Review: Halo Wars

Jordan Deam | 20 Feb 2009 09:00
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Few games have helped popularize console first-person shooters more than Halo: Combat Evolved. Almost overnight, what was once strictly the domain of the mouse-and-keyboard set became a staple of the living room. Clunky, oversized gamepads aside, Halo proved that you didn't need to be able to execute no-scope headshots with pinpoint accuracy to have fun in an FPS.

Now, eight years later, the newest addition to the Halo series ushers console gamers into equally unfamiliar territory - real-time strategy. It's a vastly different style of gameplay that poses a number of unique challenges to console developers - mainly, how to replicate the precise gestures of a mouse and keyboard with only a gamepad. Could Halo Wars succeed where so many others have failed?

No. No it couldn't. Halo Wars offers a compelling single-player campaign, filled with beautifully rendered cut scenes, varied environments and solidly balanced gameplay, but it's saddled by one major handicap: You have to play it with a gamepad. It's the Achilles heel of every console RTS, and while Halo Wars was clearly designed from the ground up to be played on an Xbox 360 controller, it's not enough. The elements of a fun and dynamic multiplayer game are there, but they're overshadowed by the frustration of simply managing your troops. In fact, the best compliment I can give Halo Wars is that it proved to me, conclusively, that there will never be a console RTS worth playing.

If you've ever rearranged your desktop icons, you have the basic motor skills required to play a PC RTS - selecting units is as simple as dragging a box around them. By contrast, Halo Wars replaces these everyday gestures with a combination of button presses, trigger pulls and thumbstick movements, and it's still not as quick or accurate as using a mouse. It may not sound like a huge problem, but you can trace pretty much every niggling gameplay issue back to this single flaw.

Many traditional RTS elements have been simplified in Halo Wars, but none are more noticeable than the game's base-building system. Halo Wars uses a modular base mechanic that limits the number of buildings you can construct on a single platform. The game's resource-gathering system makes this limitation especially crucial: The bulk of your supplies come from special buildings that pipe them in from an undisclosed, resource-rich location. You could construct all the buildings necessary to build and upgrade every unit type, but your supplies would slow to a trickle.

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