Before I jot down my impressions from Halo Wars, let me get this caveat out of the way; I’m a huge fan of PC gaming, and I strongly believe that both shooters and real time strategy games belong on the PC platform. At least that’s what I thought until Microsoft invited me to play review code for Halo Wars.
The first hint that this game is different from other Halo games is that it’s not developed by Bungie, the company responsible for the rest of the Halo franchise. It’s developed by the now closed Ensemble Studios (one of my favourite developers, RIP), makers of the brilliant Age of Empires RTS games. I’ve played several RTS games on consoles before, none of which have really worked, and I had mixed hopes for a PC-based developer to turn this around. Boy, was I wrong.
The game is set 20 years before Halo 1, and takes place in the (surprise, surprise) same universe. The opening credits are in typical Halo style; overly dramatic and gorgeous.
Learning how to play an RTS effectively using a gamepad took far less time than I anticipated, and halfway into the first mission I felt absolutely confident with the controls. A great mix of simplified commands and good mapping has led to a brilliant control scheme. Want to select all the units on your screen? Simple, just push the right bumper. Similarly, to select all units you have, just press the left bumper. A to move and X to move and attack, and that’s pretty much it. Simple, huh?
Right from the first battle this feels like a proper RTS. It certainly doesn’t feel like a port, or the hurried effort I was afraid it would be. The mechanics are solid and the graphics are as good as they get. The unit selection is perhaps not quite as snappy as I would like, but that’s a minor gripe that’s quickly overshadowed by the rest of the gameplay. The all-important build menus are mono layered, so you won’t get lost in layer after layer of upgrades. Building bases was simple and intuitive, with each build menu bringing up a maximum of three upgrades per level, per building.
The standard elements of RTS are embedded here as well; you gather supplies (actually called ‘supplies’) to be able to build your base and equipment and you have to adhere to the building cap for your troops. The combat features the standard rock-paper-scissors gameplay, with all units being stronger than some but weaker against others. The levels start out nice and easy but will quickly test your mettle. By the fifth level you’ll have to use some smart tactics to beat the enemy; brute force will get you nowhere fast. I thoroughly enjoyed the increasing difficulty and having to fight for your rewards.I have to admit that I’m a changed man. There aren’t many games I’d buy a console for; GTA4 and now Halo Wars have changed that. Even diehard RTS PC fans will enjoy the gameplay and story, and I’d say Ensemble have done their best to recruit people to consoles. I’m certainly convinced.