February 6, 2009

Halo Wars Impressions

I have played it. I can now die happy.

Wow, where to begin? First, I'll start off by saying that Halo Wars (at this point at least- no final game yet, you know) does live up to everything that's been said about it. The demo contains the first two campaign missions as well as a stripped down skirmish mode. Before I detail every little thing in great detail, for those of you on the edge know this: Halo Wars is a fantastic game. Despite whatever concerns you may have about the "Halo" aspect of it, know that as a game it is fantastic in its own right. Now, on to nitpicking.

If you're like me and you've researched everything there is to know about this game already (sans plot) then when you first boot up the demo you'll want to skip the tutorials and get right to the good stuff. Oh, one last thing before I get into it: If you do plan to download the demo, know that it is 1.4 gigs in size and that it takes a ridiculously long time to download. Personally, I continued my three-year-old game of Hexic HD while I waited and achieved a new high score.

Ok, enough blabbering, let's get to the good stuff. So I booted up the campaign and I was treated to those stunningly beautiful cutscenes I've seen a million times by now except this time on my HD TV. Wow. So, I finally get into the game itself and that doesn't look half bad either (by that I mean unexpectedly good). In the first mission you're tasked with steering Forge's Warthog around the snowy terrain collecting your scattered forces so that you can reclaim Alpha Base. This mission is really just like an in-game tutorial that teaches you how to move and attack. In about five minutes, it's mission complete. This concerned me. The game has 15 missions total and if the first only takes five minutes, I'm worried that the game will turn out quite short. Hopefully, it'll be like the Halo trilogy where the levels vary in length meaning that some will be quite long. I was a little more reassured in the second level that took me about half an hour because I decided to build up my base and complete side-objectives. Still, if you run through the missions bear bones, I'm afraid the game will be over before it started.

Anyway, the second mission has you start out at Alpha Base, build up your army, and take on Covenant forces on your way to "The Relic" where you have to prevent the Covenant from blowing the palace to bits. Again, If had just enough forces to get by and went straight through, you'd be done in no time. I suppose, with an RTS game, you can't stages be terribly big or you'd never be able to transport units from one place to another without waiting five minutes in between for them to get there. I hope the later levels have "checkpoints" like secondary bases where you can regroup and build forces so you don't have to go halfway across the map to your base, thus making longer missions. My guess is yes because the whole "multiple base" thing seems big in this game. In fact, I've found it hard to get by if you only control one base. There are more buildings than you can build on one site and you often need multiple reactors or supply pads, taking up extra space that you can use for, say, vehicle depots. If you destroy an enemy base, you can claim it as your own.

At the end of the second campaign mission, you're treated to another nice cutscene and the demo abruptly ends. I want more, damn it! Apparently, what is found in that relic re-routs everyone to another UNSC colony named Arcadia. For all I know, the entire rest of game could take part away from Harvest. Classic Halo-style move there, Ensemble. Still, I can't wait to dig into the full campaign and find out more about the flood.

So after I finished the campaign levels (two out of 15- very, very, short...) I loaded up skirmish mode where you can fight one-on-one as either the UNSC or the Covenant with either Captain Cutter or the Prophet of Regret as a leader unit. Only one level is available, chasms, and it gets old after a while. The action, however, does not. I must say that this now famous control scheme is, indeed, as good as they say it is. It's beautifully designed to give you all of your most necessary commands at your fingertips with no need to dig into tunnels of menus. An interesting thing I noticed in the options menu was that you can adjust the cursor stickiness. A sticky cursor will automatically attach to nearby units when you scroll near them. Very handy, indeed. One of the main problems with RTS games on consoles was solved outright by centering the cursor in the middle of the screen. So, actually, your scrolling the screen around and not the cursor.

Another ingenious addition to the controls are the socket bases. You're base starts out as a hub with five empty "sockets" attached to it. You can select on and create a building there. Simple, easy, ingenious. It really simplifies things and gets you right into the action. The best thing about the socket bases is that your most important structures that you'll need multiples of (supply pads, reactors) can be upgraded so that one then equals two. Speaking of those, let me get into a little more detail about those all important structures. Supply pads do exactly what their name suggests, they bring in supplies via Albatross dropships from Spirit of Fire. This means that, once you build one, you'll have a steady stream of supplies always coming in adding to your supply points needed to build anything. This eliminates the need to have units go hunting for supplies so that you can build things (though there are supply crates you can optionally pick up). If you think about it, this makes sense in the context of the game in which you control the military in the future. Supply runs may work for other RTS games, but they really don't make sense in the context of Halo. Reactors basically upgrade your tech level and allow you to build more advanced units including the Vulture uber unit.

Selecting units in Halo Wars is a breeze and, although you can't necessarily regroup units into formations, all five methods are useful in the heat of battle. I found myself using all of them. Tap A to select an individual unit. Double tap A to select all units of that type. Hold down A to create a "paintbrush" and highlight the units you with to use. Hit the left bumper to select all units on screen and hit the right bumper to select all available units. Easy peesy.

Another innovation is the circle menu which pops up when you select a building. It works exactly as you'd expect. Highlight an option using the left stick and press A to select. No messy menus to dig through. It also pops up when pressing up on the D-pad to open the leader menu, which gives you access to special leader-specific abilities at a great cost to supply points. The D-pad can also be used to navigate around. Hit left and you can cycle through your bases, hit right to move to an alert location, and hit down to cycle through your armies.

I must say, Ensemble did a good job of making the Covenant play differently from the UNSC. The biggest difference is that the Covenant tech increases by researching "ages" and not by building reactors. This is good because it frees up space at your base, but it can also get costly. Each tech upgrade seems to be 1000 more supply points than the last, though the Covenant seem to have a limit. If you play as the UNSC, you can build as many reactors as you want. I can't figure out why you'd need to do so, though. Most stuff you need caps off at a tech level of 4. The other major difference between the two factions is that the Covenant have their leader unit on the ground. Once you build a temple, you gain access to your Covenant leader who can use his "god power" via the Y secondary attack button. Regret has a cleansing beam, which is basically what the Covies use to glass planets. You can imagine how powerful that is. Each Covenant hero can be upgraded and also have their secondary ability upgraded. Full strength cleansing beam is instant death. I once pimped out Regret so he had a flying chair that shot three fuel rod shots and had sentinel guards hovering around it. Pretty sweet indeed. The only other difference I see (besides the obvious- they're different factions) is that the Covenant unit cap is higher because they are typically weaker basic unit wise. If you have, for example as I did once, an army of pimped Regret, a Scarab, and seven Locust then you really don't need all those weak infantry. Getting to that point, however, was not easy.

The units are awesome, and well balanced. There are plenty in the demo and even more in the main game. I'll detail each separately in later updates, but I'll say now that my favorite is probably the Cobra. It's a great anti-(almost)everything unit. It takes out infantry well with its duel cannons and can lock down for long range, more powerful shots that are particularly effective against buildings. I also like that the game has leader-specific units and abilities. It adds variety and strategy to the game. I think it'll be especially cool in 3 vs. 3 matches where everyone has a different leader. One last, unrelated, thing- the soundtrack is spectacular. I'll have a full writeup soon, but just from the demo I can tell how well it goes with everything. It's Halo-y enough, yet holds its own. I especially enjoy it on the skirmish levels. A welcome change from Halo 3's silence. Each has a different theme, apparently. Oh, and not much sign of ambient life. Is that still in? Unless those birds flying overhead count. Here's hoping.

At the risk of rambling on too long, I'll now bring this preview to a close, though there is so much more to be said. All in all, I think Halo Wars will live up to all the hype. The controls certainly do. I know one thing for certain, though, and that thing is this: My only complaint is that this is a demo. I want more. This demo has reassured my gut feeling that this game would be a great addition to the Halo franchise. I can't wait until March 3rd!

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