Ensemble Studios helped to lead the RTS revolution since their first game, Age of Empires, in 1997, and the following entries into the series would continue transforming the often arcane rules of tactical warfare into a language that spoke to every level of player with a healthy dose of history. It would become one of the most influential approaches to the genre in recent times. Unfortunately, history also tends to repeat itself in the worst way possible.
Lucasarts was forced to change its focus with the waning market on adventure titles and with the weakening RTS market among other factors, Microsoft would decide to shutter Ensemble Studios in order to concentrate on other ventures. Although most of Ensemble’s crew will be landing on their feet within one of two new studios alongside other opportunities within Microsoft itself, PC players can’t help but feel the same sense of loss that the end of Westwood and Origin were responsible for years earlier.
But Halo Wars manages to deliver Ensemble’s swan song in expanding the sci-fi mythology of Bungie’s FPS juggernaut in taking the player out of Master Chief’s helmet and into the uniform of a commander. In some ways, this is Halo coming, no pun intended, full circle as the series had been originally conceived as a strategy title akin to their previous work within the Myth series before becoming the Xbox’s FPS juggernaut. The character of Halo Wars, however, is uniquely something that only Ensemble could have put together.
The game takes place twenty years prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, the first game in the franchise, as the human race of the 26th century finds itself at war with an alien alliance known only as the Covenant. Claiming that humanity must be wiped from the galaxy in the name of the gods, the technologically advanced forces of the Covenant have been slowly grinding the fleets of the United Nations Space Command into the vacuum. Despite the odds, the UNSC plans to stage an offensive to retake the colony world of Harvest and send the warship, Spirit of Fire, to carry it out under the command of Captain Cutter.
The player will see the war through the eyes of Sergeant John Forge, a sort of devil-may-care hero who might not follow regulations but will carry out his orders to the best of his abilities in any situation. The story unfolds over fifteen campaign missions interspersed with cutscenes courtesy of the CG artisans at Blur that turn what should have been a simple military operation into a pivotal moment of the war at large. While it won’t have you at the edge of your seat with unexpected turns and revelations, Ensemble does a fantastic job in embracing Bungie’s vision for Halo in an RTS setting.
The green armored marines that act as so much cannon fodder in the FPS are here along with the Warthog buggy and Scorpion tank to back them up, all ready for action. The legendary SPARTAN super-soldiers are also included as drop-in heroes in certain missions complete with the kind of heavy hitting firepower to help even the odds. The Covenant’s purple ranks are also represented with everything that Halo fans can easily recognize from Grunts to Brutes and Wraith flyers. Even the Flood shows up to ruin everyone’s day with a few new tricks.
Halo Wars’ elements are built atop the tried and true formula of base building and unit production in order to carry the war forward. Some stages won’t even give you a starting base to begin with, but those occur later in the story after you’ve had a chance to get warmed up with the earlier missions and have gotten more used to working with each unit. The first few battles introduce the player to the basics outside of the tutorial and the learning curve is mercifully short thanks to a streamlined control scheme. Difficulty is selectable at the start of the campaign or when you want to pick up from a particular mission offering flexibility for those of us who aren’t as tactically savvy as we would like to be, offering the same choices that the FPS does as it ratchets the frustration level up to Legendary for armchair generals comfortable only with the harshest of challenges.
No one unit is ultimately the only choice for any engagement which encourages a mix as each one plays off of the strength of the others. Marines are great at suppressing enemy troops but suffer against air units or enemy armor requiring a Warthog or a Scorpion to help back them. Even mighty SPARTANs can’t fight a war all on their own. But while it may represent a classic case of scissors-paper-rock, many of the units in the game are capable of dishing out damage against enemy units of all types to some degree making no one unit useless. Even Scorpion tanks have a few defenses of their own to take down aerial enemies and SPARTANs easily dish out damage against everything thrown at them…some more than others if only because of the weapon that they are equipped with.
Each unit also has a secondary attack such as a grenade throw for the marines or running down enemies with the Warthog, abilities that recharge over time. You also get special commander level abilities, such as calling down orbital shot from the Spirit of Fire, on occasion. Unit abilities can also be upgraded at the base once certain conditions are met, such as if the base has enough power. Bases themselves are as simple as the controls as they are located only around specific “build pad” type hubs with everything arranged around them to make it easier to manage. Supplies, the currency of the game, is generated at the base and this can also be improved along with everything else. Upgrading supply pads, researching medics for marines, or improving a flame troopers’ weapon are all options that the player can decide upon depending on where they fit in with their tactical plans.
Aside from the cinematics provided by the CG meisters over at Blur, the rest of the game provides plenty of detailed venues to sift through, adhering closely to the often bright palette of colors that Halo bears as a trademark with its purples and greens. Many of the stages that the battles take place in range from the icy plains featured in the demo to the top of a starship as it slips ever deeper behind enemy lines. The controls allow easy access to the camera as players can pan around entire areas, zoom in and out, and follow the explosive confrontations as they occur onscreen. But there is also some choppiness in particularly busy scenes that can be a little jarring to eyes.
The soundtrack also sticks closely to the thematic sounds of the FPS and do it justice with a variety of pieces evoking the sci-fi atmosphere of the series by paying it homage. Competent voice acting behind each of the main characters helps to deliver the bare bones story and keep the player focused on objectives during each mission, although few of the characters are particularly well developed enough to really care too much about. When the climactic battle occurs and a specific character is asked to face their fate, it felt as if it were simply “business as usual” which detracted from some of the impact that the end should have had. Fortunately, the ending cinematics prove to be rewarding enough eye candy for players to enjoy after completing the main campaign.
That’s a good thing, too, because its fifteen mission don’t last very long. It does make an effort to give the player a variety of things to do during each one, though, to keep things entertaining. Bonus objectives that the player can complete to help improve the points they earn on their end-of-mission evaluation, such as rescuing trapped Warthogs or destroying a number of specific objectives, help mix things up. Some missions are also timed requiring the player to rush the enemy with what they have before it’s too late. Even a few Halo-flavored specials are hidden in each mission such as Skulls which can be used as optional “cheats” to help give you an edge in battle or “black boxes” that unlock a bit more of the lore in the included timeline archive.
The difficulty level also decides how brutal the enemy will be and RTS veterans may want to move up a slot or two from the default if they’re hungering for a real challenge as the AI can be occasionally sneaky and as relentless as they are in the later stages. Tactically, most skirmishes against the enemy involved creating a huge mass of mixed units and then sending them into battle which veteran strategists might find somewhat limited in scope, especially if they happen to be coming in from the PC side and are curious to see what consoles have to offer in their stead. There’s not much here to revolutionize the genre as a whole, or even on consoles in general, but it also doesn’t suffer from any fantastically bad design choices that could have sabotaged the effort. Still, players more concerned over the campaign, however, than the multiplayer may feel burned on its length despite the achievements, in-mission bonus objectives, and additional difficulty levels that add to the title’s replayability.
The multiplayer component pits players head-to-head with each other as either the UNSC or the Covenant, each side featuring units specific to their faction along with different base building visuals to set them further apart. The problem is that the main campaign focuses primarily on the UNSC leaving players to figure out the nuances of playing as the Covenant through trial and error. Still, if you don’t care much for the campaign, this opens the door for you to mix it up with other would-be commanders online.
Ensemble Studios’ final RTS as a development house is a welcome entry into the ongoing saga of the Halo series and a solid effort by Microsoft into expanding it in a different direction. Although it might not completely win over FPS fans still addicted to the multiplayer of its action-oriented peer, its simple approach to tactical warfare make it something that newcomers, even those that aren’t so much interested in Halo the FPS, can easily get involved with as they fight to save humanity.