The Failings of Halo Wars

Welcome to Harvest!

Back in 2009 we were introduced to another Halo game, but this iteration of the franchise was very different to the trilogy or anything else that would later follow. Ensemble Studios, the company that brought us Age of Empires had done what they do best and produced a another great Real Time Strategy, this time in the guise of Halo. Halo Wars centred on the aftermath of the fight for Harvest where a Covenant presence was still causing problems for the UNSC. But there were other concerns as well and not necessarily with the Covenant.

I’ll be honest; when I first saw the trailer for Halo Wars I was amazed. There were bespoke cut-scenes which were beautifully animated and we had the opportunity to see a fresh batch of Spartans. All I had to do was wait for the game to be released. And when it came out I was not disappointed…at first.

I had, in a way, always wanted Halo Wars to happen. I constantly imagined a Command & Conquer style incarnation of Covenant induced carnage. So falling into the God-like overview instead of a first-person perspective was really quite easy. And there were other bonuses to this as well. Instead of filling the boots of the Master Chief where only a single vehicle could be commanded, I had entire squadrons of tanks and aircraft at my disposal. And with enough time I could muster several companies of hardy marines all supported by artillery, ODST’s and even Spartans. It was a dream come true.

Other benefits of Halo Wars were seeing other, new, locations in the Halo universe. As players and fans of Halo we have always heard about Harvest and how it had become the initial outlet for Covenant brutality and firepower and our first glimpse at this frontier world matched every description. The surface was partially glassed, leaving Harvest with several distinguishing marks of glowing crust, an appearance that would later appear again with the release of Halo: Reach. But more importantly, we again saw instances of Forerunner technology hidden away, and based on the events in Contact Harvest, where initial scans of Harvest reveal a horde of artefacts, including humans; this gave some visual justification and reasoning behind the opening years of the war.

Scarab Vs the UNSC

But despite all of these positives there some niggling concerns. Originally, the cut scenes had been one of the appealing factors, but gradually it dawned on me that they had another effect. Previously I’ve mentioned the many strong points behind all of the Bungie-produced Halo games, immersion being one of the prime candidates. But here, on Halo Wars, I was anything but immersed within the environment or the gameplay. The viewpoint on Halo Wars, necessary on all RTS games was distant. And while it is important for a strategy game it lacked the personality of the other First-Person perspectives found in all the other Halo titles. I felt detached and segregated from the events themselves and the characters involved. I didn’t connect to any of the characters, especially Sergeant Forge, who’s incessantly sour attitude to everything and anything began to wear, particularly when he faces the Arbiter towards the end of the game. I know that if the Covenant war was real and we were facing the possibility of extinction there would be plenty of brave men and women, all eager to do their part, but Forge’s attitude wasn’t one of fearlessness, it reeked of contempt – for everyone. I mean, who faces off against a Spartan in the mess hall? Who faces the Arbiter and, by the way, the tallest Elite we’ve ever seen and doesn’t even flinch? And who goes toe to toe with the Flood without batting an eyelid? I just didn’t like him and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.

Sgt. Forge with his usual angry face

But the other characters were also flawed. Anders seemed too aloof, Cutter obsessed with duty to the point where I thought he’ll authorise a health and safety inspection and Red Team seemed too hollow. The only character that I found engaging and interesting was the one that wasn’t actually meant to be real, Serina.

That aside, there were some plus points. As a Real time Strategy Halo Wars works well, fantastic in fact. I love the environments you play in and the avenues that you can approach victory or defeat. I like the fact that you can choose different commanders who all bring their own unique abilities to a multiplayer game, and choosing the right combination when allied with a friend can make all the difference. I also get to feel a little differently when a Scarab attacks now, because in all the other games I was a Spartan and didn’t really have too much trouble taking them out. But on Halo Wars I have buildings to look after, so panic ensues when one of those monstrous behemoths comes trudging over a nearby cliff that I originally thought impassable.

Halo Wars provided a few reveals as well. We were able to clamp eyes on an altogether different type of Forerunner vessel. We saw another Shield World and for those who were able to unlock the entire timeline, you would have be able to read up on several interesting facts, such as when the Spirit of Fire was officially declared lost with all hands and the gathering of the Spartan II’s on Reach for OPERATION RED FLAG.

And finally, we were left with a teaser at the conclusion of the game and credits, a tantalising message from Serina to Captain Cutter, “Captain. Wake up. Something has happened.” Though mysterious and interesting, this message may not be explained as the final act of Microsoft involved closing Ensemble, so there may not be a follow up. However, this does not rule out hints from other Halo games or stories.

Ultimately, Halo Wars was an interesting game with plenty of promise, but it was let down with one aspect it could not replicate, immersion.

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6 thoughts on “The Failings of Halo Wars

  1. All the failings in this game can be explained very simply:

    The studio got told it was getting shut down before they finished the game.

    It’s almost like Ensemble actively sabotaged it. I mean what would YOU do if you just got told “Oh yeah you’re getting fired…All of you…But we want you to finish this high-profile game for us first…mmk?”. You know what I’d do? I’d try to ruin that game like no tomorrow and make the company that was firing me loose tons of money.

    So that’s probably what they did.

  2. Being a fiend for all things Halo, I was especially enthused about Halo getting a genre-makeover. I was so amped and set my expectations pretty high when I heard Ensemble would be belting this bad-boy out.

    Like all games I purchase, I grade gameplay and narrative separately. Halo Wars game play-wise is a solid B+ imho. Narrative-wise… D- easy, and I feel I’m being extremely generous here.

    The writing, dialogue, and voice-acting in the otherwise visually stunning cutscenes was easily some of the worst I’ve ever seen or heard in any game. Maybe it’s just me, but if there is actually some kind of cohesive story going on in this game, I must have missed it entirely. The fiction in this game is so loose and discordant within the context of the rest of the Haloverse; it just didn’t fit. Any of it. Which is disappointing given the long development period this game had. I don’t believe that Bungie had any hand in the fictional aspects of this game. (although given my utter disgust with Halo 3’s lackluster story, maybe they did!) It’s sad to see such potential wasted when it comes to Halo fiction. I do agree though that a lack of immersion within the gameplay definitely only added to an already poorly scripted narrative experience. Really, I mean, who thought it was a good idea to outsource the Halo Wars game script to a 5th grade creative writing competition??? Abysmal…

    Like Meister, I had absolutely no connections with any of the characters and was frankly a bit giddy by the time Forge bit the dust. (Sgt. Forge? Forge?!?! Really???) Yeah… It wasn’t even that I couldn’t connect with Forge, as much as it was that I just absolutely f***ing hated him. And is it just me, or is Anders only given facial expression throughout the entire game one of perpetual constipation? (you gonna’ tell me there’s not 1 can of prunes on that giant-ass Spirit of Fire ship?) I wanted to like Cutter because he reminded me of my old orchestra director in High School, but alas… Cutter was a poorly written and even more poorly implemented one-dimensional cardboard cut-out figurine. Did I mention yet how happy I was when Forge died riding that elevator up to the sun? (Yep… elevator up to the friggin’ sun.) Even Serina was a totally overly-contrived mess of a stereotypically single-sided (and totally unnecessary) attempt at the dryly sarcastic, side-kick comic-relief character. The Covenant cut-scenes provided enough face-palmingly wretched moments that I have a permanent hand-shaped indentation marring my face. Really, why didn’t they just save a lot of money and super-impose Spartan helmets over top of the characters from the “Police Academy” movies and use that as cut-scenes?… At least watching a Bobcat Goldthwait Spartan stumble around like Michael J. Fox after a 4-day coke-binge would have been entertaining.

    Indeed the Halo Wars “narrative,” at least to me, is one giant, epic cluster of fail…

    Now having said that… Fiction aside, the gameplay is great! I must have played 300+ skirmish games by now. It’s just a great, stripped-down, bare-bones RTS that, imho, really nailed the console approach to strategy gaming. You never miss the deeper layers that a keyboard and mouse provide in a C&C game, because in Halo Wars you’re just able to go-go-go! And just like C&C and Starcraft, it has a long-lasting appeal. I don’t even remember when the game was released but I still play skirmish regularly and it never gets old. So, kudos to Ensemble for delivering in at least that regard. Sure, great fiction to go with a great game is always a win-win, but I guess perfection is a rare commodity these days, especially in games… I don’t know lol… Just my 2 cents 🙂

  3. Halo Wars, for me, was a breath of fresh air. After playing Universe at War and C&C on the 360, I came to truly appreciate its gameplay mechanics. It was delightfully simple in many ways, with controls that were fairly intuitive, and varied gameplay, an interesting story, and plenty of replay value.

    I was willing to give it a lot of leeway on a lot of things. Yes, the dialogue could have been tightened a bit, especially on the editing end. I reminded myself that for the time the dialogue in the first Halo was alright, but could have been improved. I could forgive that. The writing, again, could have been improved but was better than quite a few games that came out at the same time. Though we’re thankfully (mostly) past the “Here, take this lockpick, Master of Unlocking” era of dialogue, we can all safely admit that a lot of writing in games could usually be improved.

    I was willing to overlook some of the odd naming of units in the game; honestly, I don’t think I could have done any better. I was willing to overlook the way the Arbiter looked like somebody had completely shattered every bone in his jaw, though it never sat well with me. I’ve heard (and said) some pretty derogatory descriptions of how he looked; I’ll save those for private company for fear of offending somebody.

    There was one moment, however, that ruined my ability to willingly ignore the issues, though. Before I get to that point, however, I’d like to look back to Mass Effect 2. Beautiful game. Enjoyed it immensely. But I never talk to Garrus more than absolutely necessary. Not because of calibrations, but because of how Shepard leans against the railing. Poor shot choices means that from various angles, you can see that Shepard’s arm is NOWHERE NEAR THE RAILING. It makes my teeth rattle on end for some reason. I can forgive a lot in that game, but that one moment I can’t.

    So, let me set the scene for you. Forge and the Spartans are getting ready to do something insanely stupid with the slipspace drive. The Arbiter kills a mook. Elites are coming. Forge does something almost silly (that would have been overkill had it worked) as the Spartans take on the Elite honor guard. So far, I’m with you. Heck, I’m digging getting to see Spartans use teamwork. The Arbiter displays his arrogance by relying on a trick that Forge is already wise on. Fine, I’m down with that. He starts toying with Forge rather than killing him outright. Okay, that makes sense, I suppose. I mean, I’d be focused on killing him quick then killing the demons, but again, arrogance. I’m down with that. Back to the Spartans…

    …That flip. Up until now, I can stand by all their tactical decisions. That flip. I… I can’t stand that. I’m honestly okay with the rest of the scene (save for one more hitch). I’m fine with it. But that flip betrays every logical, tactical decision that a Spartan would go through. I can easily envision a hundred different ways that they could have gone about that which make more sense. You’ve already shown that you’re fast enough to avoid the spear, so do a half impact with them to partially spin them while getting behind their position, grab and continue to use your momentum to position them so they get a spear to the back. That makes infinitely more sense.

    Then the accidental buddy-killing elite gets shot from behind by another Spartan. Wait, what? Where did he come from? I know what the problem is here — they’re working in an entirely cinematic environment. Halo uses in-game resources for its cutscenes. Getting from point A to point B usually has to make sense. (I’m looking at you, Halo 3.) Meanwhile, in a more cinematic CG environment, all that you’re making is what’s on screen. You never have to ask yourself, “How did X get through Y” because they aren’t there for you to manipulate.

    Simply put, two storyboarding errors that ruined an otherwise epic cut scene for me.

    Most of this, however, I can safely chalk up to one thing: growing pains. Looking at the other Ensemble titles, it didn’t look like they had ever stuck their neck out quite like this before. Had they gotten to work on a sequel, I’m sure that much of this would have improved. In fact, I’d like to think that it would have been wonderful to see it, soothing a lot of the bad feelings that players had. You learn from your mistakes, you improve them, and I like to think that as professionals, they would have addressed some of these things. (I can only dream that they would have apologized for that flip, but it’ll never happen.)

    I know that I’ve rambled on for a while, but I would like to address the characters. Much like flugelmeister, I only found one character interesting. However, it wasn’t Serena. In fact, I hated her. The first time I played, about halfway through the game I gained the ability to point at the screen right when she was on schedule for a “witty” comment.

    Forge didn’t interest me, either. A cutout of a “go get ’em” soldier. Interestingly, a friend of mine believes that it wasn’t a noble sacrifice that caused him to save the day, but a cowardly one. That by that point he was simply going by a facade, suppressing all of the horror that he’d seen. He took the easy way out, sacrificing himself to stop the Covenant, rather than have to live with the horrors he’d seen and the things he’d done. My friend pointed out various real-world psychology cases to support his theory. This makes sense to me, but I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves.

    Anders… I just hated her. Even the pet the dog moment at the end wasn’t enough. And Kim May Guest? I’ve adored you ever since Metal Gear Solid, but I can’t stand by your performance in this one, I’m sorry. Anders wasn’t even a compelling representation of an ONI spook/scientist hybrid. The only time I approved of anything that came out of her mouth was when she told Serena to get the hell out of her office.

    Cutter, though, I could stand. Yes, his dialogue was stiff, but that wasn’t what drew me into the character the most. It was his eyes. Specifically, the bags under them. At the start, they’re kinda there. But there’s a subtle yet noticeable deepening of the bags. The fact that he starts with a coffee mug, and almost every time you see him he has one nearby, combined with the note at the end that he hadn’t slept through all of this… Yeah. It made some of his comments a little clearer, and him a little more interesting to me. Add to that, it actually showed the fact that he was making hard decisions — there’s only once that he makes a snap judgment, and that’s when he sees Spartans on the ground. It’s more than I can say for Miranda, at least.

    One thing that I do have to say in the defense of Halo Wars is its replay value — the different choices for commanders in skirmish/online games, the skulls, and the interesting locations both in campaign and multiplayer all come together rather nicely. So long as you enjoyed the game, you can find a lot of simple pleasure in replaying it. It’s surprisingly easy to find those five seconds of enjoyment that exist in every game over and over again.

    All in all, I would love to see a second Halo Wars game. Somehow, it still remains my second favorite Halo game, despite (and because of) all of its flaws. I’m sure that, if Ensemble would have had more time to work with Bungie; more time to work on the story, cut scenes, and editing; and more support from Microsoft, it could have been a worthy “sister” to the franchise proper. As it stands, I can only hope that a sequel, knowing that I shouldn’t hold my breath. But a man can dream of Robot Entertainment being given another shot at it.

  4. I recently started playing 3v3 online with two friends after not playing this game for a while, and it is ridiculously fun. The differences between the different leaders really keep the game fresh and interesting, particularly in 3v3.

    All of the single-player failings have been mentioned so I’ll just throw out the major multiplayer issue I see: the weakness of the Arbiter and Brute Chieftan compared to the Prophet of Regret. The fact that the prophet has rechargable shields and can be upgraded to flight makes him much more practically useful in taking out rebel bases early on and such, since his shields allow him to remain at full strength and grab a star. Its unfortunate that the Arbiter and Chieftan don’t have any powers to compensate for this as it makes the Covenant a bit staler than the UNSC.

  5. Well written, my friend, well written.

    I won’t disagree with you on the characters and the writing that went with them, and I’d definitely agree with you on the gameplay. For me, that was the game’s greatest achievement. The second aspect that appeals to me are some of the changes in the artwork relative to Bungie’s own work, as superb as it is.

    For starters, the armor worn by Red Team and the other Spartans was different and intriguing, for the number of moving parts, such as the chest plates and things like that, are features that none of the other MJOLNIR suits have. Even the Elites I liked, for they definitely looked fearsome and imposing, without being too hulking and muscular.

    The only real problems that I had with them were the musculature around the neck being a bit too much, and their overly hunched stance. Fortunately, that hulking, hunched appearancer is actually largely an illusion created by the shape of their armor; the Elites themselves are largely in the range and scale of what we have seen from Bungie. Its really only the neck and the associated musculature that is overdone; it could’ve been toned down a bit much.

    In order to end my rant, I would say that for all of Halo Wars’s shortcomings, it is still a valid part of the series, and I value it greatly, even though I seldom ever play it. It’s nice breath of fresh air for me, and I feel that Ensemble/Robot and Microsoft should be given at least a little credit for taking such an array of risks, and being proud of it. In some ways, they are a lot like Bungie, for they definitely believed in what they were doing, and were willing to take the criticisms that they would inevitably receive, and do so gracefully.

    I respect them for that.

    As for the future, especially without Bungie, I’m a cautious and skeptical optimist. From what I have seen of 343’s work across the board, from books, comics, toys, to the Defiant Map Pack, I’d say there is plenty of reason for interest and hope. While they’ve definitely made mistakes, such as the Encyclopedia and the Fall of Reach reissue, they have swiftly and comprehensively taken responsibility and even taken measures to compensate for them.

    Though I don’t have the link with me, I do distinctly remember them saying that the next game will be an FPS, and given all of the hirings they have been doing, they must be quite hard at work on it. If the Defiant MP is anything to go by, they almost certainly take the necessary factors very seriously, and will do everything they can to meet and even exceed the existing standard set by its predecessors.

    Hopefully they will make an announcement in the near future.

  6. Hmm what ruined Halowars was that it completely ignored what the rts genre could do for expanding halo fiction. When i first heard about i thought: NICE! now we’re getting a game that will focus on the covenant-human war as a whole, and i imagined that the game would be about some of the bigger battles and that we would get more insight in the inner workings of the UNSC, but no. What we got was yet another “isolated” story as in the FPS games.

    I was so disappointed when one of the first missions took us away from the war and instead tried to be Halo 1. They fly away from a big battle, like halo 1, they find a forerunner construct, like halo 1, they battle the covenant for dominion of the construct, like halo 1, the forerunner construct is some kind of weapon, like halo 1, they meet the flood at blows op the whole thing, like halo 1.

    RTS games are supposed to be about the big scale battles.

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