Sunday, February 08, 2009

Halo Wars Demo Impressions

Now that it's been out for a few days, I've had the chance to spend some quality time with the Halo Wars demo, and while I'm not sure about the rest of you, I consider Halo Wars to be a real risky project. How so? Well look at it this way: Real Time Strategy games have always been the providence of the PC simply due to a Controller's limitations on the genre; a console Controller has never been able to match the depth required of the genre easily offered via a mouse and keyboard.

That's not to say that there haven't been some solid attempts. Various developers, such as EA, have given it a very valiant effort, however most RTSes on consoles have never felt right compared to their PC counterparts, and there-in lies the problem: Every console RTS has always been a port of a PC RTS, where the developers were forced to adapt something far more complex to a platform requiring a greater degree of simplicity.

Thus, we have Halo Wars. The Halo franchise is Microsoft Game Studios' flagship title for the Xbox platform. Halo: Combat Evolved put the Xbox on the map, Halo 2 took Xbox LIVE to fame, and Halo 3 remains the Xbox 360's best selling game to date and is the second largest media launch in history. That's a massively successful lineage and a lot to live up to, and yet here we find Microsoft Game Studios coupling said flagship franchise to a genre that's consistently performed average at best on their home-grown platform. This fact alone means that by default, Halo Wars runs a strong risk of having mediocre sales and longevity by comparison, and I, for one, call that a very strong risk.

Thankfully, not only is Halo Wars developed by veteran RTS developer Ensemble Studios, but it's also been designed for the Xbox 360 from the ground up, specifically it's control scheme. Let me take a moment to state my overall impression in one simple sentence for you: Based on the Halo Wars demo, the RTS genre as we know it will not be revolutionized as a whole, but traditional RTS gameplay will finally be realized on the console platform.

Microsoft Game Studios knew what it was getting into when it commissioned this project, so much so that they felt they needed to release a demo, the first demo of the Halo franchise to ever appear on the Xbox platform, and allowing us gamers to get a proper taste before launch is a very smart move.

Overall, I am impressed. The Halo franchise has always screamed RTS to me with its detailed back story and variety of species, technology, and factions. Based on what's offered in the demo, which is quite significant actually featuring two tutorials, the first two Campaign missions, and Skirmish against an AI opponent on a single map, there's a lot to do and to try. Overall, the demo is not as complex as any PC RTS prior to 1998's Starcraft, but honestly, that's no where near as bad as it sounds. The gameplay was greatly simplified, but it was _fun_, which is the most important thing of all.

It's nice to see the demo start off with the familiar blue-coloured menus that's been the franchise's standard since 2004, and the cinematics featured are beautifully animated. Set in the early days of the Human-Covenant War, 2531 to be exact, Halo Wars will follow the exploits of the crew of the Spirit of Fire as they battle the Covenant to try and hold the recently retaken world of Harvest. The story in the demo was standard fare with no real back story provided, which is a bit of a shame and it really requires you to already have an understanding of the Halo universe, and you'll appreciate what's there that much more if you've been following the expanded universe all these years.

I must admit it's exciting to see so many aspects of the Halo expanded universe now become canon thanks to this game, though like all prequels, some things have been changed that alter accepted facts (Spartan-II's weren't supposed to have energy shields for another 21 years!). There is a lot of storyline potential, and should the retail game's cinematics keep up to the same level of quality as showcased in the demo, we might have a solid RTS story on our hands.

Graphically, the game looks very nice. Units are crisp and detailed and it's very easy to see them on screen, even the tiny groups of Grunts. Audio wise the sound effects are spot on to Halo, the voice acting is up to par, and the music is simply excellent with a very nice and unique theme track.

As I mentioned earlier, controls have been the biggest issue with console RTSes, which is why I'm happy to say that Ensemble Studios has done an excellent job with the game's controls, and they're both intuitive and responsive enough to get players through the demo.

Left Stick: Scrolls Cursor
Right Stick: Controls Camera
Click Left Stick: Send Flare to Allies
Click Right Stick: Return to Default Camera View
Left Trigger: Increase Cursor Scroll Rate
Right Trigger: Tab through Groups of Selected Units
Left Bumper: Select all your Units on the Map
Right Bumper: Select all your Units on Screen
Back: Objectives
Start: Pause Menu
X: Move/Attack
Y: Special Abilities
A: Select (Double click a Unit to select all Units of this type on screen, hold to drag and select)
B: Cancel
D-Pad Up: Spirit of Fire Menu
D-Pad Right: Move to Last Alert Location
D-Pad Down: Move/Cycle to Next Army
D-Pad Left: Move/Cycle to Base Location(s)

The only thing missing from this set up is a Stand Ground command (which, as an RTS veteran, means I'll be able to mercilessly harass my opponents and pick off wondering units and play hell with their formations), and proper Groupings. There are no Groupings which is really a shame, but truth be told I'm not sure where they'd toss them to be simple enough to access unless one were to include a Chatpad for the extra buttons. The lack of Groups can limit multi-front assaults unless you plan it out really carefully, but the game does have a small population cap which limits this issue and has you micro-managing your forces to get the most bang for your buck.

And do _not_ underestimate Special Abilities. A squad of Marine's can take down buildings much quicker when tossing Frag Grenades, and even more so when you upgrade them to RPGs! Leader Powers can be extremely devastating when used correctly, and proper use of Special Abilities and resource management will win you battles and allow you to easily take expansion sections to further increase your collection and unit production.

I've only played with the Normal AI thus far, and in Skirmish mode it honestly didn't present too much of a challenge, only mildly harassing me from time to time. In fact, a quick rush was often enough to really contain my AI opponent, however since many gamers will be new to the genre and starting out on Normal, I understand this. I'm hoping Hard will offer much more of a challenge.

In Skirmish, I've mainly started off by quickly constructing a Supply Pad, Barracks, and Reactor, and sending my Warthog to scout and begin gathering supplies. Once I have a feel for what kind of units to expect from my opponent, I begin working on the counter, mainly Infantry and some Scorpion Tanks (I was having some rather nice Terran flashbacks). Again, I wasn't overly challenged here, so the siege of my enemy's base went very smoothly.

So my overall impressions of the Halo Wars demo are quite positive, so much so that I've pre-ordered the game. While I doubt we'll see the game revolutionize the RTS genre as a whole, I think it'll be an excellent step in the right direction for bringing real time strategy as a serious genre for consoles, much as Halo: Combat Evolved did for shooters before it.

In less than one month, we'll be able to play the full product and see if I'm right.

UPDATE: Just played a Skirmish game on Heroic (Hard) as the Covenant versus UNSC, and it's a much more challenging and enjoyable experience. The AI originally went mass Flamethrowers and Spartans, so I countered with Jackals and Hunters. I teched slowly to Wraiths (should have done this faster), and took an expansion in good time to add more Warehouses to increase Resource deliveries. While attacking their expansion, they hit me with a Mac Blast and took out most of my army, so I fell back as they began mixing in Scorpions.

I switched up my strategy and started mixing Wraiths, Locusts, and Hunters, with a few Elite Honour Guards and the odd Jackal thrown in for good measure, and after several cat and mouse battles, I finally got the upper hand and took out their primary base. I was then able to construct a Scarab to seal the deal.

Lots more fun on Heroic, and I'm honestly quite excited to take this game onto Xbox LIVE!

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