Thanks to the original Halo, the first person shooter genre finall broke through on console. Some innovative gameplay elements, an original sci-fi story and of course a deep multiplayer experience made non-believer gamers all over the world shut up. Now, some years and a console generation further, no-one will defend that this type of games only have a right to exist on PC. Whether Halo Wars can start an identical revolution for the RTS genre, however, seems less probable.
As you probably know, Bungie originally thought of the Halo series as a real-time strategy game. Microsoft and Xbox however thought differently with the known result. This Halo Wars returns back to the roots, but then in the hands of Ensemble Studios, a developer with tons of veterans in the genre, which has closed its books by now. All in all a nice background story to this game which in the end even appears to be a very solid and classic RTS that not only plays well but also does its best to be not just an easy port of a PC RTS for console gamers. Hopefully the closure of Ensemble isn’t the end of this evolution to make strategy games work on console.
The events take the fans back to about 20 years before the story from the original Halo shooter. The UNSC Spirit of Fire goes out to investigate after reports of suspicious activity by The Covenant. Quickly it appears that the Forerunners had a superweapon and that an overachieving Arbiter would like nothing more than to use it. Sargeant Forge is sent out for reconnaissance, helped by the AI Serina (who is certainly not as sexy as Cortana) and scientist Anders. You already saw it coming: Master Chief is nowhere to be found, let alone control, but that doesn’t stop you from feeling at home after two minutes of playing. The stylish presentation, the epic and instrumental soundtrack, the solid voicing, the menus, the overly known units that are displayed detailed and beautifully animated, the spectacular surroundings, very nice cut-scenes and the typical color usage: everything shows you’re playing a Halo game. Those amongst you that buy this game for the storyline and setting won’t be disappointed.
Whether the hardcore RTS gamers amongst you will be equally happy is a more difficult question. The gameplay is very streamlined: bases have set and limited structures and resources are automatically replenished at a decent rate. Result: a lot less micro-management that allows to concentrate on the units. Personally I could appreciate that but I can imagine that the true strategists amongst you prefer to spend some more time on building a thought through army or a nicely ordened base. Luckily there’s still enough depth to be found with the upgrades and vehicles, something that keeps everything fresh during the campaign.
The fun is mostly found in combat itself. The controls are simple but effective, and require only a short time to get used to them. The units like gorgeous and it’s a pleasure to send some gung-ho marines or Spartans to the opposition. Even more, you get some new toys (like a flame thrower or the cyclops). It’s only a detail but also here you can take over a vehicle with your Spartan, something that goes along with a very nice animation.
And it’s the details where Halo Wars managed to rise above average: thanks to the simple, but not simplistic, gameplay you can focus on the battlefield and its there where the Halo franchise stands strong and offers a lot of added value. You don’t play just with another line of generic units.
Also the Covenant can be used to play with but unfortunately only in multiplayer. Due to this decision and the all in all pretty short campaign I was left a bit sitting on my hunger when it comes to single player. Luckily you can also finish the game in co-op with your friends and there are secondary objectives that prolong the replayability a bit. The missions and environments are filled with variation so I guess “short and sweet” is a good assumption. The Flood also makes its appearance and although it’s not playable I’m not sorry about that. Their units are a lot less interesting, something you can’t say of The Covenant.
The multiplayer is therefore also very enjoyable and will probably determine the right of existence of a possible sequel, just like with the shooters. As always the main difference here is playing against smarter opponents (the AI isn’t the best) and the fact that you can attack with the Covenant which makes it even more appealing.
Halo Wars in other words is a classic RTS that was streamlined to welcome newcomers to the genre. The result of this is that the game is only just deep enough for those with experience in strategy games but this is made up with an excellent presentation, beautiful graphics and interesting units as well as the still appealing Halo setting. A bit for everyone I would say and I hope Microsoft will use this experience to deliver a deeper RTS experience with a sequel.