Jumping genres is risky business. On paper, bringing a fresh perspective to a beloved franchise sounds like a fantastic idea. Take Halo; the series’ star Master Chief has run his course, and the franchise has had tons of success with crossmedia and merchandising. Why not branch out into new territory?
Part of the problem is that jumping between art mediums and individual genres are two very different things. Watchmen works as a film adaptation of the graphic novel, but it wouldn’t make for a successful romantic comedy. Watchmen’s fanbase isn’t looking for an expansion of the love-triangle dynamics between Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Dr. Manhattan. Similarly, fans of Halo don’t want to stop shooting things – yet that is exactly what Halo Wars forces you to do.
Halo Wars is Microsoft’s attempt to jump genres, bringing the well-established and versatile Halo lore to a real-time strategy game. The story and environments couldn’t be more faithful to the series, with a plot that references the original Halo’s Pillar of Autumn, the Spartan-II program, the flood, and even events from the more recent paperback novels. The cutscenes are stunningly rendered and truly a treat for fans. But Halo has always been as much about on-your-toes combat as it’s about a sci-fi universe. This is where Halo Wars betrays its source – it’s little more than a streamlined attempt at a genre that spits in the face of fast, intimate action.
Maybe it’s a matter of execution. After all, Halo Wars doesn’t rewrite the book on PC-to-console genre rejiggering like the original Halo did. Halo made first person shooting, a PC-centric genre, a staple of this console generation. Previous consoles had their share of PC ports, but sloppy controls or a concession to mouse/keyboard compatibility always splintered an already small audience. Halo was a console FPS that didn’t feel like an embarrassing struggle – its controls didn’t feel easy, or cheap, but precise and comforting.
Halo Wars isn’t quite there yet. Controller-wrestling and a yearning for a keyboard and mouse hark back to the console FPS growing pains of Unreal Tournament and Quake on Dreamcast. From the start, the typical RTS process of selecting units and giving orders just doesn’t feel right. Eventually you can adjust, but only because the mechanics of the game are so simplistic. This introduces an even bigger issue, as Halo Wars‘ lack of depth becomes its downfall.
RTS is a genre that relies on a complicated mix of rules that lend themselves to thoughtful strategies. This is absent from Halo Wars, as nearly every mission plays the same. An overly long base building process leads to an army of familiar units that you accumulate until you can destroy the enemy. You’re essentially building a Levittown – the bases all look the same and yield the same results. This becomes maddening in later missions, when victory requires you to build 5-6 cookie-cutter bases in a row.
The excitement of a good RTS game is how it forces you to multi-task, building resources and managing units all over a large battlefield. In Halo Wars, unit selection is limited – it’s possible to manage several squads in multiple locations, but it’s far easier to simply direct one giant army from checkpoint to checkpoint. There’s rarely any penalty for this approach, and it seems like a logical streamlining of a genre that’s at home on a 100+ button controller. The problem is that it’s also punishingly boring. Only managing one big attacking force and a base leaves you with a lot of downtime.
If Halo Wars was a first-person shooter it’d be one of those early console efforts. The auto-aim is a little too high and you still can’t seem to shoot anything right. This is where the RTS genre on consoles stands right now, but just like the FPS genre, a game will come along that makes it work. Halo Wars just isn’t that game.
The title of this review is as much a facetious play on words as it is a serious question. Who is Halo Wars’ intended audience? If the answer is RTS fans, they won’t give this game a passing glance. If it’s Halo fans, the majority of them would much rather be shooting things. If it’s Halo fans that like RTS games, why market to such a small audience? If the hope was to do for RTS what Halo did for shooters, introducing an entirely new audience, then that hope doesn’t show in the final product.
— Screenshots of Halo Wars and its dashboard theme @ http://www.halowars.com/Galleries/Screenshots.aspx
— PDF of the game’s manual: HaloWars_MNL_EN.PDF