Throwback Thursday – Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

Real time strategy games have a mixed history on consoles but in 2009, Microsoft, through their Age of Empires studio, Ensemble, delivered the best attempt at it to date. That game was Halo Wars and it took the classic real time strategy formula of base and army building and translated it to a controller near perfectly. Microsoft shut down Ensemble and the hope of a Halo Wars 2 seemed non-existent. But eight years after the original game we have gotten a sequel, by Creative Assembly no less, but we’ve also gotten a definitive re-release of the original game.

Halo Wars still works wonderfully on a controller on a console but the Definitive Edition takes the game for the first time to PC. As much as I enjoyed Halo Wars the first time around, there is something about playing an RTS on a PC with a mouse and keyboard that just feels right. The funny thing about that though is that I didn’t end up playing too much of it with a mouse and keyboard.

Halo Wars campaign is a tight set of fifteen missions. Those missions are a mix of classic base and army building levels and more linear action focused levels. Both types of missions though feature a nice variety of objectives to complete and rarely does the game feel like it is retreading ground.

Halo Wars leans heavily on its RTS inspirations, namely StarCraft. But it also feels distinctly like a Halo game, which considering every other game in the Halo franchise to this point had been a first person shooter, is a great accomplishment. Instead of focusing on the Halo story through the eyes of the Master Chief, the game offers a sprawling tale of the UNSC fighting against the Covenant as they both chase down Forerunner artifacts. Filled with high quality cutscenes between missions and in-game exposition, Halo Wars offers up one of the deepest Halo game stories. There might not be a singular character in Halo Wars that matches up to the Master Chief or Cortana but the ensemble (no pun intended) that is presented here is enjoyable.

The zombie-like Flood make an appearance here as well but unlike in the FPS games, where they are both terrifying and annoying, they are only annoying here. The perspective of the RTS removes any sense of horror to the faction. Instead they are just shambling blobs that blow up nice. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t lean so heavily onto them. It is one of the few missteps the game takes.

As I opened with, there is something that just feels right about playing an RTS with a mouse and keyboard but weirdly there are choices made in the PC version that work against this being the ideal way of playing. The biggest of which is the inability to zoom out very far. This makes managing your on screen units a chore especially if you are attempting to do battle on more than one front. I actually ended up returning to the controller and just playing the game “Zerg Rush style” or more accurately “Warthog Rush” my enemies and take out objectives one by one. To be fair, the levels seemed to be designed to be approached this way but it is a bit disappointing nonetheless.

Complaints aside though, there is something satisfying about building a UNSC army from scratch and taking it across the landscape to destroy a Covenant base. Warthogs, Scorpions, Vultures, and Spartans make for a fun time be it in first person or a top down RTS.

The Definitive Edition on both PC and console looks markedly better than the original Xbox 360 version and Behavior Interactive did a good job in porting Ensemble’s last game over. Halo Wars 2 looks better but the original is still where it is at for Halo RTS action.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 11 May 2017.

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