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March 10, 2009

Halo Wars won’t blow you away, but it still packs a punch

Halo. You know it, you love it. Many of us have put off starting that SOSC paper in order to squeeze in one more round of multiplayer in the ongoing effort to frag that kid from down the hall who raids your fridge when you’re not looking. Ensemble Studios’ swan song, Halo Wars, takes the series into the real-time strategy genre (RTS), for which Ensemble was justly famous (it developed the Age of Empires series). This new extension, however, comes at the cost of an accessible multiplayer mode. Not to worry though—despite its frustrations, Halo Wars is a surprising amount of fun.

Set 20 years before the Master Chief epic, Halo Wars focuses on the efforts of the crew of the spaceship Spirit of Fire to stop a theocratic alien collective called the Covenant from annihilating humankind. While the storyline is by no means deep, its presentation is breathtaking. Fully-rendered cut scenes capture the beauty and violence of the Halo universe unseen in the main trilogy. The in-game graphics pale in comparison, crippled by an ineffective zoom system. The inability to zoom–in close to the battlefield hampers the overall action, and the zoom-out function succeeds in making everyone look like ants without expanding the overall field of vision.

Ensemble Studios outdid themselves with Halo Wars’ controls. Armed with a variety of options when selecting units, the control scheme on the Xbox 360 controller makes the fast-paced combat feel natural. The only problem is the lack of the usual computer keyboard. The absence of hotkeys makes base and unit development a pain, as buildings have to be manually selected, causing the player to jump back and forth between the action and the base in a flurry of dizzying micromanagement.

Halo Wars is all about speed and resource management. The game is stripped down to its essentials—no sprawling bases, massive armies, or long tech trees—just tactical violence and glory. The game succeeds in recreating the hectic war atmosphere from the most memorable moments in the original trilogy. Each unit is armed with awesomely destructive special abilities and spouts sarcastic comments that are worth a chuckle or two. The game allows you to control up to three different Spartans at a time, each of which kick all kinds of Covenant booty. The Spartans are extremely powerful and armed with that special ability Halo fans know and love—they can take over any enemy vehicle in the midst of battle and use it against them. Warthogs make Grunts eat bumper, and nothing is as satisfying as taking down a Banshee with a well-placed rocket. The experience is enhanced by the amazing sound design that reworks the best parts from the original trilogy, making the game truly a Halo experience.

As I mentioned before, however, the multiplayer mode is severely stunted. The RTS nature of Halo Wars precludes the use of a split screen. You cannot pick up the game and school your roommates with ease; instead, multiplayer can only be accessed through a System Link or via Xbox Live. While humans are the only playable group in single player, the Covenant are available for multiplayer, but for some reason the Flood, a parasitic alien species, are completely absent. Players are forced to share resources in multiplayer games but have access to their own units and bases. There are also only two modes of game play: standard and Deathmatch, which is just standard but with more money available on the outset. Ultimately, Halo Wars fails to recapture the accessible multiplayer experience that keeps gamers coming back time and time again.

Despite the frustrating camera, lack of hot keys, mediocre story, and inaccessible multiplayer, Halo Wars is simply a lot of fun. The thrilling pace and exhilarating combat will glue you to the screen from start to finish. And while it may be difficult to share your experience with your roommates or frag that kid from down the hall, Halo Wars provides a selfish good time that’s bound to be a distraction from finals week and beyond.