Riding Shotgun: Halo Wars Demo Impressions Part 1

Thursday, February 12, 2009
I'm not sure what to think about Halo Wars. I know, what gives right? It's Halo plus WAR. That should, out of all logical combinations, guarantee satisfaction. But Halo Wars, by recently dissassembled internal Microsoft developer Ensemble Studios, has an uphill battle ahead of it. With the variable success rate of RTS games on consoles--I'm looking your way Tom Clancy's EndWar and Command and Conquer 3 and various offshoots--Microsoft and Ensemble hope the biggest name brand in digital entertainment might impact, at the very least compensate, for the dumbing down done to strategy games in transition from the desk to the couch. They're hoping, but I'm skeptical they can pull it off.

But I'm hoping they can do it.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ensemble knows strategy games. This is the developer of such high-profile, critically lauded games as Age of Empires I, II, III, games I've spent a great deal of time with, games that capture the magic of history and the depth a strategy game should have. Where else can you see a horde of tutonic knights storming gates guarded by trebuchets and Japanese Samurai?

Halo Wars has an essence that Ensemble is known for capturing. Their cunning employ of clustered bases for simplicity, natural expansions, and simplified resource gathering (managed only by the construction of specific buildings at your base; resources are accrued incrementally) play to the strengths of the console experience without making navigation and micro management a trial of patience. If anyone could have navigated this complicated translation, it was Ensemble.

Simplification is the word we're looking for. Building units is simple, without being automated. A radial unit build menu pops up when you select a barracks or a factory, and from here gamers can queue and cancel unit construction and upgrades, or recycle the building in order to build another. Part of the game's strategy, apart from building units and attacking the enemy, seems to be the management of the limited space allowed at each base.

The UNSC, the humans, tech at a much slower pace than the Covenant and have the ability to construct multiple "reactors" (each, principally, gives one tech level) in order to get the required tech level. Balancing how many reactors you have with how many supply depots you have (for more resources), and that's not including miltary buildings so you construct foot soldiers (marines, flamethrowers, spartans, etc.), vehicles (such as scorpions), or air units (vultures). A great deal of strategy seems to be in the order of building construction and recycle. Getting that right unit to counter the air units becomes extremely important in the mid-game.

The Covenant, that I wanted to enjoy playing more than I perhaps did, seem to be a mishmash of the Protoss and Zerg from Blizzard's Starcraft. They utilize lots of small, weak units, but also have a propensity toward shields, which lengthen their lives and keep their buildings up. Like the Protoss they warp in their buildings, but like the Zerg they tend to work best in large masses. The Covenant play a lot differently than the UNSC, because they have the ability to get ground and air vehicles right from the start. To counter this, the UNSC have Spartans (limited to 3) which can jack vehicles, just like in Halo 2 and 3. Spartans aren't too difficult to pick out of a group, so you can usually group-fire at them and keep them from stripping you of your bigger units.

In this way micro management can play a decent role in battles. Halo Wars definitely rewards the player that pays attention to his/her units.

What I'm really concerned about with regards to Halo Wars are the win conditions and fighting mechanics. Individual battles generally favor those who have more units, or better units, as opposed to who strategized best. Frequently, attempting initial rushes (within the first 3 minutes of gameplay) usually results in being overrun by enemies moments after. And once you surround an opponent's base, it's all but impossible (at least in 1v1) for the defending player to really keep you from hammering away, and eventually killing it. The only way to halt an offensive player seems to be by counterattack at the opponent's main, hoping they pull their units away in time for you to regroup.

This oddity is particularly due to the base layout, a bunch of bunkers arranged around a central command center or citadel. The trademark radial style fits with the game's aesthetic, but it eliminates base defense in the traditional sense of RTS games. (You do have the option of building 4 turrets at the main base, and upgrading them.) All units are built through that central command center and rally right in front of it. It's, therefore, easy to contain a base by positioning multiple anti-infantry/anti-vehicle units right in front of the command center.

There are a few things that I'm really worried about.

I'm worried gamers won't feel the game has enough legs, enough of that je ne se qois, enough of that Halo feeling, to warrant a purchase; I'm worried strategy will come down to who can react fast enough by recycling a barracks and building a bunch of vehicles to counter whatever it is stinging your war-torn ego; I'm worried the law of diminishing returns prohibits us from having too much a good thing, and that Halo--fun as it is--will not be enough to keep this RTS afloat; I'm worried that the game is too simple and insipid at times, relying on Zizekian, button-press satisfaction (the dial system/the selection system) in a genre that already functions on buttons and nobs; I'm woried that the game takes the strategy out of Real Time Strategy. As it is, with the data I've got in my Xbox 360, I feel like I'm only riding shotgun in a Warthog that I'd rather be driving. Is this the nature of RTS on consoles?

I'm hoping that online, against other players, Halo Wars' strategy will really shine. In the demo, it's pretty easy to best a Heroic AI.

Of course, this is just a demo. I can't see into the future. And I can merely sip of Halo Wars' intoxicating liquid. At this point, I'm not yet drunk on it. There are too many questions lingering in the back of my mind. Will the game allow bigger struggles over greater distances than the small map given in the demo? How will the other leaders play out? What role will the Flood play in the story? How will 3v3 games feel, and will there be a metagame in Halo Wars worth considering--which factions and leaders will be the most favored?

More impressions to come.