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Halo Wars: Campaign and Skirmish Mode Impressions

alo scholars are quick to remind others that the flagship Xbox 360 FPS began its life as a Mac-based RTS. Of course, a lot has changed in those intervening years. The now-shuttered Ensemble Studios took the reins from Bungie, moving the game back to something a bit closer to its original concept. Taking place before the “proper” Halo games, players get to experience a world both familiar and new, filled with warthogs, scheming Covenant—and more than a few Spartans.

The campaign starts off with a bang (or bangs), and the pacing doesn’t slow from there. We’re not going to get into spoiler territory, but there’s stuff that’s sure to make Halo die hards swoon, while not completely alienating people who have managed to ignore the series up until this point.

A few tutorial type missions get players used to the basic game mechanics, and then it basically opens up. Rather than gimp player options in the first few missions, players have access to virtually everything the UNC has at its disposal right from the start. If you want to turtle for a while and build up a mass of Vultures (ruthlessly efficient airships), you’re free to do that. Of course, you’ll need to fend off attacks from equally ruthless Covenant units.

Missions are varied, including one where you’re charged with protecting civilians and escorting them through a ruined city for evac. As the timer ticks down, the Covenant gets more aggressive, targeting the three rescue ships. Splitting time between pacifying enemy-filled corridors, keeping helpless people safe and the vulnerable ships whole is a difficult, tense task. Another memorable section has players frantically building a force strong enough to take out a Scarab. The hulking unit sweeps its targeting beam back and forth, pausing now and then to chip away at a stone barricade that’s the sole protection for the base.

In addition to the campaign, Nick and I played through a ton of Skirmish battles, both co-op against AI opponents and against each other. What’s the verdict? If you’re a Halo fan with a casual interest in RTS games or an RTS vet looking for something different, Halo Wars is definitely worth checking out.

Here’s our post-Skirmish debriefing:

Jeff: OK, I guess this is the part where we have to congratulate Ensemble for making an RTS that plays well on consoles. At this point though, doesn’t it seem like every RTS that makes its ways onto consoles gets credit for working with the controls?

Nick: They did a great job with the controls, but so have a lot of other people at this point.

Jeff: But…Halo Wars is definitely a fun game.

Nick: It is a fun game. I liked using the UNSC much better than the Covenant.

Jeff: Yes. I think that the UNSC plays a little more similarly to other units in traditional RTS’, and it’s a little easier to pick up and understand what everything does and what the relationships are between units. Covenant is not a reskinned version of the UNSC; they’ve got their own deal going on.

Nick: The Hero units are different, the bases are different. They don’t have orbiting ships—they have a unit that can attack from an orbiting ship, but it’s not like the Pillar of Autumn, where it’s striking down a carpet bomb. The Covenant don’t have that ability. They do have an ability that I do like with their unique character for each team. The one I was using could direct a laser at targets, and it would keep doing damage until I ran out of resources. The longer it fired, the more powerful it got. So if you had 10,000 resources, you could just fire this beam and burn up everyone. But it drains those resources pretty quickly.

Jeff: Fortunately, unlike a lot of RTS’, resources are abundant. It’s not a matter of building a refinery and collection units that go back and forth mining from a finite pool. It’s more of a situation where you build this structure and then dropships come in and automatically take care of business. They don’t get shot down or anything—it’s basically done.

Nick: Unlimited resources and the speed at which you build them are just fantastic. Limiting the base building is something that I’m personally not much of a fan of. I like doing the big, sprawled out gigantic bases. It’s probably better for the balance in the end, for this game, though. This game is more about combat, in the end.

Jeff: We’d talked about you having problems with not just the base building, but how you don’t have any real choices about where things go. You can’t build in a straight line—you’re basically restricted to building your base in a three by three tic-tac-toe kind of grid. You can have a turret in each corner, but you can’t be sneaky and build a wall of turrets or anything. I think even more limiting is where you can build bases in the first place. You can’t just say, “I want to build a big base here.” There are specific areas in which you can build bases. So you can advance the front bit by bit, but it’s not quite as open as it has been in other RTS’. That’s fine for the type of game that it is—a kind of RTS lite in some respects.

Nick: The game is definitely more about the combat. One thing that a lot of RTS’ have suffered from is the whole “select, attack, select, attack,” mechanic. Because of that, it’s often hard to control. You have to babysit units in those games rather than being able to focus on multiple tasks. Here, because there’s this alternate fire that each unit has, you can actively attack things. You press the Y button, and it engages the special attack for each unit. They all have cooldowns so you can’t just spam them, but it’s pretty cool to have a group of guys and instead of just mashing the attack button over and over again, you have a more active way to engage enemies. And you can use the third system, which is the spaceship up above, that lets you fire carpet bombs, disruptor bombs, teleport units and those kinds of things.

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