The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios
Bungie and Microsoft seemed to know that Halo was going to be a big thing almost immediately so they got to work right away branching the franchise out into different media with books, comics, and extremely elaborate marketing campaigns, but they never ventured into spin-off territory until this game; eight years after the first Halo was released. Halo Wars is a Real Time Strategy game developed by Ensemble Studios; the big daddy of the genre who made the Age of Empires series which also known as THE BEST REAL TIME STRATEGY SERIES OF ALL TIME! Yes, even better than YOUR games, Blizzard! Sadly this is also the LAST game that Ensemble Studios made as Microsoft shut the company down as this game was nearing its completion and the reasons why are still a bit on the hazy side. Co-founder Bruce Shelly said in 2009 that the company was being poorly managed and relying on crunch while still failing to hit targets, though another co-founder, Tony Goodman, puts it more on Microsoft shoulders. In an interview he gave for the book Gamers at Work (released in 2012), he talks about how Microsoft cancelled the Halo MMO project they were working on at the same time as Halo Wars and that they fully intended to close the studio soon after which is KIND of on Ensemble’s shoulders if you ask me as they hadn’t even gotten approval from Microsoft and diverting resources away from the Halo Wars team to do it, but then again Bungie was being a bit cagey and had final say on ANY story decision so it wasn’t exactly the “fun” project to be working on at the time. Regardless, Microsoft would end up continuing both the Age of Empires and Halo Wars franchises without Ensemble studios, and we’ll make our way to Halo Wars 2 eventually but for now we’re here to talk about this game and what it meant for the Halo franchise as well as the comic book that was released alongside it! Let’s get started!
Halo Wars – 2009
Developed by Ensemble Studios
We’ll start with the narrative and cinematics which honestly, Halo Wars plays out more like a Saturday Morning cartoon compared to the much more serious tone of the main games. The character models look blockier and more exaggerated, the story itself is pretty broad, and they rely much more on over the top dramatics from all the characters. I actually like this aesthetic and I wish that Halo would take itself less seriously more often (*cough* Odd One Out *cough*), but the one thing about the new presentation that hits a sour note for me is the voice acting on the Elites. I mean look, when you get Keith David for the previous games, ANYTHING else is going to feel a bit like a stepdown, but they just sound bad in a way that reminds me of… well, a Saturday morning cartoon! Fair play I suppose, but it’s no less jarring to hear them whenever they show up in the cut scenes.
In any case, the story more or less follows the same beats of the usual HALO STORY; a lot of fighting between The Covenant and humans, The Covenant are looking for Forerunner artifacts that the humans can mysteriously activate, and the Flood show up at some point because of course they do. Nothing too complex here; just another side of the war effort we didn’t see in the games and they even manage to throw in a few Spartans for good measure. Your UNSC characters are Sargent Forge, Professor Anders, Captain Cutter, and the AI Serina who has her sass subroutines working at maximum efficiency. After saving a colony from an invading Covenant force they find the previously mentioned Forerunner artifact and it’s up to these characters (as well as hundreds of marines, cars, and flying machines) to stop The Covenant from whatever their plans are and more than likely destroy whatever it is they have found because it’s TOO POWERFUL TO USE RESPONSIBLY or something like that. Like I said, Saturday morning cartoon, but it more than gets the job done as far as stringing together a series of levels and is JUST interesting enough that you’ll want to see what happens in the next cut scene.
Gameplay wise, it’s a mostly endearing mixed bag. Now I didn’t play the console version so I don’t know how this game plays with a standard Xbox 360 controller, but on PC it feels… compromised a bit. It definitely seems like something that was reverse engineered from a completely different control scheme instead of something more naturally suited for mouse and keyboard (trying to use the orbital laser is almost a joke), but even with those issues I’d be hard pressed to see how you’d play this without a mouse. Looking at the control scheme for the controller it looks like they’ve got the necessary shortcuts to make it playable (the Select Local Units button probably gets pressed more than anything else) but for a game about strategy and ESPECIALLY with some of the levels in this campaign, it doesn’t look like it has the finesse necessary to excel where even the half-baked keyboard controls I was using managed to do the job.
Now I wouldn’t exactly call myself an aficionado of the genre as I mostly stuck with the Age of Empires games (and even then probably didn’t play them well), but I found the game to be rather enjoyable in its moment to moment visceral carnage while ultimately lacking when its scope exceeds its grasp. You can find all sorts of quotes from Ensemble developers about trying to marry the worlds of console gaming with a very PC specific genre and that uneasy alliance is apparent here. In some cases I think they found some brilliantly streamlined solutions as the base mechanic feels particularly inspired. Instead of having sprawling village with individual buildings dotting the landscape, you have a base from which various facilities are branched off of; your barracks for troops, your garage for vehicles, and your developmental buildings for stuff like resources gathering and this game’s equivalent of Age progression. Putting everything in one place is great for this combat heavy gameplay and keeps the action moving by cutting down on city planning minutia; though there are aspects of the minutia that I miss, even as someone who never got into the nitty gritty min/maxing stuff in these kind of games. You do get to build mobile unit training vehicles, but other that there’s no real way to expand your territory organically. No walls you can build, no turrets outside of designated areas on your base, and your bases themselves can only be built in very specific locations. This does create a resource that you end up fighting your opponent over (destroy an enemy base so you can build a new one where it stood and encroach further into their territory), but it feels a bit too static and the limitations here along with its frankly underdeveloped skill tree make the later stages of longer battles feel rather tedious. Perhaps I’m just too defensive of a player, but most of my matches that DIDN’T end with me getting overrun within ten minutes ended when I maxed out my unit capacity and just steamrolled my tanks and upgraded troops through the enemy territory at about the thirty minute mark, and even with the upgraded tech it can still take a good minute to raze a base to the ground so I might as well start reading a newspaper by that point.
Thankfully the campaign manages to come up with some creative scenarios to flesh out the mechanics and give each mission its own unique flavor. Some of them were a bit convoluted like Scarab and Cleansing, and I STILL see red whenever I think of Arcadia City (that transport ship blew up within two minutes of the match ending on THREE separate occasions!), but it’s a good mix of ideas and the campaign is JUST long enough to not overstay its welcome. It’s kind of a messy RTS, but still one I ended up having a lot of fun with and it’s kind of refreshing to see one that relaxes a bit on the minutia to make more room for blowing stuff up!
The reviews I was able to find don’t deviate much from my own thoughts about the game, though I was generally more kind to the story than most. Yeah it’s kind of corny and all, but I got sucked into it in a way that few of the much more serious books were able to, though perhaps that’s the problem right there. I’ve seen mediocrity in the Halo cannon, and while Halo Wars doesn’t have an Oscar caliber script it’s certainly a breath of fresh air after go through a bunch of those REALLY dour novels. I also had the good fortune to play the PC version so I got the advantage of updated graphics and mouse/keyboard support, but even in the more negative reviews of this game they do commend Ensemble for getting the darn thing to actually FUNCTION on a console which is a feat that hadn’t really been achieved for console RTS ganes at that point and doesn’t seem to be something that has succeeded since except perhaps the Civilization games if you would count those. Something that was consistently praised in all the reviews I read was the attention to detail and fan service, and while I won’t go so far as to say that NO ONE at Ensemble fit this description, it is a bit funny the studio seemingly wanted NOTHING to do with the game and yet managed to make something that fit right alongside the rest of the franchise. It even takes into account aspects of the Halo universe that wasn’t even MENTIONED in the original trilogy such as the planet Harvest, and they even included a Halo timeline which you’d think Bungie would have included themselves for one of their games! Halo Wars has gotten a bit of a reputation for being a disaster for the company that made which you can debate either side of for eternity, but whatever you think of that it didn’t end up coming across in the finished product as it was certainly a flawed game given the genre they were trying to get to work on a console, but one that seemed to have been made with the same love and dedication that not only made Ensemble the titan of the genre it was but is part of what made the Bungie Halo games successful in the first place. Even if there were tensions between the studios and issues with Microsoft, it seems like it was ultimately a bad idea for them to ax the studio as so much of their work has endured with not only Halo Wars eventually getting a sequel and a definitive edition but Age of Empires is getting its own resurgence with the HD rereleases and the announcement of Age of Empires IV. Then again, if Microsoft had let them chug along despite the issues that became apparent during this game’s development, we could have had another Rare on our hands which is now a shell of its former self despite the lofty heights they started from. In any case, Halo Wars got the credit it was due at the time it came out and trying it out for the first time here, I think it definitely holds up as a fun RTS that works on its own very unique terms and is one of the best Halo related things I’ve experienced in this retrospective so far!
Halo Wars: Genesis (Comic Book) – 2009
Eric Nylund, Graeme Devine, and Phil Noto
Included with the Limited Collector’s edition of Halo Wars (along with some trading cards, a patch, and some in game goodies) was a forty page prequel comic book. It’s actually not THAT hard to find physical copies of this despite never being released outside the Collector’s Edition, but Microsoft eventually posted it online for free so all it’ll take is a good search to find it. Now I was expecting a pretty straightforward prequel to the game which… well it IS, but it ALSO manages to be the best comic I’ve read so far in this series. Now sure we’re still pretty early into this retrospective and there are A LOT more comics to get through, but I found the narrative pretty engaging and it also fills in a lot of the details that only just started getting filled in Nylund’s short story The Impossible Life and The Possible Death of Preston J Cole back in Halo Evolutions. It’s not INCREDIBLY in depth as the pre-war stuff only covers about a third of the comic, but it definitely gets across the desperation of the UNSC and just how much catching up there was to do against this new foe. That, and we get perhaps the most blatantly EVIL depiction of ONI yet with them hanging out in the darkest smokiest room imaginable!
From there we jump ahead quite a few years after where Earth is AT BEST in a stalemate with The Covenant and get into the backstories of the three human characters from the game. Forge and Cutter are already on The Spirit of Fire which is mostly on hand to serve as a resupply vessel but gets roped into open combat like every other ship in the fleet, and Anders is brought on board to study The Covenant who are on Harvest and are still looking for something so she needs to figure out what it is. The comic even go so far as to throw a few pages to the backstory of the Arbiter that was in the game as Anders somehow manages to figure it out based on her research. I’m not exactly sure how she was able to pull that off, but I’m always here for stories about the Elites; especially when it involves a freaking PRISON riot!
A lot of pack-in fluff that goes along with special editions are ultimately disposable, but they really went all out here and gave us some decent backstory not just for this game but for the Halo universe itself. As much as I’ve criticized Eric Nylund in the past, he’s somehow managed to do the best with the comic book medium so far for this franchise; even more so than guys like Brian Michael Bendis!
By the time I finished the Halo Wars campaign, I was actually pretty bummed; not because it was a frustrating experience (which it often was), but because I grew to appreciate a lot of what the game was doing and that I still felt like playing it even though I have to move onto something else. In this case, that something else is the next season of Red vs Blue, so if nothing else I’ll hopefully be cheered up a bit with a few laughs from our favorite crew of irreverent soldiers! Join me next time as we look at Red vs Blue: Recreation as well as a few of the other things they released around that time!
Next: Coming Soon!!
Previous: Halo Evolutions (Part 2)