way isn't safe. Buildings have a radial context menu through which you activate upgrades or pump out new units. You can queue up multiples at a time, and you can cancel an order before it finishes. Essentially, all is as it should be, and you're left to focus on what's important.

Halo Wars starts you off about 20 years before the events of the first Halo game. They send you to Harvest, the first planet to be taken by the Covenant, to establish peaceful and cooperative relations with their leaders and diplomats after five long years of combat. Just kidding — they want you to kill stuff. You get to see cinematics after every mission, which are largely responsible for driving the plot of the game. Visually, they're quite impressive, though the first few are a bit slow. As the game goes on, the cinematics become progressively cooler and more exciting. The writing and the dialogue is less than stellar, but it's serviceable, and it provides some good context to the Halo universe. There are also minor plot points shown during the mission, rendered by the game engine. Those are usually what determine your specific objectives.

There are not many missions in the campaign — just 15 — but they're very diverse. No two are alike, and Ensemble does a decent job of creating interesting objectives and differing levels of resistance. In one, you have to defend civilians as they head for their evacuation shuttles, and you need to take care of the shuttles themselves. The mission is timed, waiting on a countdown to launch. Another mission has you faced with a large energy shield that needs to be taken down. Certain positions on the map are good attack points for a type of long-range tank, so you have to take each position one at a time and hold them all long enough to knock down the barrier. Later you fight a Covenant super-weapon (a Scarab), dodging its main attack while taking out its power supply. And, of course, you get a mission to just build a massive army and annihilate everything else on the map.

They give you a good mixture of offense and defense, though in some cases the amount of resistance you're likely to encounter is unclear. Decisions made early in the game in terms of build order and unit production can effectively eliminate your chances of winning if you guess wrong. This is important because of the way Halo Wars deals with building bases. The bases themselves can only be placed in particular spots. Once a base is built, a number of empty construction bays spring up around it, and you're only allowed to build additional structures where there are construction bays. This means that you're only allowed a maximum of seven structures per base. On top of that, resources aren't something you go out and farm; you build supply pads, which slowly get deliveries from your ship in orbit. So, you're given a tough decision early on whether you want to develop your army or your economy. If you throw down five supply pads, you'll get resources like crazy, but you won't have enough space left to build all of the other things you need to win.

On the easier difficulty levels, this works out decently well; a ton of early resources means that you can pump out enough basic marines to handle most threats until you get fully established and perhaps take a second base. On the harder modes, you're attacked earlier and with stronger forces. Another decision they give you is what type of enemies you want to defend against. Several units are particularly strong against one type of enemy — infantry, vehicle, or aircraft — and not as useful against others. When in doubt, diversify, but if you're playing at an appropriate difficulty level, you can expect to fail a few because you just don't know what to prepare for. The timed missions, in particular, force you into early decisions that simply may not work. Since there's only the UNSC campaign, it's worth going through and doing the side missions, and also trying for some of the difficulty-related achievements.

The AI in Halo Wars is solid; pretty standard for this type of game. Your forces are reasonably smart about picking a target to focus, but not too smart; they won't switch off a full-health tank to drop one that's already almost dead. The pathing is pretty good; you won't have to spend much time micromanaging where you want them to go, but the option is there if you need it. One complaint is that when defending, your troops like to chase attackers too far, spreading out your forces and making it easy for a smart enemy to score some easy kills. There are four difficulty levels — easy, normal, heroic, and legendary. If you're just looking for a quick play-through of the game, go with normal. If you'd like to work for it, go with heroic. If you're pretty good at other real-time strategy games and/or enjoy being punched in the face, legendary will fit the bill.

The selection of units is interesting. You often get a leader and a group of three Spartan soldiers. In addition to being quite powerful, these units are essentially unkillable in the single-player campaign. When they take lethal damage, they drop to the ground and slowly regenerate health. Once they've healed enough, you can revive them by bringing another unit close by. It can lead to some surprising shifts in power. Most of the units are upgradeable to a high degree, becoming significantly more powerful late in the game. For example, the standard UNSC marines begin as a squad of four men with machine guns and grenades. Successive upgrades will: add one man, trade the grenades for long-range rocket launchers, add a medic that will heal the squad after a battle, and finally upgrade all of the marines to Shock Troopers. Each side even has "uber units;" Scarabs shoot giant lasers that fry UNSC forces in seconds, and Vultures are airborne behemoths that can eradicate Covenant buildings almost as quickly.

It would have been great to get a campaign of Covenant missions, but you can still use them in multiplayer. Their buildings are similar to the UNSC selection, but with minor variations. They get shield generators of questionable utility, and their infantry are the ones specialized to fight against particular units, rather than the vehicles. The two factions are similar enough that they'll be well balanced. You can play multiplayer maps against the AI or online with other humans, and you can also play cooperatively with your friends. You select the faction you want to play and then the leader you want, each of whom brings a different unit, ability, or potential upgrade to the table. You can expect to see players using strategies that work in other RTS games. Rushes work well, but they can be dealt with. Selecting your opening strategy tends to be more important than out-managing your opponent in battles. You don't have to have a ridiculous number of actions per minute to do well.

Ensemble succeeded quite well at establishing a control system that is powerful yet doesn't fight for intellectual real estate with the actual playing of the game. It's not a ground-breaking new entry into the real-time strategy genre, but, in a manner similar to the first Halo shooter, it demonstrates how well this genre can work on consoles. And it does well by the Halo franchise in the process. It's too bad Ensemble themselves got split up after completing this game — DLC involving some Covenant missions or making the Flood a third playable race would make this game even better. Fortunately, a team of Ensemble members now going by the name Robot Entertainment will be providing "support." If they're proactive about tuning and balancing the game, Halo Wars multiplayer could become quite popular indeed, in part because there isn't much competition. While it's not likely to be suitable for the hardcore, competitive RTS players, Halo Wars is definitely the fun and easy-to-operate console RTS many players have been waiting for.

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Review: Halo Wars

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  • In other words... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Assmasher (456699) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:07PM (#27136879) Journal

    ...same exact formula as a million other RTS games, just branded with Halo; ergo, if you like Halo, this is probably an excellent game - otherwise it's like many others that came before it. If you've not played many RTS games, this one probably has polish, so pick it.

  • by ChinggisK (1133009) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:12PM (#27136953)

    I'd have to lose 30 IQ points before I'd try an RTS on a console. The only people I know who think HALO is a good game are the ones that have never played Half-Life. Do yourself a favor; buy a PC, and try a real RTS.

    *sniff sniff*

    Do I smell an opposing fanboi?!

  • by Jailbrekr (73837) <jailbrekr@digitaladdiction.net> on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:30PM (#27137295) Homepage

    It starts out with: "Bungie's trilogy of first-person shooters established a standard against which most similar games have been judged for the past eight years."

    Uhm, no. Halo is a console game which was based on the rich and varied offerings from the PC world. To say that Halo is a standard really shows how little the reviewer knows about first pergames.

  • by Deag (250823) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:34PM (#27137347)

    He is only half right. Halo is actually quite good and I only really played PC FPS before I started playing it.

    I have only played the third one and it is easily one of the most polished games I have ever played. The mouse is a better controller for FPS, but the Halo is a lot slower than say quake so it doesn't make as much difference (I played Quake III one day after playing halo and it was like flying, the speed didn't feel as right as halo does).

    It is one of the few games of this type I have played where strangers actually communicated and planned properly in team based multiplayer. People actually talked!

    Also the theater mode was fantastic. It was very interesting to play through a flag capture from numerous angles (I once replayed one where I thought I had done all the work, where in the replay it showed a sniper and others keeping people of my back).

    So I would consider getting this if only for the polish, Halo doesn't break any new ground but from what I have seen what it does, it does well.

  • by lattyware (934246) <gareth@lattyware.co.uk> on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:44PM (#27137519) Homepage Journal
    but it remains a console RTS. Yawn.
    I want my RTS to be complex, and far more open with more micro-management, I havn't seen an RTS I've liked since Empire Earth 2, since then, everything has been dumbed down again and again.
    I've got, played, and liked Halo Wars. I like the Halo franchise, it's got a good storyline, and the games have been well made. This, true to form, is not a bad game. It's just not revolutionary.
    That said, I am tired of people slagging off Halo continuously. Sure, I prefer the Half-Life PC games to Halo, but the Halo games remain excellent - and the game type and map customisation have yet to be beaten for a simplicity vs power balence.
  • Boxer doesn't care (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Marquis2 (1027570) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:45PM (#27137547)
    It is clear Microsoft is not aiming for the regular, competitive RTS demographic. No Serious RTS fan is going to pick this up for the reviewers praise of the low APM(Actions Per Minute). I'll stick with C&C3 and Starcraft for now, until Starcraft II is released. :)
  • I tried the demo on Xbox 360 when it came out. I realize that not all demos are indicative of the quality of the overall game. I have not played the full version.

    From my experience, the game is like playing Starcraft, while drunk, with your toes, after a frontal lobotomy. The controls are dumbed down, as is the general gameplay overall. The "pretty graphics and sound" didn't really add that much compelling to the gameplay. Any Command and Conquer game, Warcraft 1-3 or Starcraft had much deeper gameplay. For the $60 you could spend on this game, you could probably find ALL of these other games in bargain bins, or on eBay.

    I fail to see why in the world consoles have the inability to use keyboard and mouse at least as an option. The 360 has USB ports, the PS3 has Bluetooth and USB. Why can't I just take my keyboard and mouse combo and use it for these systems as an option?

    Some people have given me the excuse that MSFT/Sony/Nintendo want 'consistent gameplay' with the controllers that people will already have. If that's the case though, why do we have things like weird huge joysticks for mech games (360), Rockband kits, the Wii-Fit board, or the Duck Hunt stype zapper for the Wii??? These aren't your standard controllers, but are more than fine. I'm guessing that 'most' households with a game system have a USB keyboard and mouse laying around somewhere.

    For me, this would make the consoles perfectly equal gaming systems for me that I'd be totally happy with for RTS and FPS genres.
  • by manekineko2 (1052430) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @01:56PM (#27137771)

    Like it or not, Halo is the most popular FPS out there by numbers, despite being on a console, and as a result it is the most common standard people use to compare by.

    Note that I can say this without making any type of a judgment on gaming on PCs or consoles.

  • by stinkyj (300739) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @02:03PM (#27137881)

    Having played both, you are a fanboy. Fun != Story. I had a heck of a time figuring out what the heck was going on in Halo. Halo 2 was even worse. The only thing i figured out was everyone was a wuss but Master Chief, and he had to backtrack so many times I almost fell asleep. My challenge to any halo player is to explain the flood, halo, and all that religious gibberish to anyone that's never played and ask them if it makes sense afterwards.

    HL2 story wasn't the best either, definitely overrated, but at least I could kinda understand what was going on.

  • The reason why is (Score:5, Insightful)

    by manekineko2 (1052430) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @02:07PM (#27137973)

    I fail to see why in the world consoles have the inability to use keyboard and mouse at least as an option. The 360 has USB ports, the PS3 has Bluetooth and USB. Why can't I just take my keyboard and mouse combo and use it for these systems as an option?

    Some people have given me the excuse that MSFT/Sony/Nintendo want 'consistent gameplay' with the controllers that people will already have. If that's the case though, why do we have things like weird huge joysticks for mech games (360), Rockband kits, the Wii-Fit board, or the Duck Hunt stype zapper for the Wii??? These aren't your standard controllers, but are more than fine. I'm guessing that 'most' households with a game system have a USB keyboard and mouse laying around somewhere.

    It has nothing to do with limiting the number of controllers people have. I bet it's actually that most people don't want to have to play against people with an advantage over them. No one reasonable, generally including even die-hard console fans, disputes that the mouse and keyboard is more precise. A lot of people do dispute, however, whether it's more fun to have a mouse and keyboard on your couch in the living room.

    I know that as a console game player, I just wouldn't play any game online where a sizable percentage of the population is using a mouse and keyboard. They have an advantage over me, as surely as baseball players that use steroids have advantages over their clean brethren, and I don't want to adopt their tactics simply to remain competitive. I just wouldn't play, and the number of players like me is a lot larger than the number of players who want to use the mouse and keyboard, so it doesn't make sense to include the option.

    Furthermore, and I'm not sure how widely held this view is, but at least for FPS, I actually prefer the lower accuracy of the game controller. The mouse makes it too easy to be unrealistically good, bunny jumping down the hallway while sniping people in the head with a high calibre rifle in mid jump. The fact that it's harder to do that on a console is a good thing to me. There's a reason we don't train our soldiers to jump all around while trying to snipe in real life.

  • by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy&gmail,com> on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @02:25PM (#27138287) Journal

    It's not despite, it's because. The PC FPS market is widely fragmented across a wide number of games, and the console FPS market is...Halo.

    It's easy to be the biggest fish if you're the only fish.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @02:32PM (#27138417)

    No, he's right. It's a standard. The question is what kind.

    If it's as good as Halo it's average. If it's better than Halo it's above average. If it's worse than Halo it's below average. See, that's a standard.

  • by Hellswaters (824112) * on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @03:45PM (#27139611)
    Its to control the market. They control what controllers the system can use, and because of that they control who makes the controllers. Once you start allowing mouse and keyboards, your opening the door to more third parties making things for your console which means lower profits. Since they can only use the one (or very few) the makers and thus flow of money can be controlled.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @04:20PM (#27140147)

    Having played both, you are a fanboy.

    "You are a fanboy" has never, ever meant anything other than, "Your tastes do not match up with mine completely, therefore my vast array of crippling mental deficiencies demand that I apply a childish label to you in the vain hope that it will distract me from my lack of confidence in my own tastes".

    This time was no exception.

  • by Wooky_linuxer (685371) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @04:25PM (#27140241)

    Attack where? Go where, following which path? What if you want tanks on the left to perform a certain task and the ones on the right to run away? You really think you can say that out loud quicker than you can point and type a few keystrokes?

    In fact your suggestion reminds me of some japanese live-action, where the good guys would cry out loud each and every action they were doing. The bad guys/monsters had to stay in the same place waiting for them to complete their speech. Ok, your idea is not completely wthout merit, but voice recognition is overrated. That's why it is not more widespread, since, as you noted it, we already have the tech.

  • by saider (177166) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @04:52PM (#27140665)

    A standard does not have to be a high standard. Just a base for comparison.

  • by crumbz (41803) <<remove_spam>jus ... spam>gmail...com> on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @04:55PM (#27140715) Homepage

    The console manufacturers want to sell you high margin accessories.

  • Too obvious (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @06:20PM (#27141991) Homepage Journal

    From the article: ..."It's about as close as you can get to the ease of use that comes with a mouse and keyboard."

    So why not just use a mouse and keyboard? I notice that this game is for the XBox. Why not make a PC version? Doesn't Microsoft have some stake in PCs as well as XBoxes?

  • by chammy (1096007) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @06:24PM (#27142033)

    Furthermore, and I'm not sure how widely held this view is, but at least for FPS, I actually prefer the lower accuracy of the game controller. The mouse makes it too easy to be unrealistically good, bunny jumping down the hallway while sniping people in the head with a high calibre rifle in mid jump. The fact that it's harder to do that on a console is a good thing to me. There's a reason we don't train our soldiers to jump all around while trying to snipe in real life.

    First of all, I play games because they arent real life. Period. Nobody wants to play a game where you get tired after you run/jump for too long and have to sit and catch your breath. People play games to escape reality. Besides that, if you jump in a "realistic" game your accurracy goes to crap anyway, mouse/kb or not.

    The way you're saying it, it sounds like it's a bad thing to have good controls! Why don't we just get some analog sticks that randomly jitter and wiggle your aim? I don't get this whole "unfair advantage" argument. It's like arguing that sticking a piece of tape to your monitor so you can no-scope in counterstrike is unfair and you should be barred from online play.

    From my perspective, catering only to people like you is a huge disadvantage for console manufacturers. Alternatives, especially for controls, are never a bad thing! I for one would buy a lot more console FPS games if I knew I could use something more precise than a pair of analog sticks.

  • by brkello (642429) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 @07:07PM (#27142537)
    If posts on the web being sensitive and bitchy about anything that threatens X proves that something is on the decline, then I think everything is on the decline.

    Really, one person's ramblings means that PC gaming is on the decline? I think all it proves is that you are one of those weird people who have a bias against PC gaming.
  • by grumbel (592662) <grumbel@gmx.de> on Wednesday March 11, 2009 @09:13AM (#27149071) Homepage

    A lot of good science fiction does this. Authors are entitled to expect the reader (or player) to do some imaginative legwork.

    The problem I had with Halo is that I could never shake the feeling that there was much more interesting stuff going on somewhere else then the stuff I was forced to play. The story around Master Chief did never really do anything that was very interesting and the whole flood thing was just annoying and out of place, I guess thats what you get when you player as the indestructible hero instead of a human being. Now at least with Halo you later got comics and books and stuff, so there actually is more going on, to bad that none of that ever made it into the games.

    Half Life on the other side has the G-Men, which sadly just feels like a walking deus ex machina with legs. You never get a satisfying conclusion or backstory or anything. You play a clueless character who saves the earth by accident and nothing ever feels like an accomplishment, because you just stumble around in the world shooting dudes. Half the story of Half Life 2 is just transporter malfunction and then having to manually walk the way by foot, not exactly great storytelling.

    That said, when it comes to video games I don't think overtelling a story is a problem, I think quite the opposite is true, most games these days try to avoid explain anything. Thanks to the first person view you are quite often limited to exactly that which you see through the main characters eyes, which sadly just isn't much. So instead of story, you simply get a few sad piece and pretty graphics thrown at you, maybe with a little dialog thrown in to connect things. Its kind of ridiculous when one looks back, the first 10 minutes of story and dialog in Monkey Island have more variety and interesting stuff going on then most todays games manage to cram into 10 hours.

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