Friday, May 1, 2009

Halo Wars (360) - Ensemble Studios

As the flag-ship game for the 360 it is not surprising that Halo developers Ensemble are pushing the franchise to new limits in order for it to seep into everyday gaming culture, which has largely been successful thanks to the franchises three critically acclaimed games. Now, in what is a very interesting step, the latest offering in the Halo franchise is not first-person shooter but a real-time strategy.
It is a well known fact in the global gaming community that if there is one genre of gaming that consoles have continually failed to get right it is strategy: this is because a PC’s keyboard plays a monumentally important role in a l337 term known as ‘micro-management’; however a console controller is obviously hampered by its lack of buttons. Ensemble have addressed this problem by allowing you to cycle through different types of units using the left and right triggers and by using the shoulder buttons to select local (on screen) and all units. While this is a good idea Halo Wars still manages to lag behind its PC brethren due to the fact that you cannot arrange your units into specific squads for further micro-management. The use of the left, right and down buttons on the game pad serves the use of quickly jumping you to selected units and map events but thanks to the lack of a mouse allowing you to freely click on the mini-map itself results in a general feeling of restriction. While this may seem like a minor quarrel it can make a big difference later on in the campaign with the difficulty cranked up or on a fairly hectic skirmish when you are multi-tasking between constructing units and managing those already in the thick of battle.
Halo Wars is set 20 years prior to the events of the first Halo game (referred to as ‘The Halo Incident’) pitting you in control of UNSC forces as they valiantly struggle against the fittingly evil Covenant alliance. One of the main selling points for the 360-fanboys in la la land will be the opportunity to control armies of American-accent-totting UNSC forces or even switch sides in a skirmish to take control of a few Hunters, Banshees and the formidable Scarab. While both goodies and baddies hold forces of adequate variety that can be upgraded through research, not to mention that in Skirmish mode each general holds specific unique units; there is a persistent feeling of limitation. This is largely down to the limited visual and artistic differences between certain units; even with the ability to zoom in controlled through the right analogue stick it is difficult to tell them apart. This was particularly a pain when in one mission I continually found myself sending useless artillery tanks into the thick of battle mistaking them for something far more useful (and short range). The result: a certain Mr Cracka screaming at the aforementioned artillery in frustration, cursing the fact that they were almost identical in appearance to the more useful Scorpion tanks. This leads me conveniently to another issue I found with the game play: despite the presence of an adequate range of units to combine into an army it was all too easy to fall back onto the old amateur tactic of tank rushing. With this lack of strategy consistently employable throughout the game’s campaign save one or two missions it kind of defeats the purpose of a strategy game, and results in the fact that Halo Wars is not something that the die-hard RTS fans out there should be rushing out to play but instead serves as a good introduction to the genre itself.
All up Halo Wars is an interesting new take on the 360’s ‘killer app’ that provides a control scheme that, for once, actually works for a console RTS and is a fun game to play because of this. Unfortunately due to the simplicity in the units’ range and the dumbed-down difficulty thanks to the lack of strategy actually required, Halo Wars is a game that should only really be bought by the hardiest of Xbox fan-boys or those wanting an introduction to the strategy genre.

3.5 stars

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