Let’s get this out of the way up front: I don’t play RTS games. I know what you’re thinking: “Hold on a second, author of these Halo Wars demo hands-on impressions, Halo Wars is an RTS, and if you’re writing this article, you must’ve played it! Gotcha!” All right, so you got me-I did play this one. But I still wouldn’t know a Zerg rush from a royal flush (poker is another game I tend to avoid).
Though the battle-hardened RTS gamers among you may question my suitability for this assignment, I’d like to contend that my inexperience makes me the perfect man for the job; after all, as a Halo-playing console gamer, I’m the target audience. If I could be turned-well, I wouldn’t be a powerful ally. But my conversion would bode well for the game’s chances of succeeding on a platform which has represented a formidable proving ground for RTS games in the past.
After downloading the 1.4 GB demo and navigating past an extremely prominent seizure warning (does Ensemble know something I don’t?), I found myself gazing at the soothing blue tones of a Halo menu screen, as remixed monks (or monk impersonators) chanted with abandon. Because I’m the methodical sort (and an RTS n00b), I made a beeline for the tutorial option, which was divided into “basic” and “advanced” sections. The former provided instruction in, well, the basics: unit selection, movement, and attacking. The latter forced me into the deep end, introducing me to the harvesting, “expo,” and research mechanics which normally send me running for the nearest shooter, platformer, or RPG.
Halo Wars’ controls are fairly intuitive. The left joystick controls the camera; leave the cursor centered on one of your units, and the camera will move along with it. Individual units can be selected with the A button, and the left bumper selects all units. The X button is context-sensitive, and can be used to mark destinations, attack enemy units, and salvage supplies from conveniently situated crates (where would gamers be without them?), depending on the cursor’s location. Y controls special attacks-grenades for foot soldiers, a “ram” attack for warthogs, and the like. If “preserve your own base long enough to destroy the enemy’s, and occasionally blow up other stuff,” proves too complicated an assignment for you to recall, you can press the Back button at any time to call up your objectives. “Leader powers,” accessible via the D-pad, allow you to call upon the UNSC flagship, “Spirit of Fire,” for an orbital bombardment. D-Pad commands also allow you to jump quickly to the opposition base, or to your army’s leader.
The game’s streamlined control scheme is designed for ease of use, and, given the limitations of the Xbox 360 controller, it mostly delivers the goods. However, I did have a few complaints. Even with the rather generous radius surrounding each actionable item, I experienced occasional difficulties in selecting the objects I meant to select; unfortunately, if you intend to attack an enemy unit, and miss by a millimeter, you’ll send your unsuspecting, unprepared proxies directly into the line of fire. Path-finding didn’t seem to be an issue, except for one instance, when I ordered a contingent of Locusts to obliterate a legion of Marines, only to watch them concentrate their fire on a rocky outcropping between the two.
Rather than mapping the zoom level to a button, Halo Wars consigns this setting to the start menu, making it difficult to gain a different perspective in the heat of battle. At the default setting, camera movement is somewhat jerky, but its scroll speed and “stickiness” can also be adjusted in the menu.
Despite Ensemble’s lofty claims about Halo Wars’ handling, I don’t believe that it measures up to the precision of the traditional mouse-and-keyboard arrangement. The absence of a click-and-drag feature (which somehow made its way into Mech Platoon on the GBA) limits the player’s ability to divvy up his or her forces. Although the right trigger enables sub-selections (a feature which the tutorial fails to mention), I found myself most often using employing either one unit, or all of them. The lack of an option to build units without placing the cursor on a base, or to have newly constructed units join the fray automatically, rather than loitering outside of the barracks, also hurts the game’s flow.
Upon entering a level, you’ll find yourself situated near a base, or a likely location for base construction. A few button presses later, you’ll have a large central building, multiple supply pads, a reactor, and a barracks, all airlifted from orbit or assembled from scratch-the United Nations Space Command doesn’t believe in getting estimates and hiring contractors. Selecting new units, buildings, and technologies is accomplished through a circular menu system, which seems quite natural after a brief adjustment period. The Covenant base features a radically different design aesthetic, as one might expect, but functions in much the same way.
The main campaign takes place 20 years before the “Halo event,” and pits human and Covenant forces against each other on the surface of Harvest. A lengthy opening cinematic sets the scene, providing a glimpse of the carnage which the conflict has already engendered, as well as a new AI hologram, Serena, who has Cortana beaten handily in the looks department. The demo’s two playable missions, which provide roughly half an hour of gameplay, charge you with rounding up scattered survivors in an effort to retake a vanquished base. After the conclusion of each level, a mission summary recaps your performance, awarding a medal based upon your completion time, damage accrued, and havoc wrought. More detailed statistics offer information tailored toward helping you identify weaknesses in your game, not unlike Halo 3’s post-match summaries.
The demo also includes a skirmish mode, limited to a one-player showdown (with deathmatch mode locked) against an AI opponent on the “Chasms” map. You probably won’t want to play it more than once.
Visually, the game shines-packed with detail, the landscape of Harvest looks just like a Halo environment should. Bases bustle with activity, featuring flashing lights and hovering transports, and the exteriors of damaged buildings and units convincingly reflect their conditions. Warthogs move just like warthogs, which only served to remind me how much more I’d prefer to drive one than control one from afar. Weapons sound like they should, and the orchestral score picks up at all the right times, though the voice work is somewhat lackluster.
The Halo Wars demo may have made me pine for a lengthy Halo 3 session, but it also heightened my previously feeble sense of anticipation for the game’s March 3rd release. Ensemble’s parting effort appears on track to deliver an experience over which RTS veterans and console shooter fans can bond, which should add to the popular franchise’s already impressive legacy.
Edit: Thanks to JadedTarget and Jason for throwing a rookie a bone in the comments below. Also, thanks to William, who emailed me with the news that holding A and moving the left joystick around controls the click-and-drag function I was pining for. The moral of this story is: don’t believe anything I say when I’m talking about an RTS game. With those concerns addressed, though, I’m certainly feeling more optimistic about the Halo Wars experience. I just hope there’s a more detailed tutorial in the final build, or one humdinger of a manual.