‘Halo Wars’ review: Epic war zone strategy

by W. Andrew Powell

Halo Wars screenshot

The battle between the UNSC and the Covenant continues in Halo Wars

Rated: 8/10
Ensemble Studios

After three epic adventures in the boots of Master Chief, gamers have a new adventure ahead of them this week, where strategy involves a bit more than ducking behind cover and tossing grenades.

Exploring a new side of the Halo universe, Halo Wars puts players in control of a group of special forces in the United Nations Space Command as they go into numerous battles with everyone’s favorite religious alien zealots, the Covenant.

With the game set 20 years before the events in the first Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars explores the early days of the war between humanity and the Covenant, with humanity trying to regain a lot of lost ground. Much like the other Halo titles, gamelpay is setup through an unfolding story, leading you through different challenges. For gamers used to other real-time strategy titles, Halo Wars is also familiar in many ways, but avoids becoming a rehash of other strategy titles.

What makes Halo Wars fun is that upgrade options for your forces are fairly simple, compared to what you may have seen in a lot of other games. To get to the point where you’re dealing a lot of damage, you’re really only talking about building one or two new buildings, and a couple of steps. The question simply becomes whether you have the time to upgrade as you go along.

Ensemble Studios has also created a game with balance between the forces, letting gamers choose the best way to defeat enemies. As they put it in the games notes on Xbox.com, it’s like a big game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, except it’s with tanks and infantry.

While the whole game steps back from the visor view of the world, everything in Halo Wars is incredibly rendered, giving you a whole new view of the units we’ve come to know quite well close-up. Take, for example, the simple Warthog, ramming through enemies, and bouncing over every bump in the ground. Or, look no further than the gigantic Scarab tanks, which waddles across the maps destroying pretty much anything in their path. The details are nearly perfect, right down to the explosions, or the goopy splatter made as you destroy swarms of the Flood.

As pretty much every fan is aware, thanks to the demo, the game opens on the world of Harvest, as the UNSC forces push to get a foothold back on the surface of the planet. Covered in enemy Covenant forces, you have to help the good guys fight for higher ground, which will eventually lead you into the story explaining what evil plan they cooked up this time.

Following the Covenant from location to location, and planet to planet, you encounter a variety of obstacles, which will test your strategic skills. Early on, for example, the tests are simple – fight your way into a Covenant structure, and then use Scorpion tanks to fight your way back out.

Much later on, you’ll be faced with rescuing three Elephant transports which have become stuck on a Flood-infest planet. Getting out alive means gathering as many forces as you can and jumping in to each location to free the Elephants, which must all survive or you fail the mission.

Each step of the way opens different abilities and vehicles, which you have to decide how best to use. Generally speaking, aside from the few timed missions, you can take the time to build up your base, and go in with the most advanced guns blazing that you can manufacture.

As you meet objectives, you also unlock extras on the map, including the ever-present Halo skulls. Other hidden gems include Black Boxes, which will open up a timeline in the main menu, which details the events surrounding the current storyline.

What disappoints me about the game is that, while this is a true Halo title with all the pomp and circumstance you could imagine, the story is a bit weak. The flow of the game is top notch, the diverse challenges of each chapter are entertaining, and I like the controls and the gameplay, but the story lacks a definite punch. By the end, you expect something huge, and I’m not really sure we get anything near to that.

That said, much like the previous Halo titles, Halo Wars is a game that is best enjoyed outside of the story mode. Load up a skirmish, or find some people to play against online, and you’ll see the true joy of the game in the form of big, messy battles.

In skirmishes, or Xbox Live online games, you pick a side and a leader, and then get access to every weapon, force and ability you see throughout the game. For the most part, getting access to everything requires some upgrading, but it doesn’t take long before you can bomb your enemies, or fire off one of your leader’s special abilities.

I am also a big fan of the way the Leader powers change the dynamic of gameplay. Going in, it’s really helpful to either pick a Leader that works best with your strategy, or change your strategy to match the Leader abilities.

As an example, I’m personally not a fan of the Leader abilities for Ellen Anders, which includes the CryoBomb, and the Gremlin as a unique unit. John Forge is, on the other hand, pretty cool with the Carpet Bomb ability, and best of all, the Grizzly tank upgrade for the Scorpion.

A lot of fans are certainly going to be upset about the fact that the storyline never gives you the chance to play as the Covenant, or the Flood, but frankly this is a fantastic first step for the Halo Wars franchise. There is also bound to be a lot more fun in store down the road, hopefully with some interesting downloadable content in the weeks, or months ahead.

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