Halo Wars Review
You can't blame them for trying. With the release of Halo Wars this week, that makes at least nine full-priced attempts by major publishers so far to bring modern-day strategy games to this generation of consoles. Before it, we've seen these attempts range from total failure to modest success in games like Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II, Tom Clancy's Endwar, Supreme Commander, Command & Conquer 3 and the Kane's Wrath expansion, Red Alert 3, Universe at War, and a couple of others. I list them not just to go through the exercise of it, but to bring their names up because if you're even remotely interested in Halo Wars, you've probably tried at least one of these games and tossed it aside. I don't blame you; it's extremely difficult to do a strategy game right without a mouse and keyboard.
Ensemble Studios, creators of classic PC strategy games like the Age of Empires series, makes the best effort yet with Halo Wars. It's finally overcome the obstacle of controlling a strategy game effectively with a console controller, something that so many games before it couldn't quite accomplish. It's a little unfortunate, then, that the game that's taking place underneath that interface isn't quite as deep or as interesting as it could have been, especially with the source material that Ensemble had to work with.
Halo Wars takes place 20 years before the first game, when the Covenant was first at war with humans. Spartans were only just making it onto the battlefield, but the plus side is that this early in the war, humans seemed to have a hell of a lot better technology than we get with what's left of the fleet by the time we joined up with Master Chief in the first game. Of course, that's the universal rule of sci-fi prequels: find some reason why these people have better technology and shinier new toys in the past than they do decades later. Or you can just be like Star Wars and hope no one notices that you didn't even bother.
You'll start out simply enough, with just squads of soldiers (each one counts as one "unit" towards your unit cap) and Warthogs, eventually moving up to Scorpion tanks, then onto aircraft and towards new units like the Grizzly tank. You'll learn the game's simplistic base-building and easy supply system that is designed to make sure you're limited by resources but that you don't have to micromanage the gathering of them. Eventually you'll get to take control of the Spartans, the supersoldiers that Master Chief winds up being the last of in the original games. One triumph by Ensemble here was in making sure that controlling Spartans feels much more visceral and dynamic than the little squads of marines; they can make your vehicles more powerful, steal enemy vehicles, and generally look much more alive than the other units you control. I imagine that that took a hell of a lot of work, considering how many major heroes in modern RTS games wind up just standing there and shooting every two seconds when you set them to attack something.
When you compare the scale of Halo Wars to its console peers and to the Halo games of the past, things definitely look frantic: you'll see dozens of troops, tanks, and warthogs all rolling together towards a sizable Covenant force and creating a fantastic little symphony of explosions, bodies, and flying debris. But for those who have come from the large-scale PC strategy games of the last decade like Civilization IV, Supreme Commander and the Total War games, the battlefield starts to look a little, well, spartan. At least, it seems that way until you start jacking up the scale in the multiplayer modes: that's where Halo Wars really shows off its technical prowess in the sheer number of units mashing themselves together on your HDTV.
And either way, it's not like Ensemble did a bad job filling up the screen with signature Halo action, because they did it wonderfully: Covenant grunts waddle around, chirping out goofy phrases and running away like cowards when outnumbered. Elites come seemingly out of nowhere with their energy swords to take out your marines. Explosions send bodies flying exactly like you'd expect, and the Covenant Scarab is truly something to be feared here - especially for conventional UNSC forces. But the simple fact that you spend so much time not being Master Chief - much less any old Spartan - makes it feel like something very vital to the series has been lost in the genre translation.
Yes, Warthogs fly off of embankments and land with their suspensions buckling perfectly, and the new units fit in well with the familiar ones, but I can't shake this kind of awkward feeling in trying to control it all from the bird's eye view. During every single mission, I felt like at any point I should have been able to hit some secret button combination spawn as the Master Chief himself back at my base, jumping into the fight in first-person perspective. The fact that this game so effectively brought me back to the Halo universe is what made it extremely difficult to actually play it, knowing that I couldn't actually get down there and into the action. Don't get me wrong: Halo Wars is a fine game, but all it does is make me want to play its predecessors instead.
This realization came less than an hour into play, and it completely colored the rest of the game for me. All I could think about was how as the Chief I'd come up behind these grunts, hit this Elite with the sniper rifle from here, carjack this Banshee and take on the Wraith while strafing around it. Seeing the troops I was controlling actually do some of this stuff didn't satisfy me; it was like watching someone else have all the fun. This followed me, permeating through the campaign and into the multiplayer modes, and wouldn't stop until I maddeningly popped the disc out, located my copy of Halo 3, and took control of Master Chief as if it somehow was the One And Only True Way to Play Halo. The thing is, I hadn't played Halo 3 in months; I had gotten tired of it after beating the co-op campaign on Legendary with a buddy. But Halo Wars made me want to go back and play the last game so badly that I couldn't contain myself.
I don't know if this reads as a real recommendation or not, but I can say that I never felt completely at ease playing Halo Wars. It'd be so much easier to discount this game if it wasn't as good as it truly is, or if it had failed to recreate the look, sound, and overall attitude of Bungie's classic series from a top-down RTS perspective. It'd be easy to hate this game if there were no Spartans or if they just stood there and shot at stuff like a brainless Starcraft space marine. But it's much better than that, and yet I can't play it without immediately wanting to eject the disc and play the game this one was based on. And maybe that's Ensemble's biggest success here: that the interface and controls, usually the worst part of a console RTS game and the one that gets talked about the most in game reviews for this genre, were the farthest thing from my mind here after a few minutes of learning them. Now, it's time for me to go back to Halo 3 and start on a solo Legendary campaign.