Halo Wars Video Game Review

February 24, 2009

Ensemble Studios’ swan song is here, dual-wielding real-time strategy and one of the biggest franchises in the industry. Hoping to score a direct hit on the 360 in a genre still reserved for, and revered by, the mouse and keyboard crowd. Halo Wars almost sounds redundant, but this brave attempt at console strategy is aiming to be anything but.

Master Chief is MIA. Instead, the campaign sets you up as Sergeant John Forge, teamed with the sassy Serina AI, Professor Anders, and Captain Cutter aboard the Spirit of Fire. Though set 20 years prior to the Halo trilogy, there’s no real effect on the continuity. The war with the covenant is in full swing, and as the plot unfolds it echoes back to the first Halo with the Elites and their Prophets desperately seeking an ultimate weapon with the UNSC hot on their tail. Work in the flood and some forerunner flourish for good measure.

With plentiful cinemas, the overarching plot feels a little clumsy, and Serina is no Cortana. The cardboard spartans can’t hold a candle to the chief. The in-game chit-chat fleshes out situations on-the-fly, but if you’ve looking for the next big revelation, it’s not here. What you will find is a safe, satisfying tale of the Halo-verse bookended by some stilted dialogue and big explosions.

The heart of the Halo is the campaign, a 15-mission, story-driven set of skirmishes. A lot of the objectives are standard fare. Expect to trump enemy bases, build your own, tackle esoteric escort missions, and try to survive as rescue approaches.

Each level has a specific achievement. It’s a nice touch that makes you look at each mission from a different perspective. Every mission is also paired with a handful of optional objectives that give points, with a large impetus on going for gold medals via repeat plays. Add in black boxes to collect on each map that unlock some Halo lore, and fiendishly-hidden skulls that open up game modifiers for an upped replay ante. 

It’s a good thing because the missions are on the short side with a focus on smaller combat bursts instead of base management and cultivating tech trees. There’s also a co-op mode that divvies your army into two colors while you and a friend tackle the opposition.


The campaign is all from the UNSC perspective, though you’ll fight the Covenant and the Flood across the universe. It’s definitely disappointing not to play the parallel story or pick up as your sworn enemy. At least the covenant is available for online and skirmish, which supports a bunch of maps, AI partners, and up to three-on-three battles. The covenant doesn’t play wildly different from UNSC but has its share of unique units, including the almighty scarab. 

Halo Wars’ missions are fast-paced and fun, but over far too quickly with small maps and low unit caps. There’s good incentive for replaying, but we would like to play as a different faction. The art of amassing an army and landing a tsunami of military brilliance on your opponent is absent from the campaign, but you’ll find yourself waging war online after the campaign is completed. Just don’t count on new content since the developer has been shuttered.


Real-time strategy has been wrestling with the consoles for years now, and for every mediocre Supreme Commander port there’s been a Battle For Middle-earth eking towards excellence. Halo Wars has no PC port and needs to make no concessions in the design process, so with the mouse missing, it uses a combination of the bumpers, triggers and the D-pad to turn you into an armchair general. The small maps and low unit counts also make it more bearable, but diminish the scope of the game.

You won’t be sending marines on patrol or queuing up multiple small strike teams, but if you want to select all your units for a blitzkrieg, or just the ones on the screen, it’s only a button press away. You can even cycle to single out your spartans for an impromptu attempt at jacking a covenant vehicle.

Resource gathering is as simple as building a structure. There aren’t any non-combative units to do the chores. Likewise, unlocking structures and advanced units comes from building little tech shops. It’s a sleek process, and anyone who fears micromanaging will be happy. On the flipside, there really aren’t that many units to play around with, and most just charge headlong into combat. Planning your rise to power is also a fairly linear affair with the reduced economic angle.

Halo Wars is guilty of betraying scale in the name of convenience. It plays well enough, and the short, tactical rushes are exhilarating. Removing some of the tedium makes the medicine go down easy, but it sacrifices some depth.

Even though it can be a bit surreal looking at tiny Lego-like warthogs mowing down even tinier grunts, Halo Wars delivers in the visual department. The poly count may not be the highest, but the animations are great. Resisting the urge to zoom in on a tiny spartan as he hijacks a covenant ship in midflight can be difficult. There is some slight chugging when all the units start to tango, but nothing to upset gameplay. The locales look great.

Sound effects give fan service, lifting the pleasant shield recharge pulse, and you’ll swear Ensemble kidnapped Marty O'Donnell and forced him to make some new tunes. Cinemas and voice acting look and sound great--only tarnished by the sometimes stolid script.

There’s fun to be had in Halo Wars. The campaign is interesting, there’s plenty of replay incentive and a strong multiplayer component. On the other hand, the campaign is short, the experience streamlined, and there’s only two factions for multiplayer. Newcomers to real-time strategy and Halo lovers will be able to get a great first taste. Genre vets, or anyone who’s played Starcraft, will be awash in déjà vu. It’s a great compromise, but a compromise nonetheless. It’s accessible, fun, and a mighty shuffle in the right direction, if a tad on the shallow side.

Source: Ensemble Studios