Review: Halo Wars Definitive Edition01 May 2017 0
Review: Halo Wars Definitive Edition
Released 20 Dec 2016
In a welcome move by Microsoft, Halo Wars has finally hit Steam. Scrubbed up into the Definitive Edition with bundled DLC gratis and high-resolution textures, Ensemble's 2009 swansong is a lean, easy to play effort that feels as at home on PC as it did all those years ago on console.
I've been an absentee from the Halo universe for years, due solely to console exclusivity, but have long been an advocate for Bungie's blend of rock 'em sock 'em Duplo space opera. The original shooter was a watershed moment and its sequel a touchstone for console multiplayer. And while Halo Wars is very much a genre departure, Ensemble's RTS is Halo through and through. A prequel tale to the original game, the story takes a gaggle of UNSC heavies from sieged worlds to alien planets, rumbling with the stalwart Covenant and their penchant for pearlescent pinks and purples. It's not a tale for the ages, but as far as stitching together a string of varied missions, Halo Wars has as much fictive clout as it needs.
It's tough to appraise Halo Wars and not consider its mouse-less roots, despite feeling quite at home on PC. It'd be as easy as it is disingenuous to call the game an entry-level RTS, but the truth is, Halo Wars is a streamlined affair. Missions don't take place over sprawling maps. Action is often localised. Base construction takes its cues from the aged likes of SSI's Dark Colony in upgrading preset base palettes, rather than wanton construction. There's little micromanagement to speak of.
But, Halo Wars works. It works really well. Akin to its shooter forebear, this isn't a particularly fast game. There's a relaxed pace to everything, and while that might appear necessity by design, languid gearing isn't uncharacteristic of Halo. On controller or mouse and keyboard, a short swathe of controls keeps command tightly contained. You're still free to scroll about and box-select units as you would with any other RTS, yet Halo Wars allows for immediate local group or global unit selection at the press of button press. Players could make do with control groups, but I've found the game is about mob composition over position, and the local to global unit selection is smooth and entirely successful.
Units aren’t plentiful on either side, but they have just enough in the way of upgrades and special abilities to keep things interesting. The squirrelly stalwart Warthog goes from a barebones scout through packing a pintle-MG to eventually toting a gauss rifle. Scorpion tanks can break out canister shot for anti-infantry duties. The iconic Spartans start with those middling akimbo SMGs and upgrade to their namesake lasers. All of this is powered by a simple economy; reactors powering technology thresholds and a basic accruing of supply via base platforms or snapping up caches in the field. Folks looking for vast differentiation between UNSC and Covenant factions might be disappointed, but the little divergences in offensive capabilities loom much larger in battle.
While the campaign limits players to commanding the UNSC, skirmish and multiplayer lets punters try their hand at the Covenant in addition to selecting one of three commanders from either side. These commanders allow for some factional distinctions and powers, such as special units or off-map ordnance like a starship bombardment. It’s an arcade concept; players select whichever heavy weaponry they want, then paint targets in a zoomed artifice. It might drop a MAC round, or allow players active control in carving an orbital laser through enemy ranks. Super-weapons are certainly nothing new in the RTS space, but Halo Wars’ hands-on approach fits.
There are little niggles that could have been mitigated. The camera could do with a little more upward zoom, but then, the conservative elevation is undoubtedly a necessary hangover from the console days. Super-weapon targeting suffers from some inexplicable sluggishness when using the mouse. Small complaints when set against the full package, retailing for a mere twenty bones at that.
Console RTS titles have always fascinated. Maybe it's the noble economy. Maybe it's the challenge. In the past, these titles have suffered from convoluted control schemes -- Hello, Red Alert 3: Ultimate Edition -- or valiant attempts to provide the same precision and speed as mouse and keyboard, in the case of Creative Assembly’s abortive Stormrise and its novel WhipSelect. Halo Wars comes pretty close to having all its ducks in a row. No tactical compromises; just slick, sleek interface and design that doesn’t overwhelm or outgrow its constraints.
If you’re a little old for Slayer on Lockout, but still want to hear the beep-beep-beep-BWORP of a Mjolnir suit from the comfort of the commander’s chair, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is an easy recommendation. What it lacks in diametric faction design, it makes up for in dependable, approachable strategy fare.