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.
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.
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.