It was no real surprise that Halo, Bungies’ and Microsoft’s lovechild, would grow to become the massively popular and virtually unstoppable juggernaut that it is today, with millions of copies sitting in homes across the world, billions of hours clocked on LIVE, the Halo trilogy chronicling the events of Master Chiefs efforts to save humanity from the rabid Covenant and unrelenting Flood had reached its opus with the final outing in Halo 3. Adamant that there would be no more games starring Chief, Microsoft have taken the franchise to Ensemble Studios, the father of the now legendary Age of Empires series, to weave a tale and speak of the events of Harvest, a farming colony devastated by 5 years of constant battle between the Covenant and the Humans struggling for control and dominance, only this gripping tale of desperate measures and heroism will not be in traditional FPS action, rather Ensemble will take their immaculate skill with real time strategy and apply it to the Halo universe. But can they pull it off with an RTS format, and on a console for that matter?
Fire and the Flames
James Cutter is the captain of the UNSC ship the Spirit of Fire in charge of ousting the Covenant from Harvest who has taken a keen interest of some Forerunner artefacts which are buried below the surface of the planet. The Arbiter, tasked with overseeing the excavation and leading Covenant forces against the UNSC in the heat of battle. Sergeant John Forge is in charge of stopping the Arbiter from reaching his goals and protecting Professor Anders in delivering her safe and sound to the Forerunner artefacts, to hopefully find a way in stopping the war once and for all. Forge is not a Spartan and to not have one of these men take control throughout the story is a natural and solid departure from the previous games and adds more desperation and reality to the lead characters rather than having the unstoppable Master Chief take control as he single handily takes the covenant apart one bullet at a time.
When power point meetings go bad
What made the Halo trilogy so successful as a shooter was having plenty of set pieces in both open areas and closed environments which added a great deal of theatrical battles full of tension and enjoyment and Ensemble have taken advantage of this as the map design is incredible, with enough set pieces full of tension and surprise, and truly fits in place of the Halo universe. Instead of plonking the player in a standard square map, we must take control of the field commander, Sgt Forge and lead the troops across the map, setting up new bases, advancing on the enemy and continually moving forward, never sticking in the same place for too long at a time.
One campaign mission that really stands out in this regard is where the Spirit of Fire is flying through a group of security fields whilst being simultaneously attacked by the Covenant. As the commander you must take the fight on the hull of the ship as it flies through the security fields and must establish turrets on the hull to help prevent further damage to the energy core. In this situation there is no possibility to build a base on the ship’s hull so we must resort to using whatever is available in the ships reserve, and to be under constant relentless attack and with the ship flying through space while this is all happening, it really is quite a spectacle befitting of any cinema action piece.
"Rack off, this is our patio!"
The RTS formula has always been at home on the PC, as the mouse and keyboard allows intricate control over unit placement and operations, no matter how large the number and for resource management everything is an absolute dream. Porting over this level of control to a gamepad however is incredibly difficult, which is where Halo Wars design is so brilliant. Opposed to the idea of throwing 10,000 units at the enemy only for 5 of them to be left standing after the dust has settled, Halo Wars opts for smaller unit numbers, around 30-50 in the campaign mode, to allow for the rock-paper-scissors unit advantage to come into full effect, where ground units beat out aircraft, aircraft beat out vehicles and vehicles dominate ground units. With this simple small unit design, Ensemble have allowed us as players to focus on using our units to their maximum strengths and use tactics that would ensure that the units would still be standing when all the dust has settled, rather than opting for kamikaze runs.
Creating units is likewise simple in execution, when a site is located and a base created 3 additional sites are available to build either an energy platform, a reactor for tech upgrades or barracks for additional soldiers. To add more sites the base must be upgraded to allow for more reactors to unlock further tech upgrades to allow vehicle and aircraft depots, or upgrade individual units, adding combat effectiveness, RPG’s above grenades, medic abilities or in the case of marine units, the final upgrade to the Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST) the next famous unit to the Spartans to allow these crazy units to drop anywhere on the battlefield. This design focused on upgrading existing and future units with minimal buildings helps to prevent unnecessary clutter, and focus on expenditure of energy on upgrades that are only necessary to the mission at hand.
Defiant, head lice refused to give up position
Keeping the visual style of previous Halo titles, everything looks as if a normal mission from Halo 3 has just had a perspective change; this essentially means that all the tight action has been brilliantly transferred across. Zooming close into the action you can clearly see that much work has gone into making these battles as authentic as possible. Marines move in tight order, Warthogs bounce around is an almost uncontrollable fashion as they fastidiously run over anything in their paths, Spartans will bash open Wraith tanks and throw the occupant to the way side, and Grunts unceremoniously are thrown sky high from a well placed grenade it all looks fabulous when set in motion and makes you wish that the previous trilogy had this amount of action going on in more of the set pieces.
Halo Wars also looks simply stunning, colour and lighting are a big part of setting the mood with each mission, units are equally finely modelled and with a screen of 60+ characters being lit up with light from muzzle flash, grenade explosions, plasma rifle shots and vehicle lights all highlight the incredible action on screen and with silky smooth frame rates it all looks incredibly stunning. It is also great to report that even with all this action going on screen, sound never skips a beat and never ends up being a big audible mess. Everything sounds exactly like it should from the Halo universe, with Grunts screeching when attacked, the unmistakable revving of the Warthog engines, Marines give off some hilarious banter every now and again, everything is very fitting and feels right at home and when it all booms from a home theatre system it is a real audio treat.
"I don't care what you say, I'm not paying 12 bucks for movie popcorn"
The biggest star of Halo Wars however goes far beyond the game play and sits with the cinematics that flesh out the story of Cutter and his ship. With render work, effects, motion capture and cinematography that can easily rival any major Hollywood release and even goes far enough to put any action film of recent memory to shame with the action these beautiful story scenes show. When you see the Spartans in action for the first time, and towards the end of the game, you may find yourself on the edge of your seat with a grin from ear to ear when these super units come out to play. Likewise the acting is expertly done with mo-cap technology being used to full effect and voice acting that is expertly done and never becomes grating.
Lack of Resources
As with any game, Halo Wars has a few issues here and there that can disrupt the proceedings, and occasionally enough to bring the whole experience down to a halt. On a few occasions, it can become difficult to find where you are on the map in relation to where critical action needs to take place, such as with the extraction mission, or where a small glitch will mean that the final requirement to finish the mission will become bugged and a complete mission restart is required to get past the event. Game length is another gripe, even with 15 missions in place, it can all be said and done in around 8 hours or so, and for an RTS this can be rather short. There is the option to go through it all again with co-op play through LIVE or take on others with skirmish missions will extend the gameplay, but for those looking for offline action it can be a little scarce on content. No doubt downloadable maps will be on the cards, but without the chance to go through campaign from the Covenant perspective it can end up feeling rather lightweight.
Ultimately though, Halo Wars manages to encapsulate what made the trilogy so enjoyable in the first place, the tight action and epic story, and effortlessly transfer it across to a RTS format, and with a good story, tight controls and some great campaign missions, Ensemble have since closed their doors forever, but what they have been able to leave u with one of, if not, the best RTS games for the 360 and for gaming consoles alike. If you have any interest in the Halo series, or with good RTS action, then do yourself a favour and pickup Halo Wars, you’d be hard pressed to be disappointed with what you get.
Gameplay – 93
Visuals – 92
Audio – 94
Overall - 94
Ensemble Studios swansong is one of the best RTS games for the 360 and a great addition to the Halo franchise.