Joystiq Review: Halo Wars

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Halo Wars is a loaded game. For one, it's the first Halo title developed outside of Bungie, and you can bet Microsoft doesn't want anyone killing its golden goose. Furthermore, the developers have touted the control scheme since the game was first announced, allowing myself and others to hope that it might, just might, do for console RTS games what Halo did for console FPS games. And then, of course, it's the last game from Ensemble Studios ... ever. That's a lot to live up to.
I won't bother explaining the control scheme – you can try it out yourself. Players of EA's console RTS games (LOTR, Command & Conquer) will find it familiar, yet much simpler. Everything just works. Constructing buildings and training units is a snap. Scrolling through squads is easy (no need to assign them either, the computer handles it). Selecting units and issuing orders is a breeze. Even in the middle of battle, it's simple to issue orders to individual unit types. Put simply, if your infantry is being slagged by a Wraith, you won't have any trouble getting a Spartan to hijack it.

Speaking of hijacking, the unit animations in Halo Wars are excellent. Whether it be Hunters dodging grenades or a Spartan dropping an Elite to its knees and snapping its neck, everything is rendered in great detail.

But none of that matters without gameplay to back it up. Thankfully, Halo Wars doesn't falter. The balance between Covenant and UNSC units is well managed, with each unit given a specific purpose (anti-vehicle, anti-infantry, etc.). While each faction has units with similar purposes, they all have subtle differences and unique upgrade paths. On top of this, the six selectable commanders each have their own special units and abilities, which gives players the ability to customize a strategy to their own particular tastes.

If your infantry is being slagged by a Wraith, you won't have any trouble getting a Spartan to hijack it.

The campaign is enjoyable, and the story is well done. In particular, the pre-rendered cut scenes between levels are stunning and do an excellent job of telling the story of the events before Halo. In fact, the storytelling in Halo Wars might just be a notch above the first three Halo games (no offense, Chief, but you're not much of a talker).

The missions vary from basic build-and-attack to escort or survival missions. One mission, for example, has players protecting special artillery units from enemy fire, while another has you breaking through entrenched Flood to rescue stranded allies. The fifteen missions on Normal difficulty take around 6-8 hours to complete (depending on how many times you have to restart frakking Mission Ten). There are also skulls and black boxes to find for the completionists out there.

Halo Wars isn't without faults, though. For one, the game is screaming for a Covenant campaign. It would be great to see the whole story from the enemy perspective, and Halo Wars could use a longer campaign anyway. Also, the camera can occasionally get hung up on map geometry, forcing players to rotate it to highlight certain areas. I also wish the camera could pull back further and zoom in just a bit closer. When my Spartan back flips over a Wraith, punches a hole in it and tosses out the driver with one hand, I want to see it up close. And, since I'm complaining, playable Flood would be nice, too. Still, the problems are small and never really get in the way of gameplay.

Halo Wars definitely has a lot to live up to, but if Ensemble felt any of the tremendous pressure of creating the next Halo, you'd never know it. The game plays brilliantly. It might be a streamlined RTS experience, with perhaps less depth than PC RTS titles, but Halo Wars does console real-time strategy right. Honestly, it's enough to excite me about the future of console RTS games. Well done, Ensemble. You couldn't have performed a better swan song.

But wait, there's more! Our own Xav de Matos has his take on Halo Wars:

This article was originally published on Joystiq.