Warning: You are about to read a full on rave review of a game that shows how to do just about everything right.
Battling Covenant in an early Campaign level
Halo Wars is sadly Ensemble Studios’ final game. The company made famous by their “Age of” series of real time strategy games (RTS) on the PC was dissolved by Microsoft upon completion of this masterpiece, and like any great legend, they go out at the top of their game (no pun intended). This is a real time strategy that will feel somewhat familiar to fans of those series, yet eclipses those previous efforts in many ways, resulting in the first perfect console RTS.
Being built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 around arguably the most popular franchise of this generation of games certainly had its perks. This game is a prequel to the first person shooter epic, filling in some blanks on how the Human vs. Covenant war unfolded, and even providing more than a few “firsts” for the humans (which I won’t spoil here). The story and characters involved draw from everything Halo. If you’ve played and enjoyed the first three games, you’ll recognize extra things here. If you’ve read the novels, you’ll recognize even more. If you’ve completely immersed yourself in the Halo world as the folks at Ensemble clearly did, you’re in for a real treat as this game weaves together the multimedia stories in a way never seen before. Is this your first exposure to this universe? They have you covered there, too, with an unlockable timeline that covers all the bases of the story so far, allowing newcomers to sit on equal footing with fanatics in no time. This game's portion of the story unfolds through both gameplay and cutscenes that sit at a perfect length. At no point did the cinematics take me out of the excitement of the game, nor did they leave me wanting for more. These beautifully rendered, expertly acted, well-written movies complemented the playable story so well, every game developer should make a playthrough of this game mandatory to see how to unfold a story. From the opening sequence, to the explosive finale, the story doesn’t skip a beat. The second to last may just be the coolest cutscene to ever appear in a A shot from one of the fantastic cutscenesvideo game, too. Trust me, that is one amazing fight. If you manage to get through this game without falling into a dichotomous love/hate relationship with Serina, the ship’s AI, you may just be less of a real person than she is.
But what of the gameplay itself you ask? Well, something had to outdo the story. The campaign puts you in control of the UNSC and their space marine units that should look familiar to any sci-fi fan. Again, this game was designed from the very beginning with the Xbox 360 in mind; everything from unit selection to camera movement can be done at the touch of a button with such simplicity, you’ll rarely, if ever, long for a mouse and keyboard. It’s truly amazing how much depth of control Ensemble was able to fit onto this console controller, but it was done well and makes the game easy to pick up and play. You won’t need to spend hours just mastering the controls, which allows for more strategy from the get go.
The strategies employed here will be familiar to players of Ensemble’s previous entries and to Halo fans alike. The unique UNSC units still fall into three basic categories: infantry, ground vehicles, air vehicles. Depending on your playing style, you may wind up relying on any one or two of these groups, or an even spread of all three. It truly is up to the player to decide, though some missions will call for more of one than the other. During one playthrough of the game, there were a couple missions in which I didn’t even build a barracks, relying completely on vehicles. It presented a unique challenge and opened up new fun avenues to success.
Success does get more difficult as the game goes on. With a progressive difficulty, things get harder as you get further Newsarama Hint: Scarabs are NOT EASY TO DEFEATalong, and there seem to be two big jump points. At mission 4 and mission 10 of the 15 mission campaign, there is a significant increase in how hard the game is, making sure to keep you on your toes and forcing you to develop new strategies. Not once did the ease or difficulty ever get frustrating. The challenges of each mission were unique enough to keep the game fresh all the way through, even on the second go around.
That right there says it all. In about a week of playtime with this game, I’ve already played through the campaign twice, once alone and once in co-op thanks to the help of another journo friend. The second allows gamers to fall into the roles they prefer the most, and really requires a natural give-and-take to be developed. It does make the goal scores significantly easier to reach, especially in Normal difficulty, but can be uniquely challenging, especially in the earlier levels when players are deciding how each will play the game. Eventually, in our case, one was building and maintaining the base and army while the other went exploring and got into skirmishes.
Other multiplayer options include 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 Skirmishes. These battles are played out on some very famous battlefields from the greater Halo mythos, and allow for a couple of new aspects to the game. Each player controls a specific leader, each with unique powers and units. Here the players can also take hold of Covenant forces, as well. These alien units are slightly weaker than their UNSC counterparts, but larger armies allow evening of the odds. If time is a factor, deathmatch mode speeds things up significantly with more resources at the onset of the battle. Want to hone your craft or are having trouble finding friends to destroy? In any of these modes, a decently intelligent AI can control remaining unfilled slots. There’s even an achievement awarded specifically for trying things out that way.
Infantry beats Air Vehicle beats Ground Vehicle beats InfantryAll this writing, and I haven’t mentioned the collectible Skulls (items that change gameplay slightly and reduce your score, in case the game is too easy for you), Black Boxes (that unlock events on the aforementioned timeline), Heroic and Legendary difficulties (which are as hard as they sound), secondary objectives, and how ridiculously cool and satisfying the upgrades are. Spartans not only make an appearance, but also often play an important role in turning the tide of battle, and just wait until one of the Mjolnir Armor wearing super soldiers takes control of a covenant vehicle for the first time. Spouses and roommates should be warned that they probably won’t get to use the TV for awhile and random shouts of “Hell Yeah!” and “SWEET!” are likely to emanate from the family room for the next several weeks. With a campaign that takes about 10-12 hours in Normal mode, and ridiculous replay value via collectibles, par times, medals awarded, and achievements, the campaign alone will keep you occupied for quite some time.
This is quite simply a fantastic game. It was the most fun I’ve had playing an RTS since Age of Mythology, and some of the most fun I’ve had playing any game, ever. Not once while playing this game did I ever think, "That could have been done better" or "I wish you could ____." There is downloadable content promised, coming from a new development studio that emerged from the ashes of Ensemble, so some of the same team plans to continue working on this game for some time to come. This is the game that will get people into RTSes, similar to how Halo 1-3 opened so many up to FPSes, and to me is the best exclusive yet on the Xbox 360. Must buy, 10/10, Halo Wars should be in your system tray for a long, long time.Halo Wars comes out exclusively on Xbox 360 March 3rd, 2009. A demo is available now on Xbox LIVE