Halo Wars Impressions: Rock, Paper, Warthog

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There's an interesting intel wrinkle during skirmishes that's automated as opposed to strategic. No technology involved, i.e. no radar dishes or satellite uplinks. Instead, an "A.I. Advisor" you can toggle on or off occasionally chimes in to warn you where the enemy's most likely to assault, and what they're bringing to the party.

If you speak RTS, you'll want to disable it, but it's probably there to give players with less experience in the genre a leg up, and there's definitely a casual angle here.

Speaking of, computer RTS wonks like to sermonize that your left hand belongs on the keyboard. That's fine, but they're called hotkeys for a reason. Some folks prefer to play using the mouse alone. I'm one of them.

Still, pair both types off for 1v1 competition, and the keyboard commanders tend to dominate.

Console real-time strategy games, by contrast, are intrinsically equalizing. Everyone playing Halo Wars on an Xbox 360 has to work with the same number of buttons. Winning at a console RTS has to be about effective strategy, not QWERTY shortcuts.

Speaking of strategy, building fast and quick-assaulting without upgrading or securing additional strongpoints seems like a great way to lose in Halo Wars. Maps have multiple locations for bases, pre-located sentry towers you have to fight for, and supplementary resource generators you'll need to grab as quickly as possible, then guard while seesawing between flash points.

Two minor criticisms:

1. Camera rotation needs an inversion option. As it is, the screen rotates around a central axis in the direction you push, or counterclockwise. I prefer clockwise rotation around units, or what I think of as "orbital" camera motion. Unfortunately there's no option to swap this in the setup control screens.

2. The left trigger feels wasted. Holding it down doubles your scroll speed, except that the default scroll velocity's generally speedy enough. Use fast scroll and you'll simply overshoot targets. Given the d-pad's options to move instantly between units and/or back to your base, the left trigger could have been used for something better...say pinpointing your leader, or managing a special mixed-unit squad of your own creation. [Update: Okay, I'm back from a few larger campaign maps, and I'm rethinking my position on this one.]

Otherwise, so far so good. I've yet to crack the campaign or skirmish from the Covenant perspective. The centralized, layered base building angle's the same for the latter faction, but the technologies and special powers are completely different.

I predict the sticking point won't be whether Ensemble's created an RTS that finally works on a console controls-wise, but whether some of the dumbing down to achieve the latter makes the gameplay too simple. The controls feel properly streamlined and the game certainly has that audio-visual Halo vibe, but it's hard to say whether the basic factional mechanics are going to be varied enough to give multiplayer the iterative legs RTS enthusiasts expect.

Not-yet-final verdict: It's a shame about Ensemble's untimely shuttering, but Halo Wars looks like they'll be wrapping up on a solid note.

Matt Peckham can't beat you with one hand tied behind his back, but he'll try just the same. You can follow his dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.

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