Resources are low and your last line of defence just got wiped by an invading enemy push.
You were rocked to the brink of defeat but you’re not out of the game yet. With your back against the wall you readjust your strategy. With the few remaining stragglers of your once powerful armada, you make a last ditch effort to rush the enemy while they regroup. You catch them off-guard. You win.
This isn’t a scenario that plays out very often on your couch, fifteen feet away from your screen but against the odds Halo Wars pulled it off, along with many others. By simplifying the overly-complicated systems involved in many games of its genre it was able to do the impossible. Halo Wars was arguably the first great real-time strategy game for consoles. While it isn’t a direct translation of games like Star Craft, Halo Wars is a fairly accurate paraphrase of what makes them so great. Eight years later and it’s safe to say the same still rings true today with its new rerelease, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition.
Taking place twenty years prior to the original Halo: Combat Evolved, the story of Halo Wars is nothing special. Like any other Halo game, you take the role of the futuristic human military outfit, the UNSC. On board the spaceship “Spirit of Fire”, you trek across the galaxy as you take on the Covenant and, perhaps unsurprisingly, get tangled up in an even more convoluted alien mess than you began. For those with an appetite for the greater Halo mythos that is often detached from the main games, it’s a nice detour from the norm. Other than that, it’s an ultimately disappointing campaign that does more to signify Halo Wars‘ problems rather than its strengths.
Missions usually task you with escorting escaping civilians or defending various outposts. Occasionally there will be moments of genuine intrigue as they task you with more thoughtful objectives like destroying a super weapon that is persistently destroying the entire level. Yet these moments are few and far between, and not all of them are stellar. The real problem is Halo Wars‘ insistence on dragging down its own pace. As units move, most of them huddle together with each other as you select large swaths of them due to the difficulty of micromanagement. Without any ability to control your units more deliberately, it eventually makes battles turn into giant waves of units smashing into each other, the victor usually being the one with more firepower. However the actual time it takes to get there in single player missions as you juggle different objectives and points of importance drag the experience down making par-runs on missions less fun than they should be.
Not the entire game is this way, however. There are moments throughout that lean heavily on what makes Halo Wars so intriguing to begin with: its base building system. Starting with up to three, five, or eight spaces to build on you can fill your base with training facilities, science upgrade buildings, or reactors which unlock further upgrades. By limiting your placement choices to the slots available on your base it forces you to not only focus on clear paths of upgrades from the beginning but also makes you look towards base expansion as quickly as possible. It manages to take the benefits of a game like Command and Conquer and reshapes it into something easier to manage and far more approachable.
It’s Halo Wars’ ability to simplify the intricate systems of its inspirations that is both its saving grace and weakest link. On one hand, Halo Wars is smartly designed around being able to quickly and easily maneuver a battlefield with a controller. On the other, it seems lacking when compared to its contemporaries. Since this game was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive, there wasn’t much worry for the latter of those two scenarios. However, now that it finds itself in Microsoft’s “Play Anywhere” programme of games, it’s also playable on PC for the first time.
The controls transfer over as naturally as you’d expect. In theory, the PC version would be the most optimal experience. In a way, that’s true. Like any shooter, the freedom of movement offered by a mouse and keyboard is simply unrivaled by any controller setup. However, since the game wasn’t designed with the PC in mind, its flaws show through even more. It ultimately begs the question, if you’re playing Halo Wars on PC, why aren’t you just playing any number of deeper PC real-time strategy games instead?
For what its worth, Halo Wars is still a superb game. There isn’t much that can take away from that. It’s a game that understands what makes a real-time strategy game fun, bottling it up, pressurizing it, and letting it explode leaving only the most essential components remaining. It’s approachable and fun, which is something not many games of the genre can live up to. The fact that is just also happens to be a Halo game is just icing on the cake. However, this is also a rerelease. A Definitive Edition. With such a headline, you’d expect some justification for it yet, for as far as I can see, there is none.
Admittedly by being on newer, beefier hardware helps it reach a smooth 60 frames per second which, depending on who you are, may be an incredibly important factor. Despite from some noticeable framerate drops during in-engine cutscenes, the game is a marginal increase from its original release eight years ago. Yet these upgrades feel hollow, reading more like a direct port of a game rather than an updated and upgraded version. It sports the same old Halo 3 inspired menu system as the original, the same amount of multiplayer levels as the original, and the same nicely animated but clearly dated CG cutscenes from the original. All-in-all, especially with the fact that the Xbox 360 version of the game is backwards compatible, the Definitive Edition seems to be more of a marketing ploy than celebration of the original game.
Yet the diehard fan in me still enjoys the original version of this game, warts and all. To know there is the same game just with slight technical improvements available to play brings some amount of solace. Hell, I’ve often lamented how if Halo: The Master Chief Collection could replicate each game’s actual menu system I’d be in heaven. Noting otherwise here would be disingenuous of me.
Clearly if you haven’t played the original before and want to jump in, now’s the perfect time. It’s a game frozen in the time and place it was created, shaped by the trends surrounding it, forever labelled as the swan song of the team that developed it. It may not be as strong as some other legitimate classics of the genre, or even the franchise it is associated with. However, what it is, undoubtedly, is an underrated game that deserves more attention.