We have finally had some respite after the holiday game release rush of 2008. There were just so many games to check out in such a little timeframe. It was quite an unfortunate situation for many publishers. There is only a finite amount of consumer attention to go around after all. We still don’t know too much about games slated for 2009 though there are a few slated for first quarter release that we had been looking forward to. Halo Wars is high up on that list and we’re quite pleased that the publishers decided to delay the release until after that rush so we could take the time to give it the attention it deserves.
Its a real-time strategy game (or RTS) set in the fiction of Bungie Studios’ Halo series. Executive Producer Steve Schreck has crafted this title specifically for the Xbox 360 at Ensemble Studios, allowing them to forgo concessions of multiplatform design and focus on what was best for that environment. The video game console is argued by many to be an atypical environment for an RTS game (these people favor the PC for such games) though it is easy to draw up a list of strategy games on platforms other than the PC comparable to any list of those on it, suggesting this argument is a fallacy and deserving of dismissal.
There are a couple of arguments detractors of this game would have you believe in regards to their refusal to even try this game objectively. The first and most vocally proclaimed is that a strategy game must (and can) only be played using a mouse and keyboard for controls. This is wrong on so many levels, least of all industrial design but instead of drawing it out, lets simply remember that those claiming control is impossible without a mouse must still be trying to control the game as if they were doing so with a mouse. One must realize that there is no mouse and learn the controls at hand. It is not such a stretch of the imagination for one to control a strategy game with a gamepad controller, indeed I have been doing so for decades now successfully.
Those who claim that control is impossible with this hardware must wonder how their opponents are managing to beat them so soundly with impossible controls. Just like with FPS games or any other genre, one must realize that the experience at a sofa and the experience at a desk is vastly different and demands different controls. One can not play one like the other but rather one must adapt – and in a RTS game one must do so before their opponent. With Halo Wars in particular, it has been designed for gamepad control. The only means to control it for gamepads. The strategy involved with the game facilitates this. there is no dire need for a mouse and the game is perfectly playable without one.
The other major argument against this game is that it is limited. Some denounce the limitation of having to build tethered to your base station, while others lament about not being able to amass armies comparable in scale to the battle for middle earth. Such arguments, similar to the mouse complaint, are stuborn and fail to look at this game for what it is. The building scheme is part of the strategy aspect of the game, forcing players to make choices about how to ration building sites while minimizing the task of resource management in favor of quick action with numerous small skirmishes more fitting in the style of the Halo fiction than an epic all-or-nothing battle with limitless bodycounts. These are not limitations of the game but rather strategic constraints, curbing gameplay towards the Halo style.
Now that we’ve dealt with the major arguments about why some people won’t even give this game a chance, lets talk about why maybe you should. First of all theres the single player campaign. Well not many people play an RTS game for the single player campaign but it deserves some mention here. It fits in to the Halo series fiction, twenty years before the first Halo FPS game on Planet Harvest. You play as the UNSC (read: human) forces in the usual big fight against the alien Covanent and a dash of the flood. You never get to play as other races in the campaign but variety is instead provided by the selection of one of three different commanders, each of which effects their units differently and comes with a different unique ability (for example carpet bombing). This is nice and does make a difference though we would have liked so see some more variety. The presentation is fantastic though thanks to Dave Kubalak’s Art Direction. the CGI cuscenes which propel the story between missions are very well produced. The music and audio is superb too. The insturmentals may sound a little flat and synthasised compared to the real orchestra Martin O’donnel might have had at his disposal, the arrangements make up for that in spades.
On the upshot, you do get to play as Covanent in multiplayer games, also with three different commanders with unique abilities et cetera. This gives us a total of two races with six different commanders between them. This helps provide a lot more variety in multiplayer though one can’t help but pine for a third playable race and more pronounced variety between varying forces. Don’t let that fool you though, Game Designer Thomas Zucotti has left lots of room here for varied strategies and the game is well balanced between rushing and developing, expansion and strengthening. It is not as reliant on the rock-paper-scissors method a lot of RTS games use but for better or worse we are considering this as it’s own game, not tieing it down to what, say, blizzard would have done. This is not Starcraft and it does not intend to be (though, yes, there are similarities). Perhaps the biggest thing stifling multiplayer is the lack of maps. There are only a handfull and so strategies might become defacto after some time.
This is a wonderful example of a console RTS. It is among the best. At the risk of being an apologist, there have been other good console RTS games in the past which critics conveniently forget about and this is certainly a contender for top spot. The perceived lack of depth, for the most part, could be argued to be strategic constraints combined with improved accessibility absent in some of the more complex RTS games. What that means is that if you were scared off RTS games in the past, you owe it to yourself to try this one out. It is different, and like anything different it bring change which some fear and some reject out of hand. This is both a strong Halo game and a strong strategy game. There is a limited edition available too, like with so many games, in a metal case. This one, however, is impressively the nicest metal game case second only to Halo 2′s Limited Edition. If you like this game, consider picking up that version while you still can. Oh and if you want to play with some of the developers, pay attention to the credits. Theres some gamertags snuck in there for you to harass.
Want to win a code for a bonus in game vehicle for Halo Wars? We’ve got a custom flame decaled warthog here just waiting to be won. We want to give it to a great strategist though. To enter just post to twitter your best strategy for surviving the cold Canadian winter. Start your tweet with the phrase “Hi @Rajio,” and only one entry per person please. Your whole strategy must fit inside that one tweet. For example you might tweet: “Hi, @Rajio, I would baracade myself inside Tim Hortons.” Good luck.