Review: Halo Wars

20 Feb 2009

Halo Wars is released today and the big question is: does it represent an easy transformation of a legendary shooter game into a real-time strategy game for the console?

The video-games industry is so vast and varied that the satisfaction you get from a real-time strategy (RTS) game and the fix you get from a blood-and-gore shoot ’em up are obviously very different things.

In most games I play, I look for some vestige of style and realism, and while you have to take some games at face value, at the very least, what you want from all of them is that they’re clever and worth your while playing.

When it comes to shoot ’em ups, it’s very easy to describe how vivid the graphics are or how great the plotline is.

But, with RTS, it can be very much hit and miss. If you’re a fan of Command & Conquer, Age of Empires or more recent titles such as Tom Clancy’s EndWar, you have a very clear idea of what you want. But control is everything.

Personally, I’ve never been into the economy aspect of RTS games. I don’t want to spend half my time building a civilisation and then throwing half of it away just for a battle. Instead, I would rather channel my energies into the battle itself, ordering regiments about the field and outwitting the enemy. I don’t care how much gold I need to build an army or how much wood I need to create a barracks.

I have to admit, when I first heard Microsoft was going to release an RTS version of the Halo saga for the Xbox 360 console, I was a bit dubious. The PC works well for strategy games, given that you have greater ability to manage the controls, thanks to the keyboard and mouse.

I recently played Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II on my console and found the experience less than thrilling. The controls were awkward and just didn’t lend themselves well for console gaming. Plus, there was too much to learn just to get into the game.

Microsoft enlisted Ensemble Studios to recreate the Halo universe which was originally created by Bungie. Ensemble had its work cut out in view of the fact that Halo, until now, has been a shooter game, and appealing to fans of the original game wouldn’t be easy.

But actually, Ensemble has done a very good job, creating a classy game that lends itself perfectly to the console format. Thanks to a straightforward and engaging-enough tutorial, you are brought straight into the action.

The console game allows you to cycle between units or select all units and hurl them at the enemy, which you target in sights that you move around the wheel. Tapping the left trigger and then hitting the X or the A buttons pretty much unleashes a storm of fire on the alien foe.

You have the choice of being UNSC, or Covenent forces later in the game, but initially you start off in control of squads of foot soldiers and Warthog vehicles, before building up armies of Spartans. There is a generous selection of vehicle types, including tanks and aircraft, to bomb hordes of Grunts and Elites, and even weapons of mass destruction you can call down, such as lasers from the appropriately titled Spirit of Fire spaceship.

In terms of graphics, the game features a lot of bright animation and extraordinary battlefields that include mines, fields of snow, deserts and even cities with shuttles full of human cargo trying to evacuate.

Interspersed between levels is some very cool footage of dialogue between the commander of the Spirit of Fire, the ship’s AI computer – which is a more mouthy version of Cortana from the original games – and a foolhardy scientist who constantly bumbles her way into the battles, and its your job to get her out.

The overall question is: will Halo Wars satisfy the bloodlust of shooter fans who prefer more direct confrontation?

I think Ensemble is two-thirds of the way there in terms of the absolute abundance of action wherever you go in the game. There is some element of economy involved when you’re assembling factories and barracks to churn out and upgrade troops, weapons and vehicles, but it is done in a fun way.

My only quibble was the fact that you really have only two states of zooming in to view the action so, for most of the game, the protagonists are tiny. With so much going on around the screen, you can get lost. I would have preferred a zoom feature that brought me right in on the characters.

Overall, I think Ensemble has finally succeeded in bringing an RTS game to the console, and if Halo Wars is anything to go by, has unleashed an exciting new phase for console gaming.

Halo Wars is out on 27 February on the Xbox 360 platform and, in association with Xbox Ireland, has three copies to give away to some lucky readers! Check out our competitions page within the next day for details.


Originality: 4


Overall score: 4/5

By John Kennedy