Everything is in place. The bases are built. The units are trained. Your opponent is in sight. You know you can take them down. It’s time to enact the plan you’ve had sitting in your head for twenty minutes now. The button is pushed; hell is about to break loose. And all of a sudden – nothing. The supplies that were coming in at an alarming rate a second ago are now halted. The units traveling across the war-torn land are frozen in place. Not again, you think. Your wish is not granted. You are disconnected.
Lagging out of a game is no new issue, but it’s surprisingly still an issue. The reliability of consoles are a large part of why I haven’t ever been much of a fan of the ever-finicky field of PC gaming, but some of the PC’s problems still occasionally find their way over to the consoles. Just when I thought I was safe from awful connections and sub-par online servers, I get disconnected from a game on my Xbox 360.
And what a game I get disconnected from. Anyone who has played Halo Wars or any real-time strategy game like it knows how that genre works. You are tasked with building an army to take down your opponents. At the onset of the game, you are given a small number of supplies, which acts as currency to build and upgrade units for your military. The first part of any match in Halo Wars involves building up your forces. Once everything is sufficient, you lead your army into battle.
A game of Halo Wars is a serious time investment. When you play against an evenly matched opponent (or group of opponents), it’s not unrealistic to expect a single match to last over an hour. But what a satisfying hour it can be – by trading blows with your enemy, you learn what strategies they are using and you alter your own approach to counter theirs. You look at the ways you can spend your supplies, make what seems to be the best purchase,s and smile as your units become more and more powerful right before your eyes. Finally the armies meet in a glorious display of explosions, lasers, and utter destruction.
But what happens when you spend half of your match building up for the big fight, but the big fight never comes? What do you do when you anticipate the payoff of the better part of your hour, but that satisfaction never comes? When all the movement onscreen freezes and you freeze in fear along with it, do you feel like you’ve been using your precious free time wisely?
It’s a true shame that a game as fun as Halo Wars can be absolutely ruined by something like bad servers disconnecting players. After all the time and money they spent making the game, the folks over at Ensemble Studios are left with a broken product simply because they couldn’t build a more reliable way to play online. Of course there’s always the line of thought, “Maybe it’s me that’s the problem! Maybe I’m the one with the bad connection!” And then you think back to the other games you were playing online for hours the other day, and you realize that’s not the case at all.
Curiously, I still want to return to Halo Wars after every slap in the face it gives me. I think, “Oh, this time it’ll work. It doesn’t disconnect every time, so maybe now it will run perfectly!” Twenty minutes later, the same thought returns to me. Eighteen minutes later, I’m thinking the same thing yet again. Half an hour later, I shut the game off.
There’s a lot to expect from Halo Wars. Not only does it need to get thousands upon thousands of gramers everywhere (yes, that’s spelled with an R – listen to our first podcast if you don’t know what I’m talking about) interested in an RTS, but it also has to somehow control nicely – something that hasn’t been done yet on a console RTS. Based on my time with the recently-released demo, I think Halo Wars is well on its way to accomplishing both goals.
Halo Wars is not what a lot of people are going to expect. Instead of shooting enemies through the visor of Master Chief, players lead entire armies into battle. You never directly control anybody, but instead give orders from above. Also, there are bases to manage. At these bases, you can produce troops, vehicles, and upgrades, as well as the energy needed to create those things. The beginning of every match requires some time at your base, amassing an army and a source of supplies you’ll need when things get tough. In short, this game requires thinking, and that isn’t something that will appeal to every fan of the “shoot now, ask questions later” gameplay that got the Halo series popular in the first place.
I, however, rather enjoyed this new take on the Halo universe. When you’ve got a fully-functional base mass-producing troops and supplies at an alarming rate, it’s pretty satisfying. After all of that is taken care of, you’re ready to take on the opposing army. In the demo’s two campaign levels, I was always fighting the Covenant (an evil alien race obsessed with the color purple, for all those who don’t know). Playing as the UNSC (aka humans) was fine, but I was enjoying the game the most when I played as the Covenant in the Skirmish mode, where you can play quick, individual matches with an opponent.
Story is big in this campaign. Ensemble Studios (not Bungie) has created a sizable amount of cutscenes to present the science-fiction story. I’m sure there were scores of Halo nuts all over who were drooling the whole time they watched them, but I, who’s knowledge of the Halo universe is limited to what happened in the third game, didn’t care at all. I was actually rather annoyed and just wanted to skip through them. Nothing real big is going on story-wise that I could detect. “Oh no! A Covenant base! We have to go blow it up!”
When the gameplay is started up, things suddenly improve. I haven’t played very many RTS games, but Halo Wars was very easy to learn how to play. You can select all your troops with the right bumper (or individual ones with A), tell them where to go with X, and have them attack by pointing at an enemy and pressing either X or Y. The Y attack is stronger, and involves either running enemies over with your Warthog, or having your troops throw grenades, among other things. After a while, I began to see some setbacks of using Y – for my first example, Warthogs are damaged when they ram into things or run people over, and infantry units can only use grenades every so often.
Those are the basic controls… really just point and click. The D-pad can call in special attacks, such as a giant warship that drops bombs on enemies, or if you’re the Covenant, a giant beam of energy that devastates all it touches. Actually, I think your D-pad special depends on what commander you’re using… something that can be selected in the final game.
If there are any drawbacks, it’s that maybe there is too much waiting at the beginning and the camera moves a little too fast. The environments are nice, but the camera zooms through them at a high rate, which doesn’t make for the smoothest view. The cutscenes are animated nicely, but none of the graphics are beyond what was seen in Halo 3.
I don’t know if this is the type of game I’ll be playing as much as Halo 3, but Halo Wars has definitely grabbed my interest. The gameplay is fun, it does a great job of teaching you how to play, and it controls better than any other RTS demos I’ve played on the Xbox 360. Will this be my gateway into RTS games? It might very well be.