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Halo Wars Review

Halo Wars pack shot
Developer:Ensemble Studios
Genre:Real Time Strategy
Platform:Xbox 360
Official Site:http://www.halowars.com/
Release Date:February 27th, 2009 (UK)
Reviewer:Andy Hemphill (Bandit)
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When it first came along on the original Xbox, Halo: Combat Evolved blew away the critics, worriers and glory-seekers slamming Microsoft's massive black box. Since then, Halo has spawned two brilliant sequels, a movie (possibly) and even a series of best-selling books, but a real-time strategy game (RTS) is a new step for a series so grounded in first-person action.

So it is that Halo Wars walked on to the stage. The last gasp of the dying Ensemble Studios, Halo Wars attempts to offer a hungry Halo fan all the action, excitement, big guns, Spartans and alien-killing action the series is known for in a top-down view and, long story short, it's not bad, not bad at all.

First off, some housekeeping - the Master Chief does not feature in this game, at all. He's not even mentioned, but don't let that disappoint you- there are Spartans available and they are awesome, but don't expect Master Chief Petty Officer SPARTAN John 117.

Secondly, the Halo theme that has set so many hearts a-flutter is also oddly absent, replaced instead with a slightly underwhelming score of copy-cat tunes which sound like the Halo theme, but don't quite match its epic predecessor.

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The plot to the game, however, is very similar to the other Halo games in the series, but is no less epic for that fact. The main campaign centres around the crew of the UNSC supply ship Spirit of Fire, a huge transport ship sent to the planet Harvest a fair few years before the events of the first Halo game.

The Covenant, a group of alien races united by a dodgy religion, captured Harvest, but were forced off the planet after a five-year war, and the Spirit is headed there to finish the fight. That's when the tough marines of the Spirit, led by their (stereotypically bald and angry) leader Forge discover that the Covenant have uncovered something mysterious of Forerunner origin (the ancient race behind the Halo rings) and then race to stop them capturing it.

The Covenant are led by the Prophet of Regret (a gnarled old alien in a floating chair) and the Arbiter, leader of the Elites- but as this is about 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved, it's a different and altogether more angry Arbiter wearing the ceremonial armour. I'm not going to say more than that, other than the plot is suitably epic, if a little disappointing towards the end.

It's also worth pointing out that the entire campaign can be played out with another player in a co-op campaign, either over Xbox Live or via system link- extending the replay value considerably.

However, although the gamer can play as the Covenant in skirmish modes or online multiplayer, there is no Covenant campaign- a major flaw in an otherwise solid campaign (who doesn't want to roll over the UNSC with better firepower and suicidal Grunt soldiers?)

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Gameplay-wise, this is one of the better RTS's for console systems, beaten only by the voice-control in Tom Clancy's EndWar. The interface is simple and easy to get to grips with, relying on the four face buttons, the shoulder buttons and the D-Pad to get things done with a minimum of fuss.

Controlling units, collecting resources and unleashing special abilities doesn't require any silly button combinations, and the base building dynamic is simple and clear- each faction starts out with a base control building, and up to eight other structures can then be built around it.

The buildings all serve various purposes- vehicle factories etc, and can be upgraded to produce better units and abilities. Further bases are acquired by beating the enemy to a pulp and building on the destroyed site or by discovering new ones- thereby keeping the game moving at all times. The structured building plan also keeps the game from getting too complicated.

Units on offer include all the usual Halo staples- Warthogs, Scorpions and Marines for the UNSC, Wraiths, Ghosts and Grunts for the Covenant (complete with little screams and plooms of burning methane when they get killed). Also included are the more interesting units, such as the massive Mammoth transport for the UNSC (as featured on the Sandtrap map of Halo 3) and even the ultimate in walking death- the Covenant Scarab.

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Leader units also have their own special abilities- the Arbiter has various moves with his energy swords, the Prophet has a massive laser and Forge can call down a Magnetic Accelerator Cannon blast from the Spirit of Fire- always useful to turn the tide of battle.

The game's battles are swift and brutal, focusing mainly on small groups of units rather than massive armies. Tactics play a large part as well as the battlefield is littered with sniper towers, crashed vehicles and trees which can be used for cover, and airstrikes from the UNSC's Long and Shortsword fighters can weaken the enemy, but not enough to push them back- and so must be used to full effect.

Graphically the game is also pretty good. Although it doesn't really keep up with the sharp graphics of its first-person brothers, Halo Wars does a convincing job of immersing the player in the environment, and all the units are well rendered and fun to look at- the Marines even keep themselves busy in between battles by cleaning their guns.

The sound is also well-implemented and the cracks of plasma mortars, screaming grunts and high pitched whine of Needler shards sound like they have been pulled out of the other Halo games, but are suitably muffled by distance. Multiplayer-wise Halo Wars is a lot of fun, offering gamers 1 vs 1 up to 3 vs 3 games on small and large maps.

The games are usually a pitched race to build the most or best technology quickest, but the powers provided by the leader chosen by the gamer (as well as that leader's special unit) make the game a little more interesting to play and different every time. Also, though there isn't a Covenant campaign (sadly) the option to play as the Covenant in Multiplayer is a refreshing alternative, and adds a healthy batch of variety into the game.


All in all, Halo Wars is one of the better RTS's available for the Xbox 360. The controls are sharp, the story well written and the gameplay simple and fun. Although it is lacking in certain areas, such as length of single player and the lack of a Covenant campaign, the game more than makes up for it with a high pace and easy-to-handle gameplay style.

It's not Halo 4, but it's a nice change to the usual run and gun style of the Halo series. Still could have done with the Master Chief though.

The bottom line
7.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Decent storyline
  • Lots of familiar units
  • Fast-paced gameplay

Not so good stuff

  • No Covenant campaign
  • No Master Chief
  • Short campaign mode

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