Friday, February 20, 2009

Halo Wars

Halo Wars
Ensemble Studios (RIP)
and Microsoft Game Studios
For Xbox 360
4.25 out of 5 stars

For me, a demo is a small chance for a developer/publisher to sell potential customers a game. If you want to sell your game, give gamers one of the best missions you can put forth. Go all out - don't hold back. I disregard the disclaimer 'This demo does not represent the final retail product.' If you are trying to get most gamers to buy a game, unless they are blind fanboys who will buy your game regardless, you need to bring it.

The demo to "Halo Wars" hit it out of the park. It showed a cool real-time strategy game that wasn't overly complicated, easy to pick up and play. As cool as "End War" was, it wasn't hard to get completely overwhelmed. With the "Halo Wars" demo, I was completely comfortable with the controls.

I was saying after the demo - 'If this game is anything like the demo, it will be a hit.'

I was wrong. This is a grand slam.

Created by Ensemble Studios, which recently closed, and Microsoft Game Studios, "Halo Wars" takes place 20 years before the events of the first "Halo." Depending on the campaign mode - Campaign, Skirmish, Co-op and Multiplayer - the main campaign puts you in the boots of Sgt. Forge. You command tanks, soldiers, Spartans (FTW), Warthogs and can even rain down fire and brimstone from the Spirit of Fire positioned in orbit.

The one thing Will, MikeG and I discussed is how few things had advanced technologically in the Halo timeline. Since it is 20 years earlier, you would think things would have progressed a lot more than what you see in the original "Halo." A minor gripe, but one that didn't get past us.

Also, you can spend an hour building up your fortresses, your wealth and guess what? It doesn't carry over to the next mission. I am new to RTS games, but this really baffled me. Especially if you are on the same planet, it would make sense to me that your wealth would transfer over. Oh well.

Another thing that bothered me at times were the controls. Let's say you have a few Warthogs clumped together, and a group of Marines close by and you want to move a Scorpion past them. You will have to clear a good sized space to get the tank moving. Otherwise, the tank will get confused and stay put. On one mission - the mission after the demo ends (when you blow up the Covenant detonator), I commanded two Grizzly tanks (these tanks so rock). I sent my units to this tunnel and lo and behold, a Grizzly got stuck. I know to never leave a man behind, but I couldn't get him out.

However, I did think overall the controls were top-notch. It's very easy to command your soldiers to take cover. And after playing for a while, you will be able to select multiple units with ease, station your Wolverines and Cobras -- two other armored attack vehicles -- far enough back to bring the noise on the Covenant.

The graphics, especially the cutscenes, are top-notch. I think the lighting makes "Halo Wars" really shine. In the demo, you can only see snow, ice and wreckage. In the retail version, you can see the green shrubbery, the devastated Arcadia and many other locales.

The missions also vary, giving gamers more options than just building bases and blasting Convent. You will still command units, but some times, you will have to use what you have - no base building, few reinforcements.

My last gripe - and it's not really a gripe - is not being able to play as the Covenant in the main campaign mode. Yes, you can play as the Covenant in multiplayer, but not in the campaign. That feature alone would have been welcome - to be able to fight the Marines - or even Covenant - with their own weapons.

So, why will this game be a hit? It helps that "Halo" is in the name, but the game does something that the "Command and Conquer" series couldn't do - bring non-RTS types into the fold. Some PC gamers have played the demo and expressed concern over the simplistic approach with "Halo Wars." I beg to differ. I think the reason most RTS games don't succeed on consoles is because the controls will leave gamers used to playing RTS games on PCs looking for a mouse and a keyboard. This, however, works well with just a controller. It's the kind of game that's great to look at, easy to play and doesn't make you feel overwhelmed and confused.

Lastly, the game does a great job of offering players a new look at the Halo Universe. Online, you can play as Sgt. Forge, Adm. Cutter and Professor Anders, or the Covenant. You also have access to special weapons with each person you pick (Cutter has the Elephant and the ODST upgrade for Marines, Forge has the Grizzly upgrade for the Scorpion, and Cyclops - an exoskelton suit) which tons of weapons and upgrades you have yet to experience in a "Halo" game.

All and all, if you haven't played the LIVE demo of "Halo Wars," give it a spin. If you can fall for the demo, you will love the game.

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