Tag Archives: Halo Wars

Halo Fest 2020: Halo Wars

Now for a complete change of pace from the original Halo trilogy, we have Halo Wars. Despite the fact that Halo actually started life as an real time strategy game, it still strikes me as incredibly unlikely that Microsoft would have ever greenlit this. I guess they figured a console RTS had more of a chance of success with the Halo brand behind it than without, and they were probably right. Still, I didn’t know many Halo fans who were all that excited about the prospect at the time, and console FPS fans and RTS fans were mostly two different breeds. Regardless, this badass trailer produced by Blur did a lot to get the Halo fans pumped up and RTS fans (well, the ones who would condescend to play an RTS on a console) would be placated by knowing that Ensemble Studios, responsible for the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series, utter classics of the genre, would be at the helm.

The badass cutscenes were also produced by Blur.
“The badass cutscenes were also produced by Blur.”

Me? Well, as both a Halo fan and an RTS fan (and admittedly, not a hardcore one) and having played my fair share of Age of Empires II, I was probably about as close to their target demographic as you could get. Despite this, I wasn’t all that hyped up for it, and while I did play through the demo (which I briefly talk about here, though I somehow have no recollection of) I never got around to playing the full game. While it was pretty well received by fans and critics alike, it’s reasonable to assume that a similar level of disinterest (along with numerous internal factors) would lead to Ensemble closing its doors, sadly making Halo Wars their very last game.

For this playthrough I played the Xbox One Halo Wars: Definitive Edition on my Series X. The “Definitive Edition” is a remaster of the original game released alongside Halo Wars 2. With higher resolution textures and improvements to lighting and particle effects but not a lot else, it’s essentially just a re-release. While this means it’s not going to blow you away with contrast between the versions like the first two Halo games I covered, it is, at least, very faithful to the original. The game has aged pretty well, so that’s not a problem.

Well, it certainly LOOKS like an RTS...
“Well, it certainly LOOKS like an RTS…”

I’d actually started my playthrough on “Heroic” just as I did with the first three Halo games, but I found that the effort to beat some of these missions on Heroic simply wasn’t worth it – I could beat them, sure, but it took longer due to losing units more easily, and that sapped a lot of the fun out of the experience. Lowering the difficulty one notch to “Normal” was a big improvement for me. I suppose I enjoy overcoming bumps in difficulty in FPSes a lot more than I do in RTSes, where my builds and priorities are the biggest differences in how I play from session to session rather than toying too much with tactics. That, and the kinds of scenarios you encounter in a single player campaign like this so often constrain your options for the sake of variety, not doing a great job of reflecting the full array of options present in a pure skirmish match as a result.

The console control scheme makes excellent use of radial menus.
“The console control scheme makes excellent use of radial menus.”

I think another issue was the controls. Don’t get me wrong, I think Ensemble did a fine job with translating the RTS to the console, and from other console strategy game experiences I’ve had, I think the idea that strategy games don’t quite work on consoles is total bunk – there are plenty of examples of at least passable RTSes on console. Still, I have a lot of hours playing of RTSes on PC under my belt and playing them with a mouse and keyboard is in-grained at this point. For one, I found my ability to appropriately micromanage my units lacking. Halo Wars lets you select all of your units, all of your units on the screen, and all of the units of only a particular type in either case, which is just enough to allow you to do most anything you’d want to do with a little creativity. Still, that pales in comparison to being able to quickly make groupings of specific units of mixed unit types and assign them to hot keys for later use. Interestingly, I made the same complaint over 10 years ago when I played the demo. I definitely did feel slightly hobbled by this in some of my busier missions though, and this led me to coming up with numerous cheesy strategies of deploying tons of the same unit – masses of fully upgraded Warthogs being a particular favorite of mine, being both cheap to replace when they inevitably get blown away, and hilarious to watch bound haphazardly across the map.

Continuing the trend I started with my re-play of Halo: CE, I unlocked every skull and black box collectible on each map, though chasing them down really wasn’t all that enjoyable as it was in the previous games. Some don’t appear on the map until certain challenge conditions are met, making finding them more naturally impossible, and resulting in them being a bit of a distraction from the actual goals of the mission. More importantly, the reward for unlocking them is a let down. Skulls function similarly to previous Halo games, but in the case of the black boxes, each one unlocks a single entry on a giant timeline of the events around the game. This glorious lore dump is no doubt cool for fans of the franchise, but they’re just short text blurbs – no cutscenes, not even voiceovers. A little on the weak side.

Marines clearing out a nasty Flood infestation.
“Marines clearing out a nasty Flood infestation.”

While I’m being negative, I also encountered a few bugs and other oddities during my playthrough. Probably an artifact leftover from the remaster, but in-engine cutscenes seem to run at a reduced, stuttery looking framerate, I had at least one total system crash during a mission, and on another occasion (on the same mission!) I lost the ability to control a special vehicle which made winning the scenario impossible and caused me to have to reload and lose a bunch of progress. I wouldn’t say these issues were numerous enough to ruin my experience, however, but there were enough of them to take note. That said, I didn’t have any real issue with unit pathing, which is a common complaint I’ve seen online.

There’s also the story. As this is a side story taking place out of chronological order and well before the main series, I’ll go ahead and recap its plot right here. While I’m fairly vague in these plot summaries they absolutely do still contain spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want the plot to be spoiled!

The Arbiter's back! Only this is a different one, and he has zero personality.
“The Arbiter’s back! Only this is a different one, and he has zero personality.”

The story: As part of the Harvest Campaign, an effort to retake the planet of Harvest, the first human colonized world with the unfortunate distinction of being decimated by the Covenant, marines of the UNSC colony ship “Spirit of Fire” discover a newly excavated Forerunner facility containing an interstellar map. Using the map, Professor Anders, a researcher aboard the Spirit of Fire, identifies another human colony world, Arcadia, as being a point of interest for the Covenant. Arriving too late, the Spirit of Fire finds Harvest’s defenses breached and the colony already under siege by Covenant forces. Linking up with local defenses, including Spartan Red Team, Arcadia City is evacuated. Efforts to further repel the Covenant eventually lead the UNSC to locate concentrated Covenant activity around yet more Forerunner ruins. The UNSC push the Covenant out, though the victory is short-lived as the Arbiter abducts Professor Anders and flees Arcadia. In pursuit, the Spirit of Fire arrives at an uncharted planet being overrun by Flood, which they quickly learn is actually a Forerunner Shield World. Professor Anders manages to escape, revealing that the Arbiter planned to use her to activate a fleet of powerful Forerunner warships to help the Covenant decisively win the war. Captain Cutter approves a risky plan to use the Spirit of Fire’s faster-than-light drives to destroy the entire Shield World, keeping the Forerunner fleet out of the hands of the Covenant. Successful but now without faster-than-light capability, the Spirit of Fire’s crew goes into cryogenic storage while the ship begins the long journey home.

It all feels, eh, a little generic. I say this having already played almost all of the other games in the series, so perhaps I wouldn’t have felt that way at all if I played it at the time. It might have been utterly groundbreaking for all I know. Either way, this isn’t helped by the fact that the characters were all just a little flat. I really couldn’t convince myself to care all that about Sgt. Forge, Captain Cutter, or Professor Anders. Hell, I probably liked the Spirit of Fire’s AI, Serina, more than the lot of them. Everyone just came across as low effort archetypes to me, and I think I would have felt the same back in 2009.

One of my Spartan's jacked a Scarab. Ridin' in style!
“One of my Spartan’s jacked a Scarab. Ridin’ in style!”

While that all sounded more than a little sour, no, I didn’t dislike the game. In fact, I felt like Ensemble did a great job representing the Halo universe. The presentation is faithful to the original games and quite skillfully executed, with the new units added doing a lot to make both the Covenant and the UNSC feel more like actual military forces than what was represented in the previous Halo games. The soundtrack is great. The cutscenes, awesome! It also definitely succeeds as a RTS, with some interesting units, tech trees, a decent amount of variety in the scenarios you’re thrown into in the campaign, and an interesting take on the classic formula, with simplified resource gathering and some other concessions seemingly made around the platform. I think one of the bigger compliments I could give the game is that I had been feeling the urge to play some classic RTS games lately and Halo Wars managed to thoroughly scratch that itch. Once completing the campaign, I dove into several skirmish matches against AI which were a ton of fun and sealed my overall positive impression of the game.

I’d say if you’re a Halo fan, you should definitely give it a chance. If you don’t have any RTS (or other strategy game) experience you absolutely might bounce right off of the game. Then again, it might also end up being one of your favorite Halo games, and your gateway into a whole new genre. Now, back to Bungie

Some 360 Stuff.

I managed to finish Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (which I will mercifully refer to as “GRAW2” from here on out) over the weekend.

The game does indeed get more difficult but doesn’t quite reach the levels of frustration that I occasionally reached with the first game. I’d still have to say I enjoyed it more than the first GRAW in any case. That’s not to say I didn’t still have some complaints – indeed I did! One minor issue I had was that, while the 3rd person view looked great and even felt fine most of the time I often found myself thinking “cool, now to switch back to first person view!” Perhaps I should chalk that up to mere force of habit though. I did find myself often struggling to reload my weapon at the right times, that is, I either should have auto-reloaded and for some reason didn’t or I’d try to reload manually and wouldn’t, particularly when attached to cover. Similarly I also found using scopes when attached to cover pretty annoying as it often took several button presses to back out of scope mode back into your normal view where you could once again make sure you were in and/or attached to cover. This made using your scope more of a liability than probably intended. These issues are all most likely caused by unintentionally clunky features rather than actual bugs but either way they annoyed me often enough to note.

In a startling turn of events our protagonist manages to lose his helmet! Ooooh... Ahhh!
“In a startling turn of events our protagonist manages to lose his helmet! Ooooh… Ahhh!”

The ending wasn’t amazing but wasn’t too bad either. It definitely wasn’t the let down that the first GRAW ending was – after leading my group through a vicious firefight I ended up facing down a group of dozens of enemy fighters spread out along various distant walls and other cover. It seemed like a pretty tense situation as my squad mates bugged out and ended up taking cover nowhere near the fight with the exception of one particular mouth breather who was standing in the open dodging shot after shot instead of getting the fuck behind something. Jeesh. Anyway, as I tried to peer above the tiny broken wall that was somehow protecting me from the hundreds of rounds of automatic rifle fire raining down upon me I finally spot the my target – the boss if you will. I took a few potshots at him but it was far, far too dangerous considering the volume of fire I was receiving and how damn lethal shots are in the game in the first place. My target also seemed to sighted me as well and was aiming an RPG of some sort in my general direction. Not good! I hurl myself against the wall, cling to it for everything I’m worth, and… What’s this? I beat the game! It seems the dumbass terrorist leader didn’t have RPG training on his resume and accidentally shot the wall he was standing in front of. Ooops! Kind of anti-climatic don’t you think? 😀

I decided not to play through the campaign a second time on hard mode as I originally speculated I might. I didn’t whiz through the campaign quite as fast as I thought I might and my gaming time is far too precious to spend on a back to back second playthrough when my backlog is so large. I did go ahead and grab all of the single mission achievements as well as head online and install all of the free DLC content. There was a lot of that to go around too, most notably two large map packs containing mostly remakes of maps from older games. There are also two excellent sounding co-op map packs but those ones weren’t free. Not that it matters as I’ve never played a console Ghost Recon game online for various reasons. For those that feel compelled, however, this game looks like a great multiplayer value. I admit I wouldn’t mind trying it out myself, the co-op in particular, but I don’t have too many friends interested in the console Ghost Recons and I’d definitely want to avoid pick-up games on XBL with this title.

I also checked out two Xbox 360 demos this weekend as well: Tom Clancy’s HAWX and Halo Wars.

First, since I was just writing about another Tom Clancy game let’s talk about HAWX. First of all “H.A.W.X.” (High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron) is a fucking stupid acronym. It’s in the same genre as games like Ace Combat. I’m not really sure what you’d call that genre though – definitely not any kind of simulator. Perhaps it is a “flight action game”? Who knows. It is basically an arcadey take on a flight simulator. I’m not knocking the genre though – I’ve certainly played my Rogue Squadrons in my day. Like Ace Combat 6 before it though HAWX failed to grab me. It looked great, I love flying jets around and locking onto poor helpless bastards on the ground, but neither game was a compelling enough of an experience for me to warrant a purchase. Like Ace Combat 6 I’ll reserve HAWX for a distant bargain bin pick up, if I get around to getting it at all.

Feedback on the net on the game seems to be pretty interesting and, as far as I can tell, mostly negative. I think a lot of people were expecting this game to be a more realistic (as implied by the Tom Clancy brand, perhaps) Ace Combat. What a lot of people got, however, was a strange near future plot with warring PMC’s that sounds like something out of the Ace Combat series (accurately it brings Strike Commander to mind for me and now I’ll lose sleep tonight for making that horrible comparison) possibly even less realistic planes, and some bizarre features (“assistance” and “ERS”) that make the game possibly even more unrealistic than it might otherwise. The majority of (vocal) people seem to hate it. I found the no-assistance mode to be utter trash – it’s only benefit being that it breaks up the gameplay a bit when used. ERS mode, however, I thought was pretty nifty. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like that in a flight game before thought most posters seemed to hate the hand holding aspect of it. Overall I actually enjoyed the demo, just, again, not enough to make me want to run out and buy the thing.

Finishing off a Covenant base.
“Finishing off a Covenant base.”

Onto Halo Wars! What can I say? It’s a not-so-special RTS. It’s Halo. It’s pretty good. I’m not surprised it’s good, nor that it is such a cookie-cutter RTS given the developer which has a history of helping shape the genre. From what I saw of the demo (I played both campaign missions and a couple of skirmishes) it’s nothing too exciting. I will say that was pretty pleased with this attempt to map RTS controls to a console controller. My only issue with them was how hard it was to group units. After playing Warhammer: Battle March recently in which I was able to assign specific units to specific groups and cycle through them it felt like a little bit of a dumbing down in the strategy department. Maybe you can do it and I just didn’t run into it, however.

People will inevitably ask whether this is a good game for Halo fans that aren’t RTS players. I’d have to say yes. The game definitely oozes with Halo flavor. All of the troops and vehicles are there and, thanks to the tech trees, even have some yet unseen (to my knowledge) variations. The game’s single player campaign also seems to have a lot of story and plenty of decent cutscenes. So sure, if you’re a big Halo fan I say grab it. If you absolutely hate RTSes, however, I can’t imagine this one will change your opinion on the genre in even the slightest bit. I for one may grab it if even just to satisfy the Halo fanboy inside of me. I don’t play a lot of RTSes, especially on console, so this may be a rare purchase for me though I’ve also been eyeing Tom Clancy’s EndWar lately as well.

Err… Wow. Apparently me and Tom Clancy have a thing going on. 😉

Again, apologies for the crappy photos instead of decent screenshots. It’s the best I can do at the moment for Xbox 360 games.