Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Halo Wars

Ensemble Studios

Xbox 360

For all of the caterwauling about the lack of quality real-time strategy games on home consoles, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a ready market for the product. Ensemble Studios certainly thought so: they’d even decided to bring the RTS genre to living rooms before they received genuine Bungie-grade manna in the form of the Halo license. With a control scheme designed from the ground up to work with the Xbox 360 controller, Ensemble made a great start on the project, before coming slightly derailed in its execution.

On the face of things, the Halo universe seems ripe for the RTS plucking – it even comes complete with a three-way tie for galactic domination by way of the UNSC, Covenant and Flood forces. (Think Terran, Protoss and Zerg respectively, if that helps.) But the questionable decision to restrict the campaign mode to the slightly prosaic UNSC forces in campaign mode, and not allowing gamers to play as the other two armies does limit the game’s single-player mode. And while the Covenant can be used in multiplayer, the Flood isn’t playable at all, which kind of takes the appeal out of things – the insect / zombie / biohazard races always offer the most visceral fun. Sometimes literally. Of course, gamers with a rainbow connection to Master Chief may disagree, as the thrill of seeing multiple Spartans take on the Covenant masses will likely overwhelm all pretence of reason.

Combat in Halo Wars is balanced with the now-traditional rock-paper-scissors approach, where infantry units are beaten by ground vehicles, ground vehicles are beaten by aircraft, and aircraft, somewhat bizarrely, are beaten by infantry. There are slight variations on the theme, for better or worse, but that’s the basic idea. Missions are tightly scripted, with less room allowed for player decisions (base placement, technology trees) than traditional RTS titles, although the game’s restrictions do tie well into its cinematic qualities – you’re playing through a story much more interesting (and marginally more profound) than anything Command & Conquer could come ever up with, time-travelling Russians be damned.

I’m a fan of damning games with faint praise – or concealing barbs behind a turn of phrase, if the opportunity presents itself – but it’s hard to be oblique enough when I’m talking about the controls. They’re adequate, but radial menus on analogue sticks aren’t anything groundbreaking. I’d go out on a limb and say they do the job, except the job is such a stripped-down version of what RTS gamers are used to that it’s like the Xbox 360 controller has a completely different vocation in mind. You can’t assign units to custom groups, you can’t set different rally points for different unit types, and you can’t access the build menu without the ‘eye of god’ being close to your base. The tricks of the trade, then – the elements of strategy that have evolved from playing in a hectic skirmish-filled real-time gamespace – are moot. Halo Wars might serve as a passable introduction to the genre for those gamers who didn’t cut their teeth on Starcraft, but its value extends little further than prolonging the story until the Halo 3 prequel ODST drops later this year.

With the upcoming release of the ‘Strategic Options’ add-on pack, though, Ensemble are about to add some value to the title, by tacking on three extra game modes, available in both skirmish or multiplayer game types. There’s a CTF play-alike mode called Keepaway, where teams fight to capture a free-roaming Sentinel drone, an army-building race to supremacy called Tug of War, and a battle for constant one-upmanship called Reinforcement, as battle units arrive in waves and you are forced to adapt tactics to suit different situations.

The DLC adds another four Achievements, worth 100 points in total, but hasn’t yet been priced for NZ release, or dated more specifically than ‘in the coming weeks’. Halo fans will likely seize upon anything that extends the life of the title; others may resent buying new options that do little other than bring a slightly substandard game up to par.

All of which is to say, Halo Wars isn’t for hardcore strategy fans, who would likely be much more at home practising South Korea’s national sport on their home PCs. If there were such a category as medium-core experimental cinematic fan service, though, that’s where I’d place the game. It’s a buzz if you’re caught up in the Halo universe and mythos, and the sheer appeal of controlling a bunch of UNSC Spartans from the sky – like unto a god – carries a lot of weight. I’m left wondering, though, if God wanted me to really enjoy an RTS game on a console, why can’t I just plug in a keyboard and mouse like He intended?

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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