* Awarded 'Best Strategy Game' 2009

The real-time strategy experts at Ensemble Studios enter the Halo universe creating an exclusive experience for the Xbox 360. This new perspective on the popular Halo franchise gives gamers the chance to lead the UNSC into the war against the Covenant before the events of the first Halo game. Prepare to board the Spirit of Fire as you command hundreds of soldiers to victory.

Halo Wars marks the first time an developer outside of Bungie Studios has handled the Halo property. It's not surprising that Microsoft only the best for their flagship series, so they have entrusted the real-time strategy guru’s over at
Ensemble Studios (Age of Mythology). Unfortunately for Ensemble Halo Wars is their last game under the Ensemble name as the studio has closed. One thing is apparent, Ensemble has made some great games and they are going with a bang with the knock-out showing that is Halo Wars (kudos 14 years of great games). On their way out Ensemble has done more then make a great strategy game they have proved that the Halo brand can be adapted to other genres besides shooters, and that Halo can survive without the man of the hour, Master Chief. That is an achievement on its own.

Rewinding the Halo timeline, Halo Wars takes place 20 years before Bungie Studio’s first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Even with time-line altered Halo Wars will seem very familiar as you continue Earth’s battle against the alien life forms known as the Covenant.  The storyline in the game centers around the UNSC Spirit of Fire and its three crew members Captain James Cutter, Professor Ellen Anders and Sergeant John Forge as they do battle with the Covenant forces. The campaign is the first aspect you will likely focus on and can enjoy once you blaze through the basic training tutorial. In total Halo Wars features 15 missions that are spread across a number of worlds in the Halo universe.

Online you can control the UNSC or the Covenant forces with three leaders aside to add some extra strategy and oomph to the game. The leaders play a big role, as do the difference in units each side can produce. Like any well-balanced strategy game there are plus sides to both races. The UNSC leaders have perks that can benefit you base, or help you create super units, along wit the ability to call out large bombing orders or heal your team on the go. On the other side the Covenant three appear on the battlefield as playable characters with their own unique abilities. These power characters have powerful energy at their disposal that can quickly change the outcome of the battle. This is first shown in the advance tutorial where you get to take the Prophet of Regret for a spin with his Cleansing Beam cutting through metal and flesh like a hot knife in butter.

At first the humans will seem like the most natural fit due to the time you spend in the main campaign, but both sides are worth exportation online. Actually, Halo Wars seems very balanced with both sides having their strong points in long and short skirmishes.  I’m not an expert online, actually far from it, however in my experience I liked the UNSC overall, but the Covenant seem stronger in the early stages to take the lead. The great thing about Halo Wars is that you can explore both sides and have two unique experiences that make every battle a unique experience filled with new strategies to play around with. The multi-player can be a lot more interesting when you get Covenant forces vs. other Covenant forces, rather than the standard UNSC vs. Covenant. The ability to mix and match teams, and races makes the online experience a lot more dynamic. It also expands the life of the game which will no doubt be a popular destination online.

The gameplay can be boiled down to an experience similar to Command & Conquer with other elements added to the mix. The game pace is set up to be a little quicker than the average real time strategy will fast unit builds and simplified resource gathering. For the back end all you need to worry about is supply units (what you use to build), technology (upgrading) and population which limits the amount of troops you can use. Supply will be the main gauge you will watch in the game. Supply points automatically come in when you build a supply station and for a small bonus this material can be gathered occasionally on each map. The simple things in the game cost minimal points like a 100 points for a Marine up to more involved units like the massive Scarab for 3000. The tech level will help you create unit upgrades along with opening up new building options. It is important to upgrade your tech if you in the battle for the long hall. Instead of cluttering you mind with lots of units Ensemble handles upgrades like new units with a substantial number of improvements that increasing the efficiency of every unit. Lastly, your population is kept rather low with a cap of 40 on the UNSC and 50 for the Covenant. This keeps the game tightly close suiting in better for fast action for the console gamer.

Expanding on units you will see all the Halo favourites you have come to love over the years. You’ll see all the familiars, Wraiths, Banshees, Warthogs, Ghosts etc... Master Chief is not present in the game, however you won't miss him given you will have access to a whole boat load of Spartans. Watching the Spartans battle it out in big numbers is extremely satisfying to control if you have playing through the original Halo trilogy. Ensemble didn’t take too many liberties in respect to creating new Halo elements, or units, however along side the Spartans and familiar units you can also create a few new units that are fit perfectly into the Halo universe. These inclusions like the UNSC Wolverine (anti-air) or the Covenant Locust aren't major players, but they add a little more depth to the almost limitless Halo universe.

The action in Halo Wars will likely have you on the edge of your seat as you blast your way through the 15 levels in the campaign mode. The actual strategies will come down to how well you handle micromanagement duties under pressure. The action preparation before battle usually happens in the midst of a large battle. The first five levels take it easy on the game and then start to pick up speed after that. It’s always good to keep in mind each unit effectiveness in battle. Like all real-time strategy games a rock-paper-scissors mechanic runs underneath the system. The only major downside that I found in Halo Wars was the ability to hot swap between units. Halo Wars has a system in place by using the D-Pad, however I didn’t find it nearly as effect as playing a RTS on the PC. Obviously it wasn’t a surprise that a few of the controls would have to be remapped for the Xbox 360 and Ensemble did a marvellous job connecting the pieces the best they could.

The artificial intelligence put into motion in Halo Wars is quite capable and seems to play fair. For this real-time strategist I played on normal difficulty and I found the game fairly challenging. For the average gamer, Normal should be enough for a good fun challenge, and if you feel more adventurous Halo Wars follows the traditional Halo levels of difficulty (Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary). Halo Wars also has an automatic setting that lets the A. I. adjust to how you’re playing. If skirmishes are close battles, or all out slaughters, the A. I. will adjust to your playing style and make the appropriate changes. This means legendary gamers can expect even more of a challenge as the A. I. adapts to your expert ways.

All together Halo Wars is a fairly solid real-time strategy game, maybe the best one we have seen to date for the console. The only real short coming in Halo Wars is in its quantity of the games multiplayer modes. Halo Wars straight forward Regular and Deathmatch modes give enough action for any gamer to get into for a while, but it would have been nice to see some alternative methods of play. This doesn’t discredit the world done in the multiplayer arena. It is fast, lag-free with lots of support with leader boards. Halo Wars stands up to the high standards of online connectivity of a Microsoft published title.

Lastly, I will examine the graphics and sound in Halo Wars which stay faithful to the Halo brand. Ensemble did an amazing job mimicking Bungie’s interfaces style and presentation. The game maps are varied and highly detailed with lots of added touches that only expand the larger than life role Halo Wars portrays. The units aren’t as closely polished as some of the later PC real-time strategy titles, but this isn’t a real concern in Halo Wars. The game looks great and more importantly it runs without a flaw. Adding more units into huge battles doesn’t phase the engine as Halo Wars chugs along like its running Pac-Man.

Included in the mimicking is excellent music that amazingly is on par with the excellent moods set in the original Halo franchise. Each map seems to take on a different audio range that matches the dynamics in game. Given the nature of a genre, you are not going to focus on the music when you have to manage so much on the screen, however if you take a break and re-tune you ears, a nice composition of orchestrated music is pumping behind the action. Halo Wars also features quality voice-over work from the cinematic scenes in the game. The voices match their created imagine in the screen and add an unexpected touch to the game I wasn’t expecting. Halo Wars triumphantly rocks, producing strong package.

Ensemble Studios needs a round of applause for creating an amazing recreation of the Halo universe into a real-time strategy game. More than taking the Chief out of Halo, Ensemble creates an interesting storyline that perfectly matches up with the streamlined console strategy mechanics. More importantly Halo Wars shows us that the Halo universe is bigger than the ground work laid by Bungie Studios and Halo formula can work outside of being “just a shooter”.

It would be hard to make a more perfect Halo RTS and it’s a shame that Ensemble won’t be able to continue this venture in the future. Halo Wars only has a few minor issues that are easily overlooked and expected. Halo Wars easily sweeps you up in the action even if you’re not a huge fan of real-time strategy titles. There is a lot to love here, and fans of Halo and all real-time strategy games should check out this amazing effort from Ensemble Studios as they replant their roots in the gaming community.

Reviewed by Downtown Jimmy | 03.09.09

  • Great job Mimicking the Halo Universe style and feel
  • Excellent gameplay, including A.I., and unit balancing
  • Simplified controls and content for the console gamer
  • Lag-free online and offline play
  • Expands on the Halo Universe with another great chapter
  • Perfect music score with solid visuals
  • Lots of variety in the maps and ways to play
  • Streamlined controls can’t match the PCs versatility
  • Large battle micromanagement is tough to manage
  • More online modes would have been nice
  • RTS veterans will want more depth

Similar Games: Halo: ODST (9.0) | Halo 3 (9.5) | Halo: Reach (9.8) | Halo 4 (9.8) | Halo 2 (10)

Halo Wars

Microsoft Game Studios

Ensemble Studios

Real-Time Strategy

US Release
February '09


Xbox 360

Player 1
Sys-Lnk 2-6
Online MP 2-6
Co-op Play
HDTV 1080p
D/L Content