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Halo Wars was released in Europe, the Pacific and Asia several days ago, and is due for release in the US very soon. So if you are wondering if this will be spoiler-free, don't get your hopes up.
Ensemble's first (and, sadly, last) venture onto the console is Halo Wars, the game that returns Halo to its roots as a Real-Time-Strategy game. I created another blog when i downloaded the demo, and I think much of that still stands for the game itself. It is fantastic, and though not quite the revolution in RTS gaming we hoped it would be, it is by no means a game you should just rent, play for a few days, and return. This is a keeper.
This is very much a game that feels like it has a lot of catching up to do. Everything about it seems designed to outdo the past games. The biggest thing Halo 3 gave us was the Ark. Halo Wars gives us an entire Shield World. In Halo 3, we see a single Forerunner dreadnought, long ago stripped of any weapons. In Halo Wars, we see an entire fleet of Forerunner warships. We get less than a handful of units for each side in Halo's 1-3. In Halo Wars, we have so many introductions to the Halo Canon that it boggles the mind. When it tries to outdo its predecessors in terms of scale, that isn't neccessariyl a good thing. There's never much explanation of just what a Shield World is, or why its so important.
And the characters are no exception. Halo 3 made the Prophet of Truth into a fanatical zealot rather than the cold and calculating leader of Halo 2 (something I still dislike, but ah well). But compared with the Prophet of Regret in his prime, Truth looks practically rational. Instead of the Master Chief, we have an entire team of Spartans, plus Sergeant Forge and Professor Anders, who's chemistry is a new element to Halo. And if you thought Cortana could be a bitch, just wait until you meet Serina, who takes the word to new heights of sarcasm and apathy.
And I guess this is the first Halo game to feature "bots" - artificial intelligence players in multiplayer. The Easy and Normal settings are nothing special, but if you want a challenge, play Heroic. And, as always, Legendary is for those people who have a death wish.
But don't get me wrong. This isn't just blind praise being heaped upon it by a fanboy. I've played RTS games before, though only casually, and Halo Wars is but a pale shadow of what it could be. While innovative, the controls still take some getting used to. The interface is limiting, and limits the number of units and upgrades each structure can produce. The grouping is not such a problem - the game does it for you, and any loose collection will become a group, able to be cycled through with the D-pad. I'm sure there could have been better ways to group them, but on a console so many units would make the game clunky. I also take issue with the tendency of the Automatic setting to keep beating me, but i guess that's a skill thing! The biggest problem I have is that there simply aren't enough units for the different factions to feel that diverse. For the most part, the Covenant are identical to each other, and the biggest difference is their leader units, which are all suitably destructive. The UNSC has a bit more variety, such as the different Leader Abilities, and a few units, but they could have all been rolled together in a "proper" RTS. By which, I mean one that is at its peak. Halo Wars can't help but feel like its been "dumbed down" for the console market, which was an inevitability, I guess.
The campaign is also too short. It feels like an introduction, rather than the whole plot, and when it ended I expected to have a whole heap more left to go. There was so much to see and do that Ensemble seem to have had to cut out a great deal in order to finally ship the game. There was so much potential for the Covenant, and though the Brutes make an all-too-brief appearance, there is no sign of the Brute Chieftain. Downloadable content could focus on his efforts to fight the humans, perhaps? And the Anders-Forge relationship seems like the stereotypical "rescue-the-princess" crap from so many other games. Forge comes across as the stereotypical tough-guy, while Anders just seems like the token "help me, I can't do anything but act sassy and get kidnapped" maiden-in-distress.
Like I said, its a pale shadow of what it could have been. But if its this good, then I hope we get a Halo Wars 2 from Robot Entertainment. This was Ensembles first foray into the Console-RTS market, and the Halo IP, so they understandably needed a bit of time to find their footing. Now that it is found, I expect great things. And if they aren't great, they can expect an angry mob of Halo fans brandishing pitch forks and torches, screaming that they have "ruined Halo fer EVARS!"
Ensembles does a lot of things right, to make up for the negatives. And the most important one, at least for me, is the Flood. I had worried about Ensemble not making it playable, and believed they were just reducing the most terrifying xenocidal parasitic species to exist into background fauna. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out the Flood weren't playable because they were COMPLETELY unbalanced. The Flood structures are weak as hell, and often don't have much in the way of an attack, but their units are effective as hell. Infection forms, if not dealt with immediately, will turn your Marines into bloodthirsty zombies. Thrasher forms will pummel your vehicles, and Swarms will knock your Hornets out of the sky. This is a compliment. Ensemble have managed to make the Flood as menacing as they have ever been, without losing their familiar vibe.
I do hope, though, that the Flood is fine-tuned to be playable if there is a Halo Wars 2. And a Covenant campaign would be much appreciated - as fun as it was to fight the Covenant when they were at their most evil, the whole attraction they hold for me is that they are not. Their actions are evil, but there are Covenant who have their doubts. Perhaps focus on one of these? The Heretics of Halo 2 were an excellent way to deal with this. There is so much depth in the early years of the Halo universe that could be explored. It feels like we just jumped into the shallow end. Lets head out into deeper waters.
I would take my hat off to Ensemble, now Robot, if I was wearing one. Halo Wars isn't the perfect console RTS, and I doubt such a game exists.