Jeff Markiewicz On March 25, 2009 at 8:34 am

Halo Wars is a real-time strategy (RTS) game from Ensemble for the Xbox 360. RTS titles haven’t had a good history on consoles because of poor control schemes that made them hard to play. The same argument was made against first-person shooters but they are now the biggest genre on consoles. Recently some headway has been made towards making RTS games playable on consoles with the Lord of the Rings and Command & Conquer series but they still were not ideal. EndWar came along with its near perfect voice command system and for the first time, made the controls not a hindrance to gameplay. Now we have Halo Wars from the developer who made the massively popular Age of Empire series for the PC and expectations are high. Can they recreate the success that Halo has brought the FPS genre on consoles to the RTS arena?

The game is set 20 years before the first Halo on a planet called Harvest. The United Nations Space Command (UNSC) has made a stand against the Covenant and for 3 hard fought-years, has finally regained control but there are still some remnant Covenant forces on the surface. You control an army under the control of Sergeant John Forge, from the UNSC Spirit of Fire, who spots a weird forerunner structure on the surface and you’re tasked with investigating. This inevitably leads you on a romp through the galaxy after the Covenant. The cut scenes are well done in CGI and keep the story going. Overall it’s pretty generic and doesn’t add much to the Halo universe but still pretty cool. And yes, just like all the previous Halos, there is something extra for you if you beat the last level on the legendary difficulty.

The biggest question is the controls. Are they done well? Do they hinder the gameplay? I am happy to say they are pretty good. There is a slight learning curve but once you’re over the hump, they feel natural and you forget about them. Scroll menus are used for all the buildings to you can easily access what you want. Even the bases are set up as a giant scroll wheel. While some may pick on that for aesthetic reasons, it makes navigating the base functional. Selecting the units can be selected individually, with a giant paint brush, locally, or all units at a pretty of a button. A lot of the game revolves around technology and upgrading certain units will allows them to gain secondary functions which are easily accessible by selecting them and pressing Y. The game is mostly about fighting as there is not much resource gathering. The main way to get resources is just by building a specific building. You can also find some around the world or by garrisoning a building. But you have to think carefully because it is a pros and cons game as there are only 8 spots allowed on a fully upgraded base. The game is setup to have early, middle, and late game strategies which gives the game a lot of depth. You’ll also have access to powers from the Spirit of Fire which can help a lot in battle. There is a weird ramp in difficulty on the 4th mission which almost forces you master the use of a certain power but after that the game is largely fairly easy. The missions are neat and varied but some optional objectives make them feel tacked on because they are always ‘kill X enemy unit type’. I can’t imagine killing them will really aide the war but they do serve a purpose. Once you achieve this optional objective, a skull will appear on the map for you to find. But there is an issue, typically by the time you get this objective, you’re about to finish the main objective and if you’re not careful, the mission ends and you’ll have to spend an hour trying to get it again. The skulls are really similar to those in the previous Halo games but this time some will actually aide you (but will decrease your score). In addition to skulls, you’ll have various black boxes to pick up on the map which will fill in the Halo timeline. The Halo timeline is an option on the main menu that’ll fill you in on the history of Halo which is really cool. If you’ve read the books and delved into the Halo Wikipedia, you may know most of it already but for those who have not, this is an awesome resource to read about Halo. Overall the single player campaign is very entertaining with a nice varied missions but the lack of a Covenant campaign is disappointing.

Online there are two options, you can either play the single player campaign cooperatively or play against human players. In cooperative play, you share a base with your partner and make your own troops from a shared pool of resources. In multiplayer you have your choice to play either the Covenant or the UNSC plus you can select a leader for that faction. There are three leaders for each side and each of them brings several special abilities which will seriously affect your strategies. The biggest leader difference comes from which side you’re playing. If you’re playing the UNSC (humans) then your powers will come from the Spirit of Fire and special buildings, just like in single player. But for the Covenant you’ll have a playable leader unit that’ll have a special power on themselves. The Covenant buildings are also almost identical in function to their human counterparts too except for a shield generator. Of course both sides are played quite differently with the leader units and an ability to warp any unit directly to the leader unit. Overall it’s a fun experience that up to 6 players can partake in at once. There is a lot of depth and different strategies to employ to take down your opponent.

The collector’s edition comes in a nice metal case with tons of little goodies. Most notably is the Halo 3 Mythic map pack which is simply amazing (and currently not even out on the marketplace). Plus you get a comic book giving some back story to the characters on the Spirit of Fire. There are also some cards of all the leaders in the game which show their powers and a little back story on them as well. You also get a nice UNSC rubber patch that looks really cool and a unique honor guard wraith to use in the game. Unfortunately, the honor guard wraith is treated as a skull so it can’t be activated to show off online. Plus since the campaign is UNSC only, you won’t even get to use it there. You’ll only be able to use it in skirmish mode which really kills the coolness factor. Overall for $20 extra, it’s probably not worth it. The Halo 3 maps are awesome but the rest of the stuff isn’t that great. There isn’t even a making of Halo Wars documentary which is kind of disappointing.

Graphics look great. Each unit is well modeled and looks distinct. One of the really cool things is how well they recreated the warthog from Halo. It just looks and feels right, especially with the bouncy physics they put on it. It feels just like watching someone drive from the sky. The graphics are full of small touches like that will pull you in and help it feel like Halo. The Spartans will jump up and hijack vehicles. Plasma grenades will stick to objects. The Spirit of Fire powers look pretty good but can sometimes look a little weak. The in-game cinematic moments are pretty well done whereas the CGI ones look stellar. Obviously compared to a FPS this title won’t look the greatest but with the amount of units and action on screen it’s great.

The sound is really well done. All the little touches they did for graphics that make it feel like Halo are mirrored in the sound design. The grunts crunch just as nicely here as they do in Halo. Even the voice acting is well casted and really fit into the Halo universe. People who have played Uncharted will find that one of the main characters does sound eerily familiar though. Overall the sound is great and pulls you back into the Halo universe.

This generation may in fact be the one that the RTS genre finally takes hold on consoles. Halo Wars control scheme is even better Ubisoft’s EndWar. It’s a control scheme where doing something is fluid and comfortable without struggling with the controller. Halo Wars surpasses even EndWar because it has a very vital component, it has depth. You can employ several different types of strategies. It’s more than just simple rock-paper-scissors gameplay. The single player campaign is very enjoyable but has a weird difficulty spike for a particular mission early in the game that may turn some people off until they realize what they need to do. The story while entertaining is quite generic and doesn’t add much to the Halo universe. The CGI cut scenes do look amazing though and push the story forward. The Halo timeline helps fill in the back story of the Halo universe which is a great read.  The graphics look great with tons of little details and plenty of units on screen with no slowdowns. There is a great use of elevation in the game and the maps can get fairly large which is awesome. The sound is great and really fits in with the Halo universe. Some people who have played Uncharted will think one of the main characters sounds eerily familiar. Halo Wars is not only Halo done right, its RTS done perfectly. Hopefully just like Halo on Xbox, this will open the flood gates to many more well-done console RTS titles in the future.


Great control scheme that is nearly perfect. Plenty of depth and various strategies. The single player campaign is varied and fun but some side objectives feel tacked on and collecting skulls can be annoying when a mission ends. Cooperative play and multiplayer are great. The story is quite generic and doesn’t add much to the Halo universe but nonetheless entertaining.


Great lengths were obviously made to make it feel and look like Halo. The best example is the warthog with how well they recreated the driving physics. The amount of units and action on screen at times is amazing.


Little touches make it feel just like Halo. Great voice acting. One of the main characters will sound eerily familiar if you’ve played Uncharted though.


Halo Wars is not only Halo done right, its RTS done perfectly. Hopefully just like Halo on Xbox, this will open the flood gates to many more well-done console RTS titles in the future.

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