The lights are on
Halo Wars begins on the once-flourishing planet of Harvest, a hospitable planet belonging to the UNSC Alliance. Players find themselves towards the end of a 5 year campaign to liberate the ravaged world from Covenant occupation. After detecting strange Covenant activity on the planet's surface, the Spirit of Fire, a UNSC warship, has decided to investigate further. Spear-headed by Sergeant John Forge, the lovable if not handsome hero of the campaign, the UNSC forces make their way through to find that the Covenant have uncovered a Fore-Runner star map pointing to a human colony world currently under siege. After utilizing the planet's top-secret Spartan Soldiers to aid in the defense, the crew of the Spirit of Fire finds themselves on a wild goose-chase with the Prophet of Regret to stop him from activating a dormant Fore-Runner fleet that would spell the end of humanity.
Set 20 years before the events in the first Halo, Halo Wars should be viewed as less of a real-time strategy and more as the ultimate peace of fan-boy gaming for any fan of the earlier incarnations. As if throwbacks to The Pillar of Autumn and the ability to command a squad of Spartans wasn't enough, players find that one of the main antagonists of the campaign is a ruthless and hate-filled Arbiter, the predecessor to the one introduced in Halo 2. Even without the multiple nods to previous versions, Wars is well equipped to hold its own. With the introduction of several new characters including a stern yet caring captain, an independent and adventurous female scientist, and a comical if not all-together bitchy Artificial Intelligence, players find themselves falling for the new crew just as they did for Master Chief and Cortana, if not more so.
To add to the sheer rapture that Halo fans already experience while playing, Wars includes a timeline of events that becomes more compiled as levels are completed and achievements are met. The timeline chronicles the events the precede both Wars and the original Halo and becomes more of an in-depth look at the history of the UNSC and The Covenant. Fans could easily spend hours compiling the timeline and reading through its events.
As the first real-time strategy for the series, Wars introduces many never-before-seen buildings and vehicles for both factions while still maintaining the overall look and feel of each respective race. All covenant buildings are rendered in the traditional rich purple while the UNSC all boast their armored grey that fans have come to know. The architecture of both factions' respective buildings also pays tribute to what previous Halo players are familiar with. In short: all buildings look like they have been a part of Halo's designs all along.
It seems like only recently have the makers of the Halo franchise started to realize the importance of CGI cinematics to gamers. What would have originally been told through cut-scenes is now depicted though a fully-rendered cinematic after each level. After unlocking all the cinematics in the review page, players can watch them seamlessly played back-to-back, making for a nice miniature movie sure to ignite a smile, maybe a laugh, and ultimately: maker players cry like a baby.
Its rare to see a note-worthy RTS on a console. Many have tried their hands but so many times do they drop the ball and leave us wishing we had just bought the PC version instead. Wars, however, has stayed true to its original design of being a game meant specifically for X-box 360. While the controls might confuse extremely novice players, anyone who knows their way around a 360 controller will find that Ensemble Studios really thought out the command-to-button layout. Like any decent RTS, players can adjust cursor scrolling sensitivity to better suit their playing style, as well as select all units, all units of a specific type, and all units on the map by simply pressing the right button, seemingly minute touches that make the game all that more smooth.
The campaign focuses on the crew of the Spirit of Fire, meaning that The Covenant are only available in multiplayer. This may prove to be a drag for some but ultimately its a treat to play as the Covenant at all, even if there is no campaign to back it up. While playing against the computer or online, gamers will have one of three "heroes" to choose from for both factions. For the UNSC, the hero provides specific bonuses such as improved Rhino Tanks or the ability to increase team economy while the Covenant hero acts as a unit on the battlefield, providing some extra firepower. Covenant heroes can also be upgraded at the temple, allowing for some impressive improvements. This often throws off the scales of a battle quite a bit and might frustrate some players; improved tanks are nothing against the Prophet of Regrets cleansing beam that he can call down from his orbiting ship. However, its hard to argue with the enjoyment of taking out a battalion of enemy forces as the permanently-cloaked dual-weilding Arbiter.
Don't Change a Thing:
The storyline, the characters and the sheer unit/structure architecture of Halo Wars are enough to recommend this game to anyone. Add in the fact that players get to live out almost every Halo dream imaginable via the multiplayer levels and you've got yourself a chunk of nerd bliss.
Should have spent more time on:
Being a Halo game and therefore involving the [spoiler alert] Flood, it would have been neat to be able to don the controller and run rampant as those crazy bastards, rather than just fight them in the campaign.
The Covenant are almost too well groomed to just be a side dish and not one of the main courses of the game. Its obvious by playing the Covenant in the multiplayer maps that Ensemble Studios spent a large amount of time tweaking and perfecting the alien race, not to mention the idea for a hero unit. Perhaps Ensemble intended on having a Covenant campaign, or perhaps they're saving that one for the second Wars. We should be so lucky.
Just How Homo:
. Wars spares no pains in feeding our inner-most nerd desires by delivering on the gorgeous hunk of virtual man that is Sergeant Forge. From first glimpse at the CGI stud, gaymers will instantly wonder two things "Who is he, and how do I see more of him?" Luckily, Forge is playable in almost every level and appears in almost every cinematic so be prepared to take notes on what a real man looks like. With his chiseled face, buzzed hair, and playful yet protective attitude, it would come as a surprise if Ensemble didn't anticipate a gaymer following for the sergeant.
Own it or Rent it:
Own it. With its massive replay value, engaging story line, ingenious layout and its ability to double as a Halo encyclopedia and mini-movie, this game is worth every single penny. At times players might put it up on the shelf for several months, but all are guaranteed to take it down eventually and replay what could very well be the best thing to happen to Halo games since the first one was released.
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