Halo Wars – The Need For War

Halo Wars was initially an Xbox 360-exclusive real-time strategy game, but for some years now it has been out for PC. While it’s an RTS in the classical sense, it is designed around being played with a controller, which could be considered one of the worst heresy when it comes to this genre. And I would agree if it was made for PC this way from the start, but as it is (and since I have played it on the 360 before) the controls work well considering. There is keyboard and mouse support for the PC version, but I’m set in my ways and used a controller this time around again. Before we start the review for real, I just want to clarify that this is one of my modern cozy go-to games when I want a relaxing RTS fix, so this review will be fairly biased in favor of it, even if I recognize it has faults. Halo Wars was made by Ensemble Studios, and it’s one of the last games they made, so while I love this title, it is a bittersweet feeling playing it.

Since Halo Wars is set in the Halo universe, it’s part of the main narrative of the series, however, this could be viewed as a prequel because it takes place about 20 years before the discovery of the Rings. And from what I remember from reading additional fiction (Contact: Harvest), this is about one of the initial hostile contacts with the Covenant when they attacked the planet Harvest but set a few years later in the conflict. You take part in the ship Spirit of Fire, having special orders to investigate what the Covenant is unearthing on the planet, and guess what? It’s nothing good! They have discovered Forerunner tech, and are hoping to use it against humanity, so your job here is to figure out what they are doing and to stop them before it’s too late. 

The story is great and got good pacing, it will also take you all over the universe – from different planets to fighting on the hull of a starship. Now, it’s not exceptional storytelling in any way, it’s fairly standard militaristic stuff, but it fits the RTS genre like a glove, and beyond being produced for a console initially, the story and the general experience of playing it gives off such a classic feeling. If you played RTS games in the 90s and early 2000, it’s almost like coming home. You will not be able to create any kind of character, or take any story decisions, besides if you want to go for side-missions or not – it’s all set in stone, but it works well, and I wouldn’t say this is unusual for this specific genre. It’s kinda expected, to be honest.

Push forward men!

Between each mission, you will get treated to excellent CGI cutscenes that push the story forward, and at several points in the narrative, it will set the stakes, and make it all the more dramatic. These CGI segments are also filled with cool action moments, and sci-fi vistas to gawk at. It’s well done, and together with the voice acting, the cinematic direction, and the universe it’s set in, it becomes a real joy to play and follow. It doesn’t help that grounded military sci-fi is my favorite either, so it’s a match made in heaven for me! My only wish is that the game was a bit longer, and could have expanded certain areas with more missions. A few cool-looking locations are only used for 1 or 2 missions, for example, the city map. I would have loved to have a few more fights there, both for gameplay reasons and for the story. As I mentioned, the pacing is fast and good, but certain areas could have needed a bit of a slowdown, so you get a chance to take it all in, the consequences of events happening and such.

Another thing that should be mentioned, is that the campaign maps are filled with secrets and unlocks. There are secret achievements if you are out to unlock those, but there are also “skulls” and timeline recordings to find. The skulls are used to modify the rules of the games, like making units stronger or weaker, a thing that could be fun on repeat playthroughs. The recordings you find unlock points in the timeline section that you can find in the main menu. It doesn’t change the gameplay but adds lore flavor to the setting. It’s a nice little addition to the game, which adds another reason to fully explore the maps.

Marines getting ready to defend

Mission objective versus the narrative is great as well since tasks and quests are interwoven, and with that I mean, things never feel arbitrary because they wanted to diversify the missions – the missions make sense, and there is often a sense of urgency to them too. The gameplay is of the standard kind, if you go by the genre, like having base building, and massing units, with everything from ground units to fliers. You will be able to upgrade them too – in other words; very standard stuff. However, since it’s made for a console, there are some differences. Bases can only be built in certain locations, and collecting resources isn’t more than just building a supply station or two, which will get you resources delivered from the air. The more stations, the better, but for each supply station you build the fewer sections you will have for other buildings. It’s a balance you will have to keep in mind – do you need resources, or do you need extra barracks? It could come off as a bit simplified since you won’t go around on the map and collect things, or have to think about placement, but I figure it works in the setting. The bases you build are temporary forward bases which are supplied by Spirit of Fire that remain in orbit, and when you think about it like that, it feels and looks right. Having small lumbermen running around and harvesting wood wouldn’t work that well for this game.

However, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to expand, though, since building sections on each base are limited. That part of the RTS genre has not been eliminated, which is a good thing. You could argue that some maps don’t require it, but if you start to take losses, waiting for resources to accumulate can be painful without extra bases that have supply stations. Beyond the base building, you will be recruiting all kinds of units, and for those of us that have played the Halo games before, it’s a really fun bonus seeing all the famous vehicles in action from a top-down view. They act and move how you expect, like the Warthog bounce around just like it does in the mainline Halo titles. It’s perfect for fast hit-and-run tactics, and with upgrades, it gets extremely formidable. The Warthog also comes with a ramming ability, which is a cooldown effect. When activated the driver will run over any grunts you send him after. The transformation from FPS to RTS is fantastic to see in moments like this, and all vehicles work in the same way. There are tons of upgrades, and each unit got its specialty and its weaknesses. It feels pretty balanced, except maybe for the hero units on the players’ side that are immortal. They can go down, but it’s very easy to bring them back up again, you just have to move another unit over to them. Maybe a bit harder penalty here would have been better, since these units are pretty powerful, especially the spartan soldiers.

Sweet looking bridge

In the typical RTS sense, most of the battles are a fight of rock, paper, and scissors, but there are ways to improve the odds, especially for infantry. Scattered around the maps there are areas you can put your men in protection, like behind a wall, or in some kind of tower. It will improve the life of your infantry by a lot, and through surviving they get veterancy, which makes them better at shooting. However, most battles will play out in the more traditional sense, but that does not bother me, since there are different levels of RTS expectations. Halo Wars are more like Command & Conquer than say, Men of War, so going in with the right mindset, this game shouldn’t disappoint when it comes to warfare.

Recon squad on the way!

Halo Wars got a few years to its name now, but I still think it looks great for an RTS, especially if you take into consideration that it was a console exclusive initially. The maps and the units have fairly high detail, and even zoomed out you can easily tell who is who, and what is going on. There are a lot of different map terrains to experience, and in combination with the effects (like sweeping sand storms), some areas feel moody and heighten the atmosphere. Stuff could always be more detailed, especially if you compare it with more modern titles, but I think Halo Wars still holds up well. Another thing that works in favor of the game is the general style and scale, it takes the military utilitarian look from the Halo series, and expands on it with new units and buildings. It fits the setting and environment, and the units just look right next to each other going by proportion.

The voice acting is good, even if the characters don’t have too much to say other than to bark orders and quip at each other from time to time. But if one stands out from the rest, it would be Captain James Cutter – he sounds perfect as the elderly and fatherly captain of the ship. Other sounds, environmental, and combat are straight out taken from the other Halo games, which is not surprising. Anyone invested in the series will be able to tell what is what by the sounds alone when it comes to weapons. The music, beyond the typical Halo-themed music with plonking pianos, is phenomenal. It has this relaxing synthesized beat to it – most of it will be drowned out by the combat sounds, but it is there and it’s noticeable during calm periods. If you pay attention during these moments, you will come to hear some great tunes. The OST took me by surprise when I played it the first time, and I still listen to it outside the game from time to time, it’s just that good, and some songs have a real mood to them. Just take a listen to this piece:

Ah, I feel so relaxed during battle

I would recommend Halo Wars to anyone that wants a good RTS romp, however, it has to be stated once again that this game got made with consoles in mind. If you are allergic to that fact, this might not be for you, but I promise, you will be missing out! Another negative aspect of the game is that the campaign, while well-told and fun to play, is pretty darn short. It’s only around 8-10 hours on normal, sadly. Other than that Halo Wars is fantastic fun, a throwback to the days when real-time strategy games were as common as survival games now. It’s usually cheap now too, I got it for around 5 euro bucks on a sale.

Thanks for reading.


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