Halo Wars Review

Change hasn't always been a good thing in the gaming world. I'll bet you could think of five (or possibly more) instances where a sequel or spin-off tried a new approach to an established series and the results didn't quite work out for everyone. Super Mario Bros. 2, Starfox Command, Resident Evil: Dead Aim, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Actraiser 2, Tony Hawk: Underground (THUG), Devil May Cry 2… personal feelings and quality judgments aside, each of these games were less than well-received when they tried to fiddle with a formula that worked. There are equally as many situations where a sequel's change passed with flying colors (Resident Evil 4, the Metroid Prime trilogy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, etc.). Thinking back a little ways, I can remember when Halo Wars, the real-time strategy (RTS) game set in Microsoft's Halo universe, was announced. RTS games have historically been keyboard and mouse-controlled PC games, with console versions falling flat due to more restrictive, joystick-based controls. And fans of the first person shooter Halo trilogy aren't exactly the easiest to please; remember the flaps over Halo 2's cliffhanger ending? Or Halo 3's miniscule single-player campaign? A campaign that was topped off with the simplest, lamest final boss fight this side of Metal Gear Solid 4? Before anyone had even tried Halo Wars, it already had two strikes against it – rabid shooter fans and control limitations – on top of taking the series in a completely different direction. So now that it's out, is Halo Wars a RE4 success? Or a Devil May Cry 2 disaster? The answer may surprise you.

Halo Wars takes place in the same universe as the Halo trilogy of shooters, only 20 years prior to the events of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. The game picks up with the humans and Covenant fighting over a planet simply called Harvest. For a while, it looked like things were going OK in the battle against the Covenant, until loss after loss all but surrendered the planet to the bad guys. The plot develops from there and even includes a few substantial references to the Halo trilogy, which will more than appease the Master Chief fan club. The story really isn't the main focus, but it comes off as slightly more important because of the well-done cutscenes that are used to move things along.

And speaking of graphics, Halo Wars is a mixed bag. The cutscenes look pretty good (though admittedly, I recently finished Killzone 2 on the PS3… I might be a little harsher than normal because I can't help but compare, not just this game, but every game to Killzone 2's best-ever visuals), but the in-game graphics are just OK. Not good, not bad, just OK. Granted, you play as an omniscient general with an aerial view of the battles, but the camera zoom tells a much blurrier story. The textures can be ugly, the landscape isn't always great and the battle effects can come off as sloppy. I suppose the game should be commended for getting so many units onto the screen at once with no slowdown, but the models are less than immaculately detailed, which more than likely upped the threshold for the avoidance of frame rate skips.

Remember the question posed in the first paragraph? Is Halo Wars a RE4 success? Or a Devil May Cry 2 disaster? The answer may surprise you. Well, here's your answer – the game, sadly, is better compared to Devil May Cry 2 than RE4. What kills Halo Wars is really a combination of gameplay-related problems. First, and most importantly to veteran RTS gamers, is that Halo Wars only offers one campaign, that of the human army – one of the THREE total armies seen in the game. I actually took a break from writing this review right here to give myself time to try to think of another RTS that has an unplayable faction… and I couldn't do it. Not only can't you play as the Covenant in the single player campaign (you can use them in multiplayer, online or off), but the Flood, who everyone remembers from the original Halo trilogy, aren't playable in any mode! I can hear in my mind all the excuses pouring out of the Halo fans for this oversight, but they could be saying anything and the only word I'd hear is "laziness." Design decision? Cost-cutting measure? The race to meet deadlines? Nope. Laziness. Developer laziness. I suppose they didn't count on any RTS gamers playing the game, because anyone who has played any game in this niche genre for any amount of time will notice this glaring oversight right off the bat.

On the other end of the spectrum, Halo Wars also completely forgets about those who may never have tried a game like this before. The game offers two very brief, optional tutorial levels that don't really explain much of anything. Selecting units, building bases and attacking are all covered briefly, but the game's bread-and-butter, upgrading units and structures, is completely absent. By the end of the second campaign mission, a lot of players will find themselves hopelessly stuck, unable to fight off a constantly respawning enemy army while attempting to destroy a key piece of machinery to win the skirmish. The game NEVER EVEN MENTIONS the ability to upgrade barracks and supply pads to produce more powerful units, such as the Scorpion tank and more deadly squads of troops. And guess what you'll need multiples of to finish the stage under par (like golf, but a time limit rather than a stroke or move limit) and with an army that isn't nearly decimated? Yup… those very units. With the RTS genre not being quite as popular as, say, shooters, platformers or sports games, the developers should have known that when it comes to gamers, there are two types of people – those who hate or have never tried RTS games, and those who love them to death. By forgetting theses two groups, Halo Wars fails them both while shooting for a middle ground that simply doesn't exist.