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Reviewed: Halo Wars
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: April 17th, 2009
Page: 2

Halo Wars, developed by Ensemble Studios (who were disbanded right after the game was finished) and set up as a "prequel" to the Halo trilogy, had a lot of promise. The idea of a Halo RTS had been bandied about before; indeed, Microsoft had put the kibosh on several fan conversion projects like this one before Halo Wars was even publicly announced.

So, the stage was set... launch parties announced, pre-orders taken, and the game arrived. Taken home by gamers, put into the console, and what did they find?

I thought long and hard before I put these words into print, I really did. I tried playing the game, replaying the game, retrying the opening.

At the end of the day, my first reaction to the game is the same as my final reaction: I played this game over a decade ago when we called it "Command and Conquer."

To be fair, let's go with the good first. Ensemble did an amazing job getting the look of the Halo universe right. If you've seen any screenshots at all, you know the game is gorgeous - how could it not be, when half the units are based off the Halo 3 models, and the rest designed to look darn similar? The voice acting is as good as the Halo series has had, though they've had their problems from time to time. The storyline? Well, as told through the "congratulations, you finished a level, now watch this while we set the next scenario up" cutscenes, it's pretty good. It shows off the internal struggles of the sides, most of the time gives a reason that the mission's being set up as it is, and Forge looks pretty darn good without a helmet.

Unfortunately, as I said, Halo Wars is the same game I played in 1995, only that year it was called Command & Conquer and it had been made by Westwood Studios. Halo Wars manages to hit every stumbling block for the RTS genre, breaking its stride in the process every time.

First off, the units in the game suffer from "total map knowledge." That is to say, they all know the entire map, even if the player hasn't explored it yet. For enemies, this is kind of expected. For friendlies? It's a pain in the rear. Trying to get units to move on a path is useless, unless you babysit them the entire time. Explore the edge of the map, then give freshly created units an order to meet up with your advance force? Likely as not, they'll charge right through an alternate path you haven't explored yet, and get themselves killed in an ambush instead.

Second up, unit management is downright silly. A platoon of soldiers costs you one "unit" of army size; a vehicle, generally two; a tank or heavy vehicle, generally three. If you're advanced enough in a mission, you're likely to get the "maximum army size" warning. Your choice? Generally, send someone on a suicide mission to clear up some space. If that weren't enough, memorizing the sequence of button presses necessary to select certain units (instead of just "all onscreen" or "whole army") is annoying beyond annoying, which makes it that much more difficult if you want just your marines to hunker down behind cover (they won't do it if you have other units selected) or to send a few units up ahead to fulfull their game-appointed role of scouts. Each unit has a "special ability", used by issuing the attack order with the Y instead of X button, but functionally attempting control of a large or mixed army will mean that half of these go to waste anyways.

Mission types also give you very little to choose from - generally, it's either "clear the map", "escort something with limited troops", or "destroy the enemy base at location X." By themselves, all fine and good, but most of the missions run on rails. To avoid spoilers, I'll just spoil the earliest example, the third map - a "get to the pinned troops and escort them back." The game starts you with two tanks, and leaves a double platoon of soldiers behind on the mission entrance. Why are they left behind? As it turns out, so they can "cover you" on your final escape. A better design for the map would have given the player the choice of whether or not to leave them behind at first, or bring them along, with the consequences to play out later - but the game's controls apparently were so dodgy for selecting only certain troops that Ensemble programmed the mission to give the player no options at all.

Worst off is the game's approach to base design - the good old "first hundred moves syndrome" rearing its ugly head and roaring fiercely. Firebases can only be initiated on certain map locations, start with 5 "building locations", and can later be upgraded to "Fortresses" with 7. Their defensive capability is limited to a turret on each corner. Each building location can be turned into a supply depot, reactor, one of three types of unit construction buildings, or an "extra research" facility. And yes, this does mean that the game's very first tutorial has you building the equivalent of two farms and a warrior. Supply depots grant a steady diet of "supplies", e.g. the money used to build everything else. Reactors upgrade the "tech level", allowing you to research new upgrades and possibly a slight increase in the maximum army size. Ultimately, the strategy for most maps will be to hunker down, build up a large number of supply depots, a reactor, and one unit creation building (preferably one that makes vehicles), and hope to build up a large enough army to sieze the base location in the map's "middle." Once that's done, rinse and repeat; ensure an endless, quick flow of supplies and build, upgrade, build some more.

If you're aching to see the prequel storyline of Halo Wars, that's fine - rent the game and finish it off. Just don't expect anything more than typical RTS fare, with a lot less useful interface than your standard, 14-year-old PC title will give you.

Added:  Friday, April 17, 2009
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf
Page: 2/3

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