Halo Wars Xbox 360
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by: Ensemble Studios
Halo Wars is a highly significant game for two reasons: it's the first Halo game not to be developed by Bungie and it's the last game to be developed by Ensemble Studios, one of the finest developers of RTS games. If that's not enough there is also the unrealistic expectation of millions of Halo enthusiasts to cope with, which is no easy task seeing as Halo Wars is an RTS and not an FPS. It has to be said however, that for the most part, Halo Wars does live up to most of the expectations and it's a game that should definitely satisfy those who want to enjoy more of the Halo universe.
The storyline in Halo Wars is set twenty year prior to the events in the original Halo game which appeared on the Xbox. This time the storyline isn't about the Master Chief but the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire. The Spirit of Fire has been sent to a planet called Harvest to investigate Covenant activity. Without going into any details regarding the storyline, it suffices to say that on the whole the storyline is OK. It's not as compelling as any of the storylines found in the three previous Halo games but it's certainly on a par with what you usually find in an RTS game and fans of the Halo universe will certainly find it worthwhile.
The real beauty of Halo Wars is how well it plays and controls for a console RTS. Usually RTS games on a console are fiddly experiences at best but that's not really the case here. Ensemble have streamlined the experience to a degree and some of the complexity which bogged down PC RTS games in recent years has been stripped away to make an accessible and engaging experience that can be played by all and not just RTS aficionados. That said, the hardcore RTS gamers might feel the experience has been simplified too much. The missions are fairly short and linear (but they are enjoyable to be fair), you don't have the same degree of control over your units that you would in a modern day PC RTS and although there is base building in the game it's been streamlined. Is this really a bad thing though? Personally I wouldn't say it is but I can see how some may be irked by these simplifications.
Ensemble Studios have done a great job with the game's control scheme and the controls are surprisingly easy to get to grips with and at no time did I find myself wishing for a keyboard and mouse (which usually happens when playing a console RTS). You'll use the A button to select your units, the X button to attack, the Y button to use a units secondary abilities and the B button to cancel a selection. Pressing the LB button selects all of your units and RB selects all of the units you can see on screen. The directional pad is used to jump to locations around the map. The left analogue stick moves the crosshair around the map whilst the right stick changes your view of the action and the camera zoom. It all works wonderfully well and is, in my opinion the best control scheme yet in a console RTS.
Many would consider the multiplayer aspects of the Halo games to be the series' strong point and Halo Wars has this covered too. In addition to the game's Campaign and Skirmish mode you can also play the game on Xbox Live and via System Link. The campaign can be played co-operatively which is sure to please many. You can even play as the Covenant. There are a couple of game types and support for up to six players. Essentially the multiplayer is a solid experience that will keep you busy once you're finished with the campaign.
It's fair to say that Ensemble pretty much got the look of the game spot on and completely in keeping with the look of the game set in the Halo universe. Everything from the units, the general interface and the look of the menus is just as it should be. The game features some rather impressive looking cutscenes that are on a par, if not better than those you'd find in the other Halo games. The quality of the graphics is impressive and the frame rate holds up pretty well during the intense action which is certainly pleasing. I did find that scrolling around was a much smoother experience when the game was installed to the HDD however, so I would recommend doing this if you have the space on your HDD.
None of the Halo games were particularly good in their support for deaf gamers. Thankfully Halo Wars is certainly better in this respect. The game includes subtitles for cinematic dialogue and in-game communications. By default both subtitling options are disabled so take care to enable them before starting the game. During the game's cinematic sequences you'll see the speaker's name accompanying the dialogue. During the main game you will see character portraits, for the main characters, accompanying the dialogue. Some comments such as the "All units" and "Local units" comments that are made when pressing the LB and RB buttons respectively are not subtitled. There are no subtitles for the comments your units make when you issue orders to them. Both the basic and advanced tutorials are subtitled. Your objectives are shown in text and can be recalled by pressing the Back button.
It's fitting that Ensemble Studios should go out with a quality game such as Halo Wars. Over the years they have been responsible for some great RTS games on the PC and Halo Wars proved they could create a console RTS as good, if not better than anyone else. RTS games can be quite unforgiving for newcomers but Halo Wars is a welcoming RTS for those who have never been into the genre and this is very important because there's going to be many Halo enthusiasts out there who really want to experience more of the Halo universe. In essence then, Halo Wars is a game that should please any Halo fan and it's also a fitting finale for Ensemble Studios.