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Ensemble's swan-song finally arrives on Xbox 360; TVG sticks on the Mjolnir VI armour to explore this latest console RTS...
- Solid RTS experience.
- Intuitive control system.
- A decent storyline.
- A Covenant campaign is missed.
- Path-finding is 'quirky'.
- May not appeal to RTS hardcore.
After fifteen years of producing top-quality strategy games, the doors finally closed on Microsoft's Ensemble Studios earlier in 2009. The outfit behind the hugely successful Age of Empires franchise, Ensemble's aim for their final project was to take the Halo franchise into the realms of Real-Time Strategy, with Halo Wars. Unveiled at Microsoft's X06 event in Barcelona, the game is the latest attempt to successfully transition the RTS genre to the Xbox 360, following the likes of EndWar, Command & Conquer 3, and Supreme Commander. Promising an intuitive control system and interface, the success of Halo Wars no doubt rests on whether Ensemble finished with a flurry to marry RTS gameplay with the sort of engaging, action-packed experience that Halo fanatics are used to.
So does Ensemble's final project prove a fitting memorial, or is it the final twitching of a studio gasping for its last breath? TVG headed to the distant colony of Harvest, in the mid-26th Century, to find out...
Built from the ground up for the Xbox 360, Halo Wars harks back to an earlier time in the Halo Universe's time-line, twenty years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, when entire units of Spartans just about held back the Covenant's technologically superior forces. Featuring a fresh cast of UNSC personnel, including Sergeant Forge, Captain Cutter, and AI Serina, not to mention several Spartans II super-soldiers (but not a certain John-117), Halo Wars is something of a valiant attempt to broaden the brand beyond the FPS games and books.
Supporting Ensemble with the task of creating a storyline consistent with the established Halo Universe of the original trilogy of games and the novels, is Microsoft's new Halo Studio, the defenders of the Master Chief faith. Prising the lore open just enough to kick start what Microsoft will no doubt see as new spin-off franchise, the tale of mankind's earliest battles against the Covenant (and the first encounters with the parasitic Flood) is one that Halo fanatics will grasp with both hands.
If they can get past the fact that this is a strategy game, and not a first-person shooter, that is.
That's the real mountain that Halo Wars has to climb. Sure, the game will also want to appeal to RTS fans, but the key for Halo Wars will be to get fans of the franchise to delve into a new genre for the Halo Universe. It's an objective that Ensemble has taken to with both hands, from crafting a menu system that'll look very familiar to Halo 3 veterans, to including hidden skulls, 'Heroic' and 'Legendary' difficulty levels, and a score that leans heavily on past soundtracks from Bungie's Martin O'Donnell. Before the campaign even begins, the message is clear: this is still very much a Halo game.
For Command & Conquer fans this next bit might sound a tad perplexing, but *deep breath* not everyone has enjoyed the delights of the RTS genre. Hard enough though it may be to believe, but trying to destroy C&C's Brotherhood of Nod, StarCraft's Zerg, or Total Annhilation's Arm, isn't something that every person sticking Halo Wars into their Xbox 360 will be familiar with. Thankfully in a bid to introduce RTS newbies to the genre, and convince the RTS vets that consoles are a viable platform for strategy games, Halo Wars has a pretty straightforward (perhaps even a little patronising) tutorial that unveils the magic of moving units and attacking enemies...
Fifteen missions make up a respectable campaign, mixing traditional RTS tank-rushing with more mobile base-less operations. These latter mission types are largely restricted to the earlier sections of the game however – base-building forms a significant proportion of gameplay in Halo Wars. Breaking down the missions (or 'chapters') into a series of mandatory and optional objectives, it's actually difficult to see where the actual structure of the game falls; there's an ebb and flow to the gameplay, with lengthy chapters cut with shorter punchy ones or time-based missions, all together creating a surprisingly compelling experience. What's more, Ensemble has introduced a medal-based reward system, with players receiving gold, silver, bronze, or tin, according to their points score at the end of the mission. Completing a chapter on or under par, having a strong kills:killed ratio, and completing the optional missions all adds to the final score, and it's a decent attempt to inject some sort of replayability into Halo Wars' campaign, rather than rely on its multiplayer.
Despite using pre-rendered cut scenes much more monochromatic and gritty than perhaps the Halo franchise is used to, in gameplay the visuals stick rigidly to the colour-saturated landscapes of Bungie's epic trilogy; the greens of the UNSC forces (unless you're playing in co-op, where player 2 is a dark shade of blue), the bright purple of Covenant structures – the whole graphical style that we've come to associate with 'Brand Halo' is here. There's a lot of detail going on too, for instance when the Spartans hijack a Covenant vehicle, smashing their way into the cockpit with a sort of ruthless glee, or when the Flood converts UNSC personnel into mindless drones. It's also quite a sight to see a veritable platoon of UNSC forces tank-rushing into battle, supported by Scorpion tanks and Spartan Battle Groups; it's something of a fresh experience and one which finally shows that mankind's future rests on more than just a lone super-soldier and his AI companion.
Halo Base Are Belong To Us.
However, Real-Time Strategies are about more than just tank-rushing the enemy, no matter what some other brands try to tell you. For a majority of RTS titles, it's also about base-building, resource collecting, technology development – oh, and strategy! In this sense, Halo Wars is very much an example of a traditional RTS, and not one of the 'revolutionaries' like Relic's Warhammer 40: Dawn of War II or Tom Clancy's EndWar. Base-building forms a key part in most of the missions of the campaign to one degree or another, though Ensemble roots them to specific points on a map with supporting structures, like barracks and power plants, directly attached to the hub unit 'for added defensive strength'. As for resource management, that's also a module of the fire base, which can be upgraded to include a second pad for resource gathering vehicles. It's all pretty much standard fare for the genre, with the apparent reason for base positions being pre-designated is that it allows for quick navigation with a gamepad, and removes less sprawling base set ups – something that PC RTS titles are prone to do.
Aaaah yes, the gamepad, arguably the final obstacle for the RTS genre to overcome on the console platform. Whilst one of its rivals, EndWar, side-stepped the issue by relying heavily on a largely accurate voice-command control system, Halo Wars instead uses a spoke-like control system and a series of deft short-cuts to deliver probably one of the most intuitive RTS experiences on a console. Aside from enabling quick navigation for building and upgrading, the addition of three ways to select units (individually, 'local' units on screen, or all units) is efficient and for the most part works. It can and does get a little sticky if there's a bunch of units huddled together in the midst of war and you want to select the small band of UNSC soldiers found in the middle of the group, but apart from that, it all works pretty well. According to some reports, Ensemble worked for several months on the control system for Halo Wars, and whilst on the surface it may not seem like the most revolutionary system on the market, it is at least intuitive, exactly what the genre has needed on the console platform. The AI of enemy and UNSC forces altogether hold up well, though path-finding is by far the weakest element players will face. Don't get me wrong, the units will eventually find their path to a way-point, but it's worth pointing out that path-plotting is included in the game – and using it often is well advisable.
Not content with featuring a vast swathe of enemies, locations, technologies, weapons, Ensemble and Halo Studio has also created some new units specifically for Halo Wars, such as the Elephant mini-base and Flood base units. As it's set two decades before Halo: Combat Evolved, there's also some retrograding of UNSC weapons. For instance, portable plasma rifles don't exist yet; instead the technology is limited to some prototype tanks. Special weapons are available from the Spirit of Fire, Captain Cutter's UNSC battle ship, which can be called upon – for a price – and inflict a decent level of damage to Covenant forces. The MAC cannon and carpet bombing weapons are particularly intrinsic to some later missions, though support in the form of ODST drops and Pelican transports can also be called upon through the course of later battles.
With a campaign that only follows the UNSC forces, Halo Wars does seem a little one-sided, even under-developed compared to most other RTS titles, which at the very least feature a campaign for two of its factions. Sure, the newly established Robot Entertainment will no doubt expand upon this in future instalments and DLC packs, but what it means for Halo Wars is a campaign that's focused but of a standard length. Of course, the medal system will get the hardcore playing through the fifteen chapter narrative again, but for the rest it'll all depend on whether they enjoy the multiplayer. So what does Halo Wars' multiplayer experience have in store for gamers?
Commanding And Conquering?
Split in two, Halo Wars' multiplayer efforts offer pretty much is expected of it, with the campaign fully open to co-operative play over Xbox Live. Colour-coding the two units of both players, with the first keeping control of Forge as a Hero character whilst the second player skips about between other units or Anders, co-op works fairly well, though the omission of drop-in/drop-out is something that's missed.
Aside from exploring the story of the Spirit of Fire's first encounters with the Covenant as they skip across the galaxy and sub-space, Halo Wars does have a full multiplayer experience for up to six players, and allows gamers to play as either the UNSC or Covenant. It does have to be said that it's probably a tad more confusing to play as Covenant purely because their bases and support structures look quite similar – the fact that they're called things like 'Age of Doubt', and 'Blessed Warehouse', also doesn't help! Offering a smattering of maps for 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 play, with an expanded 'Blood Gulch' making its almost obligatory appearance, multiplayer allows players to choose their commanding officers from the main players of the campaign (including Cutter, Forge, and the Arbiter). In another nod to its FPS roots, Deathmatch is one of only two gametypes available at this stage. Giving players a sizeable bank of resources to built up a decent sized armada, Deathmatch is every bit an exercise in tank-rushing: get those Scorpions, call down some Spartans, lay down some MAC fire, and unleash the final fury of humanity! Ahem.
The more standard gametype in multiplayer, interestingly enough called 'Standard', is a more pure RTS multiplayer affair. Here, there's a slow build up towards the inevitable battle, with the careful acquisition of empty bases to reinforce your army along the way adding to the tension. What Halo fans may actually find a more lacklustre gametype is very traditional, but nonetheless has been a staple for years – it doesn't added anything particularly new, but at the very least it's a solid experience that expands the longevity of Halo Wars. Even though Ensemble has met its end, start up Robot Entertainment, created and staffed by many Ensemble alumni, now has the responsibility of producing Halo Wars content – and will no doubt produce a sequel too.
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