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Critical Reception: Microsoft/Ensemble Studios' Halo Wars

This week's Critical Reception examines reactions to Ensemble Studios' swansong, Xbox 360 RTS Halo Wars, which largely positive reviews describe as "a genuinely fun experience."

Danny Cowan, Blogger

March 4, 2009

5 Min Read

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Ensemble Studios' real-time strategy Halo spinoff title Halo Wars, which reviews describe as "a genuinely fun experience." Halo Wars currently earns a score of 82 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. GameSpy's Allen Rausch rates Halo Wars at 4.5 out of 5 stars, likening its simplified RTS gameplay to the original Halo's skillful console adaptation of first-person shooter mechanics. "Halo itself, while very good, wasn't an especially deep or complex shooter even by the standards of the time," Rausch explains. "What it was was an FPS... on a console... that worked." "And that's the late Ensemble Studios' greatest triumph with Halo Wars," Rausch continues. "It's not the deepest or most complex real-time strategy game around. It's just an RTS... on a console... and it works." Rausch elaborates on what makes Halo Wars such a console-friendly experience: "There are two key innovations that make Halo Wars really work as a console RTS. The first is a simple and elegant control scheme that at last kills the ever-present bugaboo that's always bedeviled the console RTS. Halo Wars uses the flywheel selection method for base construction, tech upgrades and unit production." "The second innovation isn't what the developers put in the game, but what they left out," Rausch explains. "Rather than try to squeeze in things that would be impossible using a control pad, Ensemble crafted an enjoyable brute-force strategic gameplay model that just works. Since micromanagement and fine unit selection are all but impossible, the game does things like restrict bases to small predefined areas on the map with huge selection zones for buildings that can be picked out quickly." The result is a streamlined experience that Rausch believes that console users will appreciate. "Halo Wars is exactly what the developers at Ensemble intended it to be: an action-oriented RTS built around console sensibilities without consideration as to whether any of it would work on a PC," he writes. "It's not something that would necessarily pull the hardcore PC RTS fan to a 360 (though they might be surprised at how much fun they'll have) but it might introduce a generation of Halo fans and console gamers to a genre they've never considered before." Nate Ralph at Wired gives Halo Wars a score of 8 out of 10. "The RTS has long been the domain of PC gaming, thanks to its depth and complexity," he begins. "With a screen full of tiny troops, bases and resources to manage, and full-scale combat that requires serious precision, how could simple game pads hope to compete with the sheer versatility of the keyboard and the accurate aiming power of the mouse?" "In spite of a few glaring faults," Ralph admits, "Halo Wars illustrates that an RTS can work on a console." Ralph believes that RTS fans in particular may find Halo Wars' controls to be too limiting. "Players familiar with first-person shooters (and how could you not be, if you're considering playing this) will feel right at home: The targeting cross hair is fixed on the center of the screen, shooter-like," he explains. "While this works fine for covering wide swaths of ground, using it to make precise selections can be frustrating, particularly when you're dealing with large groups during a hectic firefight." "With a little practice, you'll be able to quickly give large groups general orders," Ralph continues, "but I never quite escaped the feeling that I was wading about the battlefield instead of deftly commanding my armies. My relative inability to painlessly select and control individual units created battles that consisted primarily of throwing massed blobs into a firefight, and hoping I had brought the right mix of units." Otherwise, Ralph feels that Halo Wars will satisfy series fans both in terms of gameplay and in storyline. "While Halo Wars won't be relieving strategy fans of their mice and keyboards, Ensemble Studios has crafted a genuinely fun experience," he notes in conclusion. "There are drawbacks, but those new to the genre likely won't even notice them, and Halo fans won't care. Most importantly, console fans finally have a genuinely good real-time strategy experience on their gaming platform of choice." Over at Gamespot, Luke Anderson scores Halo Wars at 6.5 out of 10. "Halo Wars offers quality cinematic presentation and a simple control scheme that makes the game easy to pick up and play, but the limited amount of units, short campaign, and dearth of multiplayer modes make it ultimately feel stripped," Anderson writes. "Halo Wars is a fun playthrough for casual real-time strategy and Halo fans, but there's not enough depth to win over hardcore strategy buffs." Anderson notes that Halo Wars' presentation and graphic quality surpass expectations. "Halo Wars' believeable story is presented through some great cutscenes, with high-quality cinematics and decent voice acting," he praises. "Combined with authentic-looking units and environments, it goes a long way toward making Halo Wars look and feel like part of the series." Gamers won't have long to enjoy the storyline, however, as Anderson warns that its length clocks in at only five hours. "The storyline is slightly confusing at first but eventually pieces together to make a satisfying ending," he says, "though it's certainly not long and should take most players around five hours to play through." Anderson also describes Halo Wars' multiplayer gameplay as a limited but fun experience. "There's support for up to six players at a time via Xbox Live or system link, but the maximum number of teams is two, so in a six-player game you're forced to have two teams of three factions," he explains. "While it's fun to play as both the UNSC and Covenant, Halo Wars is desperately lacking more factions to choose from, and the Flood seems like an obvious choice." "Despite its limitations," Anderson continues, "multiplayer is fun to play, and you can help allies by sending them resources, which lets them build more than their current budget might allow." "Although Halo Wars can be rewarding and fun to play for a time, the short length of the single-player campaign and the lack of variety in the multiplayer ultimately leaves the game feeling unfinished and threadbare," Anderson concludes. "It's good while it lasts, but it will appeal more to fans of Halo and casual RTS players than anyone looking for a deeply engrossing strategy game."

About the Author(s)

Danny Cowan


Danny Cowan is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist for Gamasutra and its subsites. Previously, he has written reviews and feature articles for gaming publications including 1UP.com, GamePro, and Hardcore Gamer Magazine.

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