Friday, 10 February 2017

Halo Wars - Retrospective Review

Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360 

Regardless of what you made of 2009’s Halo Wars, you can’t deny that Ensemble Studios had one hell of a challenge on their hands. Designing a real-time strategy game, from the ground up, to specifically work with controller inputs is a challenge that I really do not envy.

Of course, console based RTS games had been done before...and all had been largely mediocre. There was the forgettable Red Alert 3 port for 360 and PS3 and go even further back and you get the largely maligned (I can’t confirm whether or not it’s bad, I haven’t ever played it) Stormrise that Sega put out. On the PS2 and Xbox there was Aliens Vs Predator: Extinction, a largely predictable collection of RTS mechanics foisted onto a licensed franchise, saved only by the pretty ingenious Alien faction, which frankly deserved its entire own game to nurture and develop its unique gameplay.

There have, of course, been slightly more unusual attempts at console-based real-time strategy games in the past. Brutal Legend was a mish-mash of different influences, but it did at least attempt, in its own inimitable way, to provide a flavour of real-time strategy along with a host of other mechanics. The flip-side of this was Tom Clancy’s Endwar; a typical strategy game that instead experimented with player inputs, rather than game mechanics, with the game’s gimmick being that orders were delivered to troops through a microphone headset.

In many respects the original Halo had the exact same challenges for the first-person shooter. Mechanically, it moulded the otherwise twitch-oriented shooter, honed from years of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, into a slower-paced, more methodical approach that better accounted for the naturally slower movement of playing with a controller.

Whilst Halo succeeded, Halo Wars always seems like it’s trapped between a rock and a hard place. There’s nothing especially unique or original about Halo Wars, aside from perhaps the Halo branding, if that’s your thing. Ensemble Studios solution to the awkwardness of their input device was simply shave off anything that wasn’t at all mandatory.

That perhaps explains a lot of the game’s design decisions. A lot of Halo Wars' strategic elements are almost entirely front-loaded. Base building is all but automated, (no use having players awkwardly twitch around trying to stick down buildings with the analogue stick) and instead has buildings simply spring up from out of your base camps.

This concept extends to resources and troop deployment. Resources are essentially just a ticking timer rather than an actual resource that you slowly acquire. You could say the same for just about any RTS resource system, but with Halo Wars it’s more literal. Units don’t collect anything from the map, be it gems, food or fuel, instead you simply have an icons tick up saying you’re gathering more things to spend.

This idea of “front-loaded” strategy (and I have no other accurate way to describe it), can also be seen in the game’s combat. Since micro-managing troops isn’t especially practical, Ensemble Studios choose to double down on the rock-paper-scissors of the core unit selection. As a general rule of thumb, marines beat aerial units, ground vehicles beat marines and air vehicles beat ground vehicles. That’s an oversimplification of course, the game’s combat is a little more complex than that, but as a basic idea of how the game works it’s a relatively accurate description.

The faction choices operate on similar distinction. There’s only two armies to play as in Halo Wars, the humans and the Covenant.  I suspect the decision to split some of the unique units between the three different leaders that each faction has was to give the gameplay a little more depth and variety, despite only having two playable sides to choose from.

And that’s always bugged me about Halo Wars; its faction choices. For starters it has a perfectly good Covenant army that’s left buried away in the multi-player and never experimented with in the solo campaign. Likewise, it has a thematically unique third faction in the Flood that go to complete waste by just being a repetitive hostile force to both other armies, rather than a playable force in their own right. Halo Wars is repetitive and, frankly, rather shallow, adding a third force would have helped pad out the game’s longevity at the very least.

Again, this plays into the idea that a lot of the challenge and depth in Halo Wars are derived from the metagame aspect of its play, rather than its simplistic core mechanics; the focus is on how two different sides go up against each other, and how you respond to the challenges that your opponent’s army poses. In a genre that invented the concept of the “build order” Halo Wars is perhaps the epitome of that idea; its entire gameplay is built around one, since, aside from the decisions that come with establishing what you’re going to build/research first, so much of the actual game itself is automated.

Halo Wars campaign is, lets be honest, pretty underwhelming, and clearly not where the majority of the focus was placed. A lot of this has to do with the aforementioned macro-focus of the game’s combat. Since so much of the game’s strategy comes from planning and responding to opponents strategies and tactics, how do you translate that into the single player campaign against an AI?

The answer can’t, to be perfectly honest, and so the bulk of Halo Wars campaign is an exercise in aping what the original Halo games did. There’s Covenant, you kill them, you find a McGuffin, you kill some more, then the Flood turn up, and you fight them, and then the Covenant and the Flood turn up at the same time, and you fight both of them.

It’s clear about halfway through the game’s single player campaign that Ensemble were desperately running out of ideas. Yet, playing the single player, which is almost never the focus in most real-time strategy titles, is interesting because it highlights so much of how Halo Wars works, and also how it doesn’t.

Take one of the later levels that has you defending your ship from swathes of Flood that keep latching on to it. There’s very little reason to control your troops in Halo Wars, at least minutely in terms of micro-management, and that’s obviously because the developers were conscious of just how awkward it can be to direct tiny units on a control pad rather than a keyboard and mouse.

Instead, the focus is on spawning the right units to respond to whatever is coming to attack you. Respond and spawn is the tactic that the game wants you to operate on. Other levels work in a similar fashion, locking the player down and instead trying to emphasize reacting to what’s attacking you (rather than navigating troops around the map, which does happen now and again, but is much less frequent).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, Halo Wars is a game that’s acutely aware of its (significant) flaws and so tries its hardest to mitigate them by having you focus on other things. The single player campaign of the game is utterly forgettable but is also fascinating in many respects because it gets you to focus on how these mechanics all gel together.

The irony with Halo Wars is that, were it released for PC years ago, rather than initially being a 360 exclusive, I don’t think there would have been a lot to say about it. It’s a relatively shallow strategy game that doesn’t really do anything that other games in the genre haven’t already done better. Part of the reason for that is the hardware that it’s shackled to, and yet, that’s also what makes it so unique.

Halo Wars is perhaps the pinnacle of a console based RTS, and that’s really saying something when it’s still mediocre and repetitive. Had it not got the Halo branding wrapped around it, I doubt people would give it it too much attention when it was up against the likes of Dawn of War 2 and Starcraft 2.

What Ensemble Studios did though was in some ways commendable. They took a genre that doesn’t work on a controller and tried their hardest to make you forget about the limitations of the pad you were using. When Halo Wars 2 drops I’ll be playing it on Xbox One, not because it’ll necessarily be better on a pad (it almost certainly won’t) but because I’ll be interested to see just how long the game can make me forget I’m not wielding a keyboard and mouse.


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