US: Mar 2009
It’s common for video game enthusiasts to deride things that have been simplified or “dumbed down.” The response is understandable; the hours spent developing a certain skill are suddenly cast aside, making it so people who have devoted less time to a game design are now able to perform on the same level as the veteran. Preserving the need for a skill and appealing to a player by having a game where they will use it is often the reason there is such a lack of variation in video games. Ensemble Studios final game, Halo Wars, is a simplified RTS. They have abandoned almost all of the micromanagement elements of the genre in favor of a purified tactical race. The result has its flaws but not without proving that there is a unique kind of elegance in its simplicity.
The game design removes resource collection and uses a very conservative base management system. You have a central base with surrounding compartments that can house buildings. The number of compartments increases when you upgrade the central base. One building acts as a supply port, funneling in resources at a steady pace that can be increased with an upgrade. Gone are the numerous weapon and unit upgrades, replaced with only a few basic changes to a unit’s ability such as adding a special attack or adding an additional turret. Access to these upgrades is limited by an energy requirement, which is a permanent level up or structure that must be built depending on which side you’re playing. The end result is an RTS that is essentially a giant race composed of four to five tactical decisions out of several dozen possible ones that may be made before the shooting starts. Put another way, it’s Starcraft hooked up to a fire hose.
The goal of this design is to accommodate the Xbox 360’s controller and its inability to function with the same precision as a mouse. The game is constantly looking for ways to make it possible not to need to pinpoint units or buildings with the controller in order to select things. The right and left bumpers select all units on the screen or all units under your command. The A button lets you select units individually or create a bubble that you can group units with. The left trigger will cycle through the units selected and lets you command them individually. What’s missing is that the game does not allow you to hot key units. Although its abandonment of the micromanagement tropes of the genre is largely successful, in this other area, it is not.
It’s even more irritating because the D-pad could provide a perfectly good method of doing this. In the game, it automatically moves you to your base, the current battle, an extra menu, or your hero unit. The problem is that you never really get a grip on which directional button does what since you never rely on them very often. After two weeks of playing the game, I still mash the wrong direction when I need to see something quickly. This is even more frustrating because the right trigger on the controller goes to complete waste, it speeds up the cameras movement across the map when it easily could have been the equivalent of a shift key for the D-pad. To the designers’ credit, the units are adapted to this problem so that the actual gameplay doesn’t suffer. Unlike the ground unit versus air unit approach of Starcraft, the average unit is capable of hitting both (almost everyone is using a gun) and there is no splash damage. However, when you’re trying to organize a squad of air units or keep siege weapons in the back the whole problem becomes painful. It’s in controlling the units that the designers cut back too much. At the very least, the game should have allowed for greater customization of the control scheme. Instead, the tactical arrangement that often comes into play in an RTS is abandoned in favor of just depending on the might of a giant mob.
The campaign itself is delivered in the classic tradition of presenting cutscenes followed by a mission. The story is essentially a rehash of what is becoming the Halo formula. Fight on a planet with the Covenant, discover Forerunner artifact, go to fancy Forerunner Halo/Dyson Sphere thing, encounter Flood, etc. The main character is a talkative Master Chief and the blue A.I. is a bitchier Cortana. The gruff captain, a plucky but smart female love interest and several Spartan soldiers are also thrown into the mix. Missions are structured to be played quickly and require you to often move against a clock. Since the game design does not ever require tactical resource collection, this is a necessary design because a traditional build & attack mission would just involve sitting at your base until you have a giant army. That said, the result is that most of the missions feel like they would be better off in an FPS, right down to sometimes having puzzles thrown at the player.
The Covenant does not have its own campaign, which is inexcusable and the game suffers for it. The campaign missions are the means by which the player learns the tricks of the trade of a race in an RTS. Since the Covenant has a totally different approach to both upgrading and how their units work, this omission is even worse. If the two sides were basic equivalents like in Warcraft II, it would not be as much of a problem, but, without that equivalency, there is no proper way to learn how to play as this side except in Skirmish Mode.
Making up for all of these problems is the fact that the multiplayer is quite good. It isn’t possible for me to fully appreciate all of the tactics or what the game will look like in another month once players start to master the system, but what I’ve tried out was impressive. Much like the power requirement for upgrades, multiplayer maps typically stagger your development by requiring you to defeat neutral enemy units and capture extra bases. I’m not sure it would even be possible to Zerg rush someone since there are no resource gatherers to kill, so most matches really are genuine battles. Hero units, super weapons, and outrageously powerful upgrades dominate most of the game and make for a good time. The Covenant are typically stronger at the outset and can produce better units until about the mid-game when the Humans begin to take the advantage. The game features a Skirmish Mode against the A.I., co-op, 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3.
In the end, the game is good except for the missing content and that a few tweaks to be worked out with the control scheme. The remnants of Ensemble Studio are apparently working on DLC, which will hopefully be a campaign for the Covenant, and the controls could be easily remedied in the same manner. Halo Wars is exactly what you would want out of an RTS built for the console: simple but elegant.