Halo Wars Preview
I’m probably the exact type of gamer Microsoft is attempting to win over with Halo Wars; like so many 360 owners, I’m a huge supporter of Master Chief’s Covenant-killing trilogy, yet my experience with real-time strategy games is mostly limited to the few that have been released on the console. Sit me in front of a PC, mouse and keyboard at the ready, and I’d be lost in the RTS world. But hand me a gamepad, crank the volume on that pumping Halo theme music, flash a few green-helmeted Spartans charging across the screen, and I just might be willing to give this brains-over-blazing-guns genre a go.
To be sure, Halo Wars sells its successful branding hard; any fan worth their weight in collectible gold skulls will have difficulty resisting the temptation to at least give Halo Wars a try upon witnessing one of its heart-pounding cutscenes or trailers. These highly produced cinematics—that, of course, play over the infectious theme music—absolutely hemorrhage Halo style, ensuring most fans will be drawn to the experience like Pavlov’s dog to a bell. The surface presentation, alone, all but guarantees anyone who’s played the previous three FPS titles will pick up a gamepad out of curiosity.
My own curiosity with Halo Wars quickly turned into something much more once I fired up its solo campaign. Unseasoned strategist that I am, I chose one of the two tutorial modes—there’s a basic and advanced version—and was immediately impressed by the fashion in which the game teaches you to play. Rather than having me button-press my way through a bunch of text-covered lessons, the game talks you through the controls and basics of gameplay. A bellowing voice, not unlike the ones running narration over movie trailers, very effectively explains how to play, all at a pace that never feels forced or rushed. Voice tutorials aren't new to PC strategy games, but having something there to truly teach me how to play was more than we got from Supreme Commander's iffy port on the 360.
And, sure enough, the mechanics are surprisingly simple, allowing all the basics to be handled without cluttering the screen with menus or stat-heavy diagrams. In no time, I was scanning my units with the left analog stick, selecting them with the A button, and positioning them with X. While a tap of the X button will direct your units on the map, like, say to a cover point, it’ll also select targets. So, for example, you could select a Warthog unit with A, then move the analog stick over a Grunt, press X, and turn the little bastard into road kill. Want to select more than a single unit? No problem; hit the left bumper to select all available forces on the battle map, or tap the right one to only select the ones on your immediate screen. Further differentiation is aided by the right trigger, which scrolls through specific unit types represented by icons running across the bottom of the screen. I found the controls so intuitive and self-explanatory that I was barely listening to the booming voice of the tutorial, a few minutes in.
Things get a bit more advanced as you progress, but still remain completely accessible to the uninitiated. Unleashing a powerful special attack, like your marines’ Banshee-beating grenades, is handled by tapping the Y button. In fact, with these units in position, a small “Y” icon will appear to remind you the option is there. And even the potentially scary resource management side of Halo Wars is a snap. Select a predefined building pad—just as you’d select a unit—and a mini radial menu pops up with a variety of options. From here you can build barracks, generators, or even upgrade a previously constructed building. Once your base is buzzing with life, you can begin cranking out units and vehicles. It was during this phase that I really started to fall in love with the game. Witnessing miniature, but highly detailed versions of familiar UNSC and Covenant soldiers go at it on the battlefield was a blast, but watching tiny Warthogs rumble out of my production facilities introduced me to a new sensation of accomplishment and satisfaction that I’d never experienced in the first three Halo games.
The addictiveness of overseeing my own Warthog assembly line was soon overshadowed when I’d accrued enough resources to build my first Scorpion Tank—man alive, did I feel like a proud papa when that black behemoth came rumbling out of my base. It’s a testament to the title’s easy-to-learn controls that I was able to enjoy these little moments so much. Additionally, the game’s strict adherence to the authenticity of the series’ rich sci-fi universe continuously reassures you that this is indeed a Halo game first and an RTS second, despite the absence of Master Chief and his big guns. From the high-pitched cackle of the Covenant grunts to the intricately detailed Scarab units patrolling snow-covered terrains, there’s absolutely no question that this is a legit chapter in the Halo canon.
Ensemble Studios Lead Designer Graeme Devine has spoken at great length on how important it was to remain faithful to Bungie’s beloved lore, while also creating a control scheme that’d finally make this genre feel like second nature on a console. Based on my time with the game, I’d say they’ve achieved both these goals. Of course, while I’m confident in my knowledge and adoration for all things Halo, I certainly cannot say the same thing for this genre. I’m fairly certain Halo fans with little-to-no background in the RTS arena will embrace this effort wholeheartedly, but it remains to be seen if longtime PC strategists will be equally eager to trade in their mouse-and-keyboard command post for a gamepad. A love of the IP, some nostalgic emotion for the recently shuttered Ensemble, and a speaks-for-itself pedigree that includes the popular Age of Empires titles, though, may be just enough to turn the stubborn PC players onto Halo Wars. An original story, taking place 20 years before the original game, multiple online modes, and the ability to crush the good guys as the Covenant, only ups the appeal. Regardless of the PC community’s acceptance, though, I’m guessing Microsoft will tap into a whole new audience, hungry for anything Halo and willing to toy with a new genre to satiate those pangs. Halo Wars is set for release on March 3rd on the Xbox 360.