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Mixing up the realms of Halo and real-time-strategy always seemed an odd idea to me. Squad-based shooter? Solid choice. Warthog Kart racing? I can get behind that. But a real time strategy game? That's crazy talk. But Halo Wars, under the steady hand of Ensemble Studios, blew my expectations away. Despite slimmed down controls and a game targeted more at the Halo fan than an Real Time Strategy (RTS) connoisseur, I found the missions combining with the story entertaining and engaging. With addictive multiplayer modes to keep the interest far beyond the campaign, this is a worthy addition to the Halo franchise.
Halo Wars doesn't seem to know what it is. From the cinematic adverts to the ambiguous back-of-the-box bullet points, it's difficult to discern that this is actually a RTS game. Almost as if Microsoft were afraid to admit that this isn't another Halo 3 'let's kick some Covenant ass' game. I have to shamefully admit that I wasn't expecting much from Halo Wars. Having a history with 'proper' real time strategy games like Company of Heroes and only a passing interest in all things Halo gave me the idea that this would pander only to a very casual gaming audience.
But I'm glad to say my preconceptions were swept aside after only a few missions. It's true to say that this is a fairly simple RTS for the console with controls paired down to the utter minimum. Hardcore fans will inevitably turn their noses up at such an abomination but they'd be missing out on an entertaining ride through Halo's pre-history.
It's true to say that this is a fairly simple RTS for the console with controls paired down to the utter minimum.
Set 20 years before the events in Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars throws you into the middle of the early conflict between the UNSC and the Covenant over the planet Reach. Although Master Chief is completely absent from the game I found that the new characters managed to fill his boots admirably. The story was engaging and far less confusing than the previous games with their slightly dodgy narrative.
Building bases and generating troops is done remarkably efficiently and easily in Halo Wars. The only base-building aspect of the game is confined to a single station that has a variable number of build slots within it. These slots can house all the buildings needed to produce units, increase resources or improve the tech level. It's remarkably simple and easy to use, stripping away a lot of the more fiddly aspects to games such as Command and Conquer or Supreme Commander.
Missions are fairly simple with obvious objectives sometimes bordering on the mundane, but always having a decent amount of variety to keep me interested. One problem I encountered was with the difficulty level. I had to set it all the way up to Legendary to get any real challenge from the game with basic tactical moves practically redundant throughout the campaign.
I found myself viewing Halo Wars with as much respect as I did Company of Heroes despite the gulf between them being incredibly vast.
That's not to take away any enjoyment from the game. Sometimes it's nice to amass a ridiculous number of troops to steamroll the enemy and not trouble oneself with any of this complex tactical nonsense.
No, the real entertainment comes from bathing in all things Halo. With each unit faithfully represented in the game I was surprised to feel my connection with the Halo world grow. Seeing the familiar bounce of the Warthog as it leapt over rubble or the sound of a Spartan's shields regenerating gave me a warm buzz. I found myself viewing this with as much respect as I did Company of Heroes despite the gulf between them being incredibly vast.
Part of this must come from Ensemble Studios. The developers have a long history of PC-centric RTS games and this spit and polish coming from 15 years of experience gives Halo Wars a gleaming shine. This sparkle shows itself in the multiplayer modes as well. As well as the usual 1vs1, 2vs2, 3vs3 skirmishes, Halo Wars has a new deathmatch mode which leads to some completely insane battles online.
Starting everyone off with a fully researched tech-tree the game degenerates into grabbing bases and churning out units as fast as possible. Within minutes of any game I found myself having epically large and stupid battles with uber-units and Spartans causing havoc to everything and anything. This type of multiplayer is bound to make aficionados sick but it's a wonderful homage to Halo's FPS deathmatch.
Although the entire game lacks the depth of other RTS games (even those on the consoles) it still held my attention to the end. It's an entertaining and fun game to play – when was the last time you could say that about real-time-strategy.
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