Tag Archives: RTS

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

Mortal Komments!

I have some fond memories of the Mortal Kombat franchise starting from running into the arcade cabinet at a local grocery store of all places and admiring its cutting edge digitalized graphics and fantastic gore, quickly followed up by the obsessive, glowing buzz it gained from most of my then-8th grade compatriots. Soon after there was a lot of hanging out at local arcades as well as tracking down the various home console releases of the first two games with my friends. By the time Mortal Kombat 3 was released I had already developed a solid aversion to fighting games thanks largely to a mixture of the whole arcade/fighting game scene locally and my own lack of fighting game ability – really, most of my countless hours spent playing the console ports of MK 1 and 2 consisted of little more than me acting as a kind of moving punching bag for one of my much more skilled best friends. Great fun, that. (For the record I sucked at Street Fighter 2 as well. ;))

For a good time... don't call Mileena.
“”For a good time… don’t call Mileena.”

Still, I wasn’t being sarcastic about the fond memories. That was more than 15 years ago and I view those years in particular with a ton of nostalgia. So yeah, even if the MK games weren’t some of my favorites I still have a soft spot for them. I picked up the N64 port of MK 4 at some point, and I dabbled with some of the later games including Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. I can’t say I was greatly anticipating the 2011 Mortal Kombat but I was definitely intrigued by it. Fortunately unlike the last several MK releases this one had apparently actually lived up to its claims of returning to its roots and managed to become a better fighting game to boot by further diversifying and rebalancing its various characters.

I spent some quality time going through the story mode, some of the character ladders including the co-op ladders, and of course playing around in versus mode. Does it live up to the hype? Sure! If you never liked MK for its fighting system you might and I stress might be able to appreciate it a bit more now… but if it was the silly characters, over the top gore, dumb setting, or skimpy outfits you found objectionable then not much has changed – all of the stuff that appealed so strongly to my middle school peers and I is still intact if not even turned up a notch or two. The female character’s outfits are even more ridiculous, the gore… fatalities especially, even more gruesome. It’s the complete package. The biggest improvement there has got to be the story mode. I laughed along when I heard some of the podcasters I listened to scoffing at how many writers the game had credited well before its release but it actually does a surprising amount of fleshing out of the silly Mortal Kombat backstory. It essentially re-tells the plots of the first few games and the movie. It’s still dumb, sure, but unfair 2 vs. 1 matches and some annoying boss fights (suck it, Shao Kahn) aside it was great fun to play through.

My main character - an Inquisitor Cleric.
“My main character – an Inquisitor Cleric.”

I’ve started winding down my WoW time lately for various reason and have instead started playing around with Rift. My brief synopsis: it has nice graphics, a cool class mechanic, and some other goodies but only really does one thing completely new to the genre: not suck. Well, let me explain… Rift’s mechanics are very much inspired by World of Warcraft (I’m being nice, guys) but unlike most of the MMOs that have come (and gone) since the success of WoW Rift actually not only barrows a ton of goodies from it but does so well. It’s very polished from the get go and the vast majority of little features and design tweaks that have helped WoW either become successful or stay successful over the years are already there. It’s so annoying to hop into a new MMO and come across problem after problem that have already been solved in other games. A lot of the time these are eventually patched out but… come on guys, why not just fix it from the fucking beginning? That’s Rift.

It’s about as good as you can expect from a WoW clone that aspires to be little more than a WoW clone. The setting and backstory are somewhat interesting but don’t appeal to me much personally but really, I’m almost totally done with this type of Everquest inspired theme-park MMORPG anyway, currently subscribing to the “if I want WoW, I’ll play WoW” mentality. I’ll still play around with Rift (and WoW) for a while but I doubt I’ll make any serious commitment to an MMORPG again until the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic… not that it is necessarily all that far off… nor may it do much to change the WoW formula itself, sadly. That said I’m very much interested in whatever Trion Worlds does next – they definitely seem to be an above average MMO developer so far.

It might look like I'm winning but there's about 500 more marines not in the shot...
“It might look like I’m winning but there’s about 500 more marines not in the shot…”

I’ve also wrapped up the adventure mode of the Xbox 360 version of Peggle Nights – no surprise there, it’s still great, simplistic pick up and play fun. Finally, I’ve been playing some Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Dark Crusade again, just dabbling with the Necrons in skirmish battles since I’ve been considering returning to playing tabletop 40k again and am learning towards putting together a Necron army. Thank god the table top game and Dawn of War’s RTS mechanics are nothing alike because I’ve yet to win a single damn game as the Necrons. 😕

Update

Again, as I mentioned in my last Game Log update, I’ve not had as much time for gaming or even blogging as usual. This is almost entirely thanks to my much more hectic work schedule as of late. This week is probably the quietest week I’ve had in several months and thanks to a cold my office mate so generously inflicted upon me I won’t even be able to fully take advantage of it. That’s not to say I haven’t played games, however. Oh yes, I’ve played games.

First of all I finally finished Battlestations: Midway. Perhaps it finished me? As much as it shames me I actually put this one back on the shelf without finishing it off to the degree that I had planned. I breezed through the single player campaign fairly easily but once I got into the special “challenge” missions I hit several sheer walls of difficulty. After trying to beat the same challenge about 20 times without making much progress despite experimenting with various tactics and strategies I decided that I should be happy with beating the campaign and move on. This was confirmed by seeing that I already had above the average number of achievements for the title.

Not so much the Love Boat.
“Not so much the Love Boat.”

I have a feeling that I would have a much easier time with these challenges, or at least some of them, on the PC version where I could have greater precision with my shots and the like. Since I own it too, plucked from the bargain bins for next to nothing, I may have to give it shot one day.

None of these difficulty issues really make me any less interested in Battlestations: Pacific though. I still enjoyed the game and its relatively unique gameplay. Regardless, I originally decided to place Battlestations: Midway where I did in my backlog because I thought it would be quick and easy to playthrough so spending weeks (of admittedly very little actual gametime) trying to beat one or two missions seemed counterproductive. On to the next game!

Next up in my 360 backlog is the first person shooter Prey. Another quick one, I hope. I didn’t played Prey when it was first released though I remember a lot of my clan/guild buddies raving about the demo. I mentioned over a year ago here that a Toys R Us counter monkey had basically forced it on me one day, talking about how great it was, and at only 4 bucks news I couldn’t really pass up the recommendation.

Every now and then the game gives you a hand.
“Every now and then the game gives you a hand.”

Sure enough, the game seems to be worthy of the great reviews it got at launch. It’s an oldschool FPS in some respects, the Duke Nukem 3D influence is obvious with the lead character quipping constantly, and it wears the fact that it’s using the Doom 3 engine on its sleeve as well, yet the game also does some very interesting things involving portals, gravity, and puzzle solving and all well before the release of Portal to boot. There’s a puzzle solving element involving exiting your body and entering the spirit realm which is pretty interesting. Speaking of the spirit realm, there’s a very interesting, non-punishing death mechanic in Prey as well. I’m still less than half way through it so I don’t want to say too much more until I know more but so far I’d say it’s worth saving from your local bargain bin if such a thing sounds at all appealing to you.

I’ve also been playing Dawn of War 2 quite a bit in the last couple of months. I really enjoyed the first Dawn of War and its expansions. This is probably helped quite a bit by being a Warhammer 40,000 fan but regardless Relic has doing some interesting things with RTS conventions and yes, I loved Company of Heroes as well. Dawn of War 2 mixes things up a little bit by further changing the way single player works once again.

That's right - I defend my glowy things to the death!
“That’s right – I defend my glowy things to the death!”

I’ve often heard the game described as Diablo-esque in that randomly loot of varying rarities drops off of enemies and is awarded for missions but that’s is pretty much where the similarity ends. The player takes charge of a small force of Space Marines. Each squad or marines is similar to a hero unit (such as from Warcraft 3) in that they level up which can earn them specific skills, they can be equipped with new gear, etc. It still plays more or less like a RTS minus the base building and resource gathering aspects though. Of course, the combat part of the game is what Relic does so well with little touches like destructible buildings and unit cover mechanics.

The player equips and levels his squads while using a campaign map to select which missions to go on next. Some missions are plot related while others are purely side missions. The side missions appear to be mostly randomly generated but unfortunately they often recycle the same maps over and over again which makes grinding on them a lot less fun than it should be. Within the story itself players will find themselves battling all 3 of the game’s other armies: Eldar, Space Orks, and Tyranids. Since the player’s army is relatively small the battles are as well with few vehicles coming into the picture. Still, the constant equipment and skill upgrades are enough of to keep things interesting.

Orks iz strong!
“Orks iz strong!”

Anyway, the game is a blast. I’m close to the end at the moment but am still grinding on side missions. This is the first PC game I’ve played with a full Games for Windows Live implementation and it works quite well so far. I admit that I’m a tiny bit of an achievement whore so having PC game achievements combine with my Xbox Live achievement score is awesome. It does seem to confuse some of the Xbox 360 players on my Friends List when they can’t invite me to a party or use some of the other Xbox 360 only features though. Who cares, points is points! 😉