Sunday, March 22, 2009

Halo Wars (Xbox 360) Review

Orcs in space. When Blizzard Entertainment first unveiled Starcraft to the world at E3 1996, the general disappointment by both fans and critics alike were summed up in this catch phrase. Blizzard Entertainment quickly scrapped their current build and restarted Starcraft from scratch, and the rest, as you know, is history.

Now, about 13 years later, Ensemble Studios releases their denouement title, an exclusive Xbox 360 RTS called Halo Wars. So what does Halo Wars have to do with Orcs in Space? Nothing. Everything.

The problem with real time strategy is that it truly is designed around a mouse and keyboard, not a Controller, so while there have been many attempts to bring the genre to consoles, none of these have been very successful. In recent years, there have been some valiant attempts at bringing a simple-to-control interface to consoles, notably by EA, and even though their efforts were well done, they still couldn't quite get it right and that's because all these games were RTSes ported from the PC to the Xbox 360.

Halo Wars, on the other hand, is a game that was designed around the Xbox 360's Controller from the ground up, and I can honestly say that it's paid off. Without question, Halo Wars is the single best console RTS I've ever played, and it's mainly thanks to the slick control scheme. It's still not perfect, there's still room for improvement, but Ensemble Studios has crafted the best Controller layout yet.

Halo Wars is a prequel to the Halo trilogy, and it takes place roughly 20 years prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. It follows the exploits of the crew of the Spirit of Fire as they're sent to investigate the remains of Harvest and renewed Covenant activity on the planet, Harvest being the world of first contact between humanity and the Covenant.

One thing about the RTS genre is that much of the back story, both plot and characters, is told via the game's manual, which sets the stage for the simple yet gripping saga to come. Unfortunately, Halo Wars' manual is no where near as in-depth as many RTSes before it, and the game itself assumes you already know a great deal about the Halo universe. While there is a Timeline presented in-game (much of which you need to unlock as you play), it still doesn't provide all the necessary backstory, so if Halo Wars is your first Halo game, you will be lost. If not, however, and you've played through the entire Halo trilogy, you're in for a treat; especially if you've read the novels.

Halo Wars draws on a lot of material from the books, and what was once the expanded universe has now been made canon thanks to this game. We finally, at long last, get to see the Covenant Engineer, we get to see groups of Spartan-II's running around, and many other key characters and events from the novels are referenced in some form or another.

Halo Wars features all new characters, there is no Master Chief, Cortana, Johnson, etc. Instead, the new cast fills the standard RTS archetype roles. Captain Cutter is your traditional starship Captain, Sgt. Forge is Jimmy (and if you don't know who that is, I'm shaking my head in your general direction), Anders is the hot, pushy, science chick, and the Arbiter, not to be confused with the Arbiter from the Halo trilogy, is the game's visible bad-ass. While you do get to see all of Spartan Team Omega, you'll mainly play with Red Team, Jerome-092, Douglas-042, and Alice-130 respectively.

The Campaign is spread across 15 Missions, and the standard difficulties you'd expect from a Halo title are present. While there is plenty of replay value to be had, you can go back to collect Skulls, complete bonus objectives, and attempt to complete par times, the Campaign is only played from the UNSC's perspective. The Covenant is a fully playable faction in Skirmish and Multiplayer, but sadly, they do not have their own Campaign which would have done wonders to flesh the in-game story out further.

The Campaign missions range from the standard base building to objective types such as area protecting, VIP guarding, and even some really interesting missions on a ship's hull. Though the settings are nice and varied with distinctive themes, the truth is that the missions you'll play are nothing new to RTS veterans, though they are still quite fun and allow you to explore a much grander view of the Halo universe.

In addition to the Campaign, you can play Skirmish games with or against the AI, which is essentially simulated Multiplayer. Using any of the game's Multiplayer maps, you can choose to play as the UNSC or the Covenant (or let the game select your faction randomly), and select one of each faction's three Heroes to lead your forces (or select this as random as well), and play a Standard or Deathmatch game type.

In a Standard game, you need to build up your base and forces and destroy your enemy. Resource management has been simplified, made more automated, and you only need to collect supplies, advance your Technology level, and watch your population cap. Supplies are provided by structures such as the UNSC Supply Pad or the Covenant Warehouse, or you can collect Supply Crates you find scattered around the map. Your Technology Level is provided by UNSC Reactors or by researching upgrades at the Covenant Temple. Your population begins at a low 30 Squads, but you can upgrade this at the UNSC Academy or Covenant Temple to a total of 40 Squads. In a Deathmatch game type, all Technology is fully researched, you start with loads of Supplies, a smaller population cap, and limited structures that you can build. It's a game type meant for quick and dirty games, or for milking Achievements, but personally, as an RTS veteran, it's a game type that I can't take seriously as it offers no real strategy or resource management to take into account.

One major change to the RTS formula in either game type is the fact that your Supply buildings never run dry, they keep cranking out Supplies forever. This means that you're unable to starve your opponent, and gaining an Expansion simply to increase your cash flow is now more important than ever because the faster your resources come in, the sooner you can out manufacture or out tech your opponent.

Depending on which Leader you choose, you'll get a host of additional abilities, units, and unit upgrades, and the Covenant Leaders are actual, in-game controllable units. For example, Captain Cutter can call down a MAC Blast from orbit, can train an Elephant (a mobile Barracks), starts at a higher Tech level, and can upgrade Marines to ODST Super Units. The Arbiter has a Rage ability that can shred through targets at alarming speed, can upgrade to reflect damage and have Active Camouflage, and has access to Suicide Grunts. The leader you choose and how well you employ their unique skills and abilities can be a major turning point in battle.

The AI also handles itself very well be they your friend or foe (Play on Heroic or up). It has solid path finding, and if you send a Flare to a point on the map (By clicking the Left Stick), your AI allies will either attack, scout, or defend the area, depending. In fact, they'll also use Flares to try and coordinate attacks with you, which was most impressive!

Taking Halo Wars onto Xbox LIVE, you can play 1on1, 2on2, or 3on3 matches. My preference has always been 1on1, since it's just your skill against your opponent's, and so that's what I've played the most thus far. I haven't played enough to comment with authority on game balance, but both factions seem generally well balanced at first glance, but retain enough differences to keep things interesting. The Covenant has a less costly, more offensive play style, while the UNSC seems a little more defensive and resource dependent. Ensemble Studios tried to incorporate a rock>paper>scissors model but in practice, I've found this to be false. Generally, it's supposed to be Infantry>Air>Vehicles, but for the UNSC, one of their best anti-air units is a Vehicle. I've also found Air units to fare very poorly in the game, and are far too easily countered, and a healthy mix of Infantry and Vehicles combined with Leader Powers and Special Abilities will see you through.

The Matchmaking system will randomly choose the map for you, and find an opponent close to your Trueskill rating, and thus far it's done a nice job of keeping things both challenging and fun with games lasting about 20 minutes in duration. While the Campaign will certainly keep you busy for a while, and can be played in Co-Op, and Skirmish is great for practicing strategies, getting to know the maps and the locations of the Creeps, expansion points, and neutral structures, it's Multiplayer where the game really shines. It's just so much fun because, being a strategy title, there's so many options available to the player and you never know exactly what your opponent is going to do. They can try to rush, tech, fast expand, or any of the above and more. Scouting is thus so very important, just so you know what's going on and to allow you to counter accordingly, as you don't want to mass Marines if your opponent's massing Jackals. It really has been a long time since I've played a solid, well-polished, competitive RTS, and I never thought to do so on a console, yet here I am.

Visually, Halo Wars looks great. Units are very detailed and animated well, and the talking heads for mission briefings really takes me back further to Starcraft. The different environments are likewise nicely detailed with lots of doodads, as well as various fog and deformation effects. I was very impressed by watching a Covenant Locust walk across a frozen landscape, with its weight actually cracking the ice around it. You saw and also heard the area around each step start to crack! Warthogs leave tracks in the mud, vehicles loose parts as they're damaged, infantry look around when left alone; it's all little details like these which help bring some life to the game world. The game's cinematics are also very impressive. They're top-notch and of excellent quality, with beautiful detail and animation. Definitely worth watching again and again for any Halo fan.

Audio wise, Halo Wars is a masterpiece. Ensemble Studios not only got to use all the authentic Halo sound effects, but they also created an excellent host of new effects. The voice acting is well done by the genre's standards, and while units don't get "annoyed" if you rapidly click on them, they do have random chatter that you'll hear if they're simply standing around. The Marines, especially, have some great lines that always leave me chuckling. The music, while not done by Martin O'Donnell, is a wonderful score. It's very different than what we've heard in the Halo trilogy, but it still mixes in many Halo themes while also sounding somewhat like modern midi-music, which lends a distinctive retro feel to the game. Considering the play-style and controls match this feel, it all comes together as a nice package.

As I've already mentioned, Ensemble Studios has done an excellent job on the games controls. The D-Pad cycles through your bases, armies, and notifications, the Face Buttons issue orders, and really, the only major thing missing is unit groupings. While I understand that there wasn't room on a simple Controller for groupings, in the future, such functionality could be easily incorporated onto a Chatpad, and I say why not since many of us have this handy-dandy accessory. I would also have liked to have been able to Cancel out of the Spirit of Fire's menu by hitting Up on the D-Pad a second time, and double tapping Left Bumper to select All Units should also centre on the units, but these are just minor gripes. I was a little disappointed that you couldn't issue commands on the mini-map itself, and that the mini-map was generally hard to read. Personally, I found it simpler to use the Zoom Mini-map option which lets you see things more clearly at the expense of scope, but it does work better.

Base building is also simpler than the RTS norm. Instead of being able to build wherever you please, your central structure has building plots around it, the number of which is determined by how upgraded your central structure is, and you can only build buildings on those spots. This certainly makes things easier to manage, but it is more cookie-cutter restrictive, and honestly, I wish that the developers would have added one additional building slot to a fully upgraded base. Another reason why expansions are all so critical.

For those unaware, the Halo franchise began development as an RTS prior to Bungie's acquisition by Microsoft, at which point the project became a shooter, so it's quite natural that the universe's various factions lend themselves to the RTS formula. In fact, in many respects, there are several similarities to Starcraft: The UNSC are the Terrans, the Flood are the Zerg, and the Covenant are the Protoss. The control scheme, being as simple and effective as it is, reminds me of playing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness back in the mid-90's. There are no unit groupings, no hotkeys, you have to select and pretty much manage everything first hand, and several ancient tricks still work well. Thus the reason why I feel like I'm playing Orcs in Space. Now do you see where I was coming from with my intro?

Don't mistake me either. While that term was once used as a criticism against Blizzard Entertainment, here, I use it as the highest form of flattery, considering that the Warcraft and Starcraft franchises are the best real time strategy titles out there, there is no better comparison. Halo Wars, in so many respects, is a trip down memory lane for the genre, which does mean that it won't change the way that RTSes are made or played. It has, however, pushed the genre forward on the console platform, and has shown that a solid RTS is possible with a limiting Controller so long as the game is properly designed for the platform. For this reason alone, Halo Wars is an excellent achievement, and a solid finish for Ensemble Studios.

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