- 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.