Few games have helped popularize console first-person shooters more than Halo: Combat Evolved. Almost overnight, what was once strictly the domain of the mouse-and-keyboard set became a staple of the living room. Clunky, oversized gamepads aside, Halo proved that you didn’t need to be able to execute no-scope headshots with pinpoint accuracy to have fun in an FPS.
Now, eight years later, the newest addition to the Halo series ushers console gamers into equally unfamiliar territory – real-time strategy. It’s a vastly different style of gameplay that poses a number of unique challenges to console developers – mainly, how to replicate the precise gestures of a mouse and keyboard with only a gamepad. Could Halo Wars succeed where so many others have failed?
No. No it couldn’t. Halo Wars offers a compelling single-player campaign, filled with beautifully rendered cut scenes, varied environments and solidly balanced gameplay, but it’s saddled by one major handicap: You have to play it with a gamepad. It’s the Achilles heel of every console RTS, and while Halo Wars was clearly designed from the ground up to be played on an Xbox 360 controller, it’s not enough. The elements of a fun and dynamic multiplayer game are there, but they’re overshadowed by the frustration of simply managing your troops. In fact, the best compliment I can give Halo Wars is that it proved to me, conclusively, that there will never be a console RTS worth playing.
If you’ve ever rearranged your desktop icons, you have the basic motor skills required to play a PC RTS – selecting units is as simple as dragging a box around them. By contrast, Halo Wars replaces these everyday gestures with a combination of button presses, trigger pulls and thumbstick movements, and it’s still not as quick or accurate as using a mouse. It may not sound like a huge problem, but you can trace pretty much every niggling gameplay issue back to this single flaw.
Many traditional RTS elements have been simplified in Halo Wars, but none are more noticeable than the game’s base-building system. Halo Wars uses a modular base mechanic that limits the number of buildings you can construct on a single platform. The game’s resource-gathering system makes this limitation especially crucial: The bulk of your supplies come from special buildings that pipe them in from an undisclosed, resource-rich location. You could construct all the buildings necessary to build and upgrade every unit type, but your supplies would slow to a trickle.
That’s not an issue in most of Halo Wars‘ single-player campaign, where there are typically no time constraints and your enemies rarely send more than a few units at once to feebly lash out at your base. You can just leisurely build up your forces until you’ve amassed an army that will steamroll the competition in a couple clicks. But while these lopsided encounters start out fun, they grow stale long before the campaign is through.
In Halo Wars‘ skirmish mode, this isn’t a viable tactic. Instead, you must take over strategically located third-party bases to increase your supply of resources without hurting your production capabilities. The A.I.-controlled troops at these locations put up just enough of a fight to be an annoyance at the start of the match, when resources are scarce and you have to decide between building a couple defensive turrets or assembling a proper raiding party. It usually pays off to take them early, which is probably why there’s usually one a stone’s throw from your starting location each match.
Even with an extra base in your possession, resources in Halo Wars are slow to accumulate. Combat, on the other hand, is usually over in a matter of seconds. It’s clear Ensemble applied a finely tuned system of unit hierarchies in Halo Wars‘ combat: Different unit types have unique roles to fill in each skirmish, with powerful player-activated special abilities that can shift the scales when used correctly. But with your units’ health bars rapidly depleting with each passing second, you quickly forget about the dozens of controller commands needed to micromanage your army and opt for basic focus-fire strategies instead.
The result of these two systems – simple but drawn-out production and complex but frenzied combat – create a frustratingly inconsistent pace for most of Halo Wars. That’s regrettable, because there’s a lot to like about the game otherwise. The standard roster of Covenant and UNSC units is remarkably well adapted to this style of gameplay. And for the Halo obsessed, there’s plenty of material here to satisfy you until the next Halo novel. But the game’s major stumbling block was there from the moment of conception. There’s a way for RTSs to be played, and this simply isn’t it.
Bottom Line: Halo Wars will probably make for a decent PC RTS someday if Microsoft decides to port it. Until then, it’s simply not worth the hassle.
Recommendation: If you’re into the lore, grab the collector’s edition. Otherwise, play the demo and get a feel for the controls before you decide whether to buy a copy.