There are those who said this day would never come. What are they to say now?

“I went in with lower expectations which were quickly blown and I had to raise them higher.”
— Gunner
“After exhausting every other strategic option, Bungie activated Halo Wars. Stupid, camping n00bs, and all other non-sentient, teabagging, little kids within 3 light years of an Xbox died, as planned.”
— Spartan of Death

My brother and I were privileged, back in ’07, to get into the Halo 3 demo. And that little slice of multiplayer assured me of all the nagging doubts in the back of my mind, and promised me that Halo 3 would turn out fantastically. And for the most part it did, though there are a few complaints I could mention. But I won’t. Because the demo itself did its job perfectly – it generated a tonne of interest, and helped the final game sell millions.

As I was linking my Xbox 360 to Live, I had to wonder – will the new Halo Wars demo do what the Halo 3 demo did for its own game? And after playing through its campaign, and a few skirmish missions, I have to say – yes!


The control layout of Halo Wars

Despite everything Ensemble has been telling us, despite all its assurances and guarantees, I still held some doubts about control layout. And the sensitivity of it when I started it up did nothing to reassure me, and it seemed slow and sluggish. But I bumped up the scroll speed, and it soon became rapid and fluid, and almost second nature. As we all know, left bumper selects all units, left bumper selects all units in the area, and holding A brings up the “paintbrush” select. Pressing left on the D-pad will take you to one of your bases, down will take you to your units, and up will produce the Spirit of Fire selection screen, from which you can call down MAC strikes, repair powers, and call down Pelican dropships with infantry squads. Or if you’re playing as the Covenant, it will take you to your leader unit, which in the demo will be the Prophet of Regret. Move/Attack commands are dispensed with using the X button, and special attacks are performed using the Y button.

Now that we’ve got the control scheme out of the way, let’s look at the meat and bones of this blog – the gameplay.

1226436474 Unsc warthog render

Still fun? HELL. YES.

The campaign levels themselves are deep, immersive, and fun. The fact that you’re hovering overhead, looking down on everything, can feel a bit confusing at first (where’re the grenades? What’s my secondary weapon? WHERE THE HECK IS MY SHIELDS???) But it quickly begins to feel like a “Halo” game. The Warthogs are terrific fun to send sliding across the maps, the Marines respond just like the Marines from past games, and the other units look like they could be found around the corner in Halo 3. The Master Chief may not be in this game, but Ensemble have created a universe in which he could sit down, look around, and think to himself, “This is it. I’m home.” I didn’t get to use the Spartans, because the campaign snippet ends before you reach that part, and in my skirmish matches I focussed more on heavy vehicles than infantry, but I can only imagine what it’s going to feel like seeing a heap of Spartans take to the field of battle! The levels were structured like past levels – multi-staged, with story being told by dialogue and in-game actions rather than intermittent cutscenes. I did find a number of secondary objectives in one, rescuing lost Warthogs which, for some reason, were being guarded by Covenant. And a secret LZ that brings in a spare Warthog and a few Marines. These were welcome additions, and mixed the gameplay up a bit – you can go for them, boosting your end-game score, or you can ignore than and focus on the action! It’s certainly more free-roaming than past games!

Combat is spectacular, and my only complaint is that a group of units will slow down to the speed of the slowest. If you have Warthogs and Marines, the Warthogs will trundle alongside your ground-pounders. I’m sure it keeps your units together nicely, but I would rather see them take off, leaving the Marines in the dust, leaping out to engage the enemy. And heaven forbid you include some Scorpions in there, reducing them to a crawl. But in spite of that, the battles still manage to feel like you could be down there, tossing grenades yourself. Calling in a MAC strike has to be one of the most satisfying actions for Captain Cutter, and I dearly look forward to the Shortswords of Sergeant Forge’s faction.

The graphics may not look like much compared to Halo 3, but remember this is an RTS. You don’t need to see a Marine’s face, or the license plate of a Warthog, because you’re up high, watching it all from above. There isn’t much on offer in terms of scenery, mainly consisting of ice, ruined structures, ice, Covenant crates, ice, the occasional sniper tower – did I mention ice? But it makes up for its lack of variety with the quality of what it contains – snow wafts down from the sky, and is sent up by flying Warthog tires. Explosions are bright and vivid, and destroyed vehicles look like they’re actually exploding, rather than just falling apart (ala Halo 3’s Phantoms). I remember the in-game cutscenes from past Ensemble game Age of Mythology, a fantastic game in its own right, and was worried about the function of it in Halo Wars, but I forgot that AoM’s cutscenes were limited by its technology. Halo Wars is smoother, graphically superior, and the character models far more articulate. Compared to Halo Wars, Age of Mythology looks like a clunky arcade game. Ensemble’s latest creation is a lean, mean killing machine.

Thankfully, though, its used only sparingly. The pre-rendered cutscenes are a first for a Halo game, but they were the right decision. There is no way in hell I would want to watch a whole game rendered ONLY in Halo Wars in-game assets. They’re nice, but for telling a story with drama and intrigue, CGI is superior. The characters move with fluidity, and the Covenant look suitably menacing. Admittedly the Elites look a little bulkier and animalistic than I’m comfortable with, but they still fit the Halo mould.

Prophet of Regret

Remember this guy? He's recieved a make-over...

The units themselves all feel like perfect fits into the UNSC and Covenant arsenals. The new Locusts, like mini-scarabs, are suitably devastating and awe-inspiring, and the Cobra, Vulture and Wolverine all capture the feel of UNSC vehicles, being powerful, versatile, and robust. Even returning elements are brought to life in ways that outperform their original incarnations – Marines can actually hold their own in this game, rather than just being meat shields behind which the Master Chief can hide from the mean nasty Covenant, and the Scarab is a beast in combat. My favourite unit so far is the Prophet of Regret – you may remember him as the floating windbag in Halo 2? His leader weapon, an orbital laser weapon, tears through the enemy like releasing a cleansing flame, and burning a path into the divine beyond! The Covenant’s ability to leap your units straight to wherever your leader is may change “Zerg Rush” into “Grunt Rush.” I do wish they had brought the Spectre back one more time, perhaps as an equivalent to the UNSC Warthog, but it was sadly absent. I looked for the Mongoose, or perhaps an older predecessor to it, as well, but that too was missing. But while some old favourites are missing, it also introduces some new favourites.

The only skirmish map available in the demo, Chasms, is based on part of Harvest’s north, and the dominant theme of ice is present here too. The map has the bases on either end of the map, with a corridor leading between them. Players will likely fortify these to prevent the enemy’s use of them, so you might be tempted to go around. There are rewards to doing so – a Rebel base, complete with auto turrets and a number of rebels, who are identical in strength and function to Marines, will attack anyone who comes close, but destroy it and the base is yours to claim. It doesn’t allow you to produce Rebels, but you do get more space build in. Cross the other side of the corridor and there is a Forerunner supply producer ripe for the taking. These are on both halves of the map, so each player has the chance to claim one of each, or take the others. My game saw me build up a force of Scorpions, Cobra’s and Warthogs and storm the enemy base via the corridor, but I was playing on the easiest difficulty to try and get a feel for the AI behaviour. I don’t doubt that harder opponents will find ways to prevent that.

It was only after a few minutes of playing through the game that I realised that anyone who still thinks an RTS can ONLY be played on a PC is sadly deluded. The potential has existed for years, and a few excellent developers tried to make forays into the unconquered land of the Console. Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars and Red Alert 3 have Xbox 360 versions, as well as Battle for Middle Earth's 1 and 2. But there were missing components – too many features carried over from the PC, cluttering up the gameplay. Halo Wars cuts out unit grouping, making that automatic, and smoothes out structure construction, and simplifies many other things. But the important thing is that Ensemble has managed not to OVER-simplify. There is still a tonne of depth and variety that any RTS gamer will be relieved to find. It may not be as deep as the PC RTS’s it’s following on for, but it does a lot better, and plays faster and more frantically.

RIP Ensemble

Alas, your life was all too brief, your demise like the flickering and sudden death of a star. But from the debris shall arise a new company, like the phoenix from the ashes!

Halo: CE revolutionised the FPS, and its fitting that Halo Wars will revolutionise the RTS. And as a flurry of FPS’s flooded the market, copying Halo’s health and combat system that had proven so versatile, so too will RTS games follow the path paved by Halo Wars. I’m not entirely convinced that is a good thing – the number of mediocre FPS’s I’ve seen makes me wonder how many bad Halo Wars rip-offs we’ll find ourselves bombarded with. But most of all, I wonder what the future for the Halo Wars series will bring. As the phoenix that is Ensemble studios crumbles into ash and dust, a new studio shall arise in its place, separate from Microsoft and featuring the talents of a sizeable portion of the original Ensemble team. We already know they will continue to provide downloadable content, but will they be bringing us a Halo Wars 2? 3? 7? I hope so, because if Halo Wars 1 is anything to go by, the future/past of the Halo franchise is going to be something to see indeed. The secession of Bungie from its prized franchise is seen by many as going out with a whimper – I can assure you, it is a BANG, and one that shall produce a chain-reaction of awesomeness.