Videogames Journalist Rob Fahey has recently gone on record in a podcast to say that if you are going to review something, you should state your bias first. Therefore I shall state the following: As has been said in my previous post, and now in my Bio, I have a certain affinity towards the Halo franchise. Whether or not the games themselves are any good, it means a great deal to me in terms of the events leading up to now.
Regardless, I feel that I have a certain amount to say about the most recent game release based on this franchise, which I have finally picked up to play.
Now, one of the first things that strikes most people about this game, and certainly the first thing to be thrown upon forum threads by people with more time than sense, is that this is a Real-Time Strategy game on a console. I didn’t WANT to comment on this, but I felt that I would be doing the blog a disservice if I didn’t.
If you listened to the cries of die-hard PC gamers, a Real-Time Strategy game will “never” work on consoles. This sort of comment always struck me as odd, because surely if a game genre is thought about enough, and certain concessions or changes are made, then it should work on console and PC just fine. After all, the console/PC first-person-shooter argument rages heatedly, but console first-person-shooter games have been adjusted to allow for the kind of controllers that can be expected, and they work very well.
Surely the same thing can be done regarding Real-Time Strategies?
You can tell that Ensemble, the Developers of Halo Wars, have given this a go, and they have done a pretty good job. The controls are solid enough to allow me to do what I want, when I want to. The view locks onto units as you mouse-over them and follows them. There’s a “Select all on-screen” and “Select all on map” button to help get units you want, and double-selecting any unit selects all units of that type on-screen. But still, you feel like something’s missing if you’re used to the tropes of a PC FPS, such as grouping units, and quickly selecting specific units when they’re off-camera. Honestly, I have no problem with playing an RTS on a console, but I just wish that Phantom would hurry up and market the lapboard for all consoles a lot better, and that it would be supported.
Next-off, the CG movies between Halo Wars’ missions have been absolutely wonderful. As a franchise fan, it is great to see the universe in high-definition detail, with everything that my imagination previously filled in being shone directly into my eyes instead. I cannot be more impressed by the visuals in these cutscenes, but they do one thing that I didn’t expect. They make the visuals in the game look so much worse.
Since the game is from a birds’ eye view of the battlefield, a lot needs to be shown at once, therefore the models are not fantastically detailed. Not that this matters much when you’re flying far above the ground, and when you do it is quite the sight to behold, but any close-up in-engine cutscenes that are created look far less than worthy when viewed for more than a few seconds, with the setting’s heroic SPARTAN soldiers unfortunately faring the worst.
Speaking of the game’s setting, a problem with well-established canon is that changes to this can sometimes shock you. Now, I’m not talking about pedantic “Person X shouldn’t have Y technology because it wasn’t invented until Z years later”, but instead I’ll give an example. In an early mission, I was under barrage from enemy fliers. Easy, I thought, I’ll create Warthogs. These signature jeeps of the Halo universe have an Anti-Air gun on the back, they should make short work of them.
It turns out that I was quite wrong. In creating a Rock-Paper-Scissors dynamic between infantry, vehicles and aircraft, Ensemble had made aircraft superior to vehicles, meaning that many of my poor marines were blown apart before I realised that those Warthogs weren’t doing as well as I thought they would. It was easy enough for me to get into a different mindset, and entirely forgivable, but it was a slightly strange situation to face myself in.
One thing that the game DOES retain, however, is the sense of light-hearted fun against a backdrop of a serious story that the Halo franchise brought up. When Grunts, the cannon fodder of the Covenant forces, are shot, they will let out high-pitches squeals, even flying around the screen when their breathing apparatus are punctured in a way that brings a little smile to my face every time. The Marines of the UNSC (human) forces have their own over-the-top “Hoo-ah” sarcasm that punctuated the world of Halo 1 through 3, and generally you feel like you’re on the side that’s having the most fun.
One thing I am very upset that they have changed, however, is Halo’s place as a game that wasn’t chauvinistic. In the original trilogy, Master Chief was a faceless protagonist, usually doing what he was told, even if that was saving the world, but alongside him was a smart, quick-witted, and VERY powerful AI in Cortana. I am only a few missions into Halo Wars, but right now it seems like all the power is with the Captain, and a bald, skin-headed marine who looks like he came straight out of Doom. The female protagonists include a scientist who gets pushed around and seems to only be there for exposition or as the love-hate interest of the Space Marine testosterone-bag.
There is also another female AI, Serina, in this game, but I will quote the following from the game manual:
“She has an understated fascination with human relationships and a theoretical interest in ch0colate.”
…I’ll let you mull that one over.
Now, I could wonder to myself, “Would this game have been any good without the Halo label on it?”. I want to believe that it could, and I want to believe that it is a good game without using anything that Bungie Studios had laid out before it with the previous Halo games.
But I can’t.
The joy in this game is in commanding that group of Warthogs, that you know are great fun to ride, off of that ramp and straight into a squad of Covenant Grunts.
The joy is in listening to the marines make a quip about the excessive forces they are about to face, but have them face it anyway.
The joy is in knowing that underneath all the gameplay, behind all the missions, and permeating the cutscenes is such a deep history. A history that makes playing a game that otherwise you wouldn’t look at twice suddenly worth it.
So, if you came straight to the bottom to read my summary, or if you have read the entire thing and want to know what my final words are, they are as follows:
If you like the Halo universe, you will probably love this game.
If you hate the Halo universe, you will not.
Make your choice accordingly.