Scorched Earth: The Halo Wars Preview

by Meghan Watt


As an avid Halo fan from beginning to end, I’m pretty thrilled about the upcoming release of Halo Wars.  I’ve played my share of RTSs (mostly the Command & Conquer series and Warcraft III), and while I generally like them, I’m honestly not very skilled at the genre.

Seeing as I’m not the most patient person in the world, I tend to get frustrated and march my troops to their inevitable deaths simply because I can’t wait one second longer for my tank to build.  But I don’t think that’s my only fault.  I can say with unfamiliar humility that I’m just not really good at RTSs, plain and simple.

So I’ve been a little bit hesitant about my enthusiasm for Halo Wars.  I’m thrilled because it’s Halo, but I’m also a little nervous about how I’ll feel about the game.  I’m quite good at the FPS.

Can I handle sucking in the next installment?

Luckily, a 1.4 GB demo of the game hit the marketplace recently, giving me a blessed opportunity to see the results of my hopes and fears before I dish out $60.

After a lengthy download, I decided to hit up the tutorial first, basic and then advanced.  After 15 seconds of basic training, I was ready to claw my eyes out.  You see, I’ve actually held a 360 controller in my hand before.  So no, I don’t think I need a 5-minute long monologue explaining how to move the damn camera.  The only reason I decided to even attempt advanced training is because the narrator has the most soothing voice.  I could just cuddle up with my purring console and fall asleep to his dreamy commands to “blow up some stuff.”


Decisions, decisions... Do I upgrade my current units, or create entirely new ones?

Nonetheless, the tutorials are rather insulting. I suggest skipping both and launching directly into the campaign. Since the sample kicks off at the start of Halo Wars, the two included levels are pretty much tutorials anyhow.

Once you select the campaign, you get to see one of the most kickass FMVs in Halo history.  The graphics are stunning, and it’s hella fun to watch marines battle it out against the Covenant.  You also get a real sense of what the rest of the army was up against before the Spartans came along.  And of course, you get introduced to the new cast and crew of Halo Wars: a captain with a tough shell and a mean mustache, an AI with way less attitude than Cortana, and a hot Asian chick.  It’s nice to see that the fight for Harvest gets a nice story to go along with it.

The first mission, as expected, is kinda boring: race around in a much-easier-to-maneuver Warthog, and ram into screaming grunts with the vehicle’s rechargeable special ability. The second stage allows you to settle into the good guy’s UNSC base before storming the Covenant on the far side of the map.

These are my men. They are probably going to get smoked.

These are my men. They are probably going to get smoked.

Building and maintaining a base is one of the first things I noticed that separates Halo Wars from the typical RTS.  Instead of throwing buildings down all willy-nilly and then constructing a fat wall of turrets around it, you only get a few designated spots for construction.  So after demanding three supply stations for ultimate loot-gathering, I realized I’d have to scratch one if I wanted room for the vehicle factory.  Then I had to decide if I wanted a crap-ton of upgrades by installing a couple of reactors, or if I wanted to use that last space to get some aircrafts up and running.

On top of that, the population of your army is also limited, thus eliminating the all-too-familiar Zerg Rush tactic.  While a marine might only be worth one spot on the population grid, a Scorpion is worth three.  Once again, moderation is key.

This doesn’t eliminate the popular waiting game.  It’s just that instead of spending two hours stacking up a pyramid of infantry, two-hundred tanks, and a fleet of dolphins with sonar cannons, you have to pile up the resources in order to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.  In other words, 30 infantry-men may not do the trick against the Covenant.  Thirty infantry-men with napalm, however, might get the job done.

Because my army could only grow so big, I realized that I had to get the most out of each unit.  Like a typical RTS, every unit is suited for a specific type of combat: anti-air, anti-vehicle, or anti-infantry.  It’s like a giant game of rock, paper, scissors.  Only now, most units also have special secondary abilities, typically utilized to cause extra damage.  For example, marines can throw grenades.  The Warthogs can “ram.”  The Prophet of Regret can summon a giant ion beam of hell. Et cetera.

So maybe I’m playing this wrong, but it seems like you have to exercise a lot of micromanagement.  You’ve always had to watch over your troops to make sure the anti-air units aren’t wasting their rockets on a pack of riflemen.  But now you have to make sure they’re actually using their rockets as well.

I found this to be especially frustrating when playing the 1v1 skirmish.  In the demo, you get to play one of the 14 skirmish maps as Captain Cutter or the Prophet of Regret.  Before I had the chance to shake my fist at the micromanagement, I wasted a few hours as the UNSC captain in a dismal attempt to rid the Covenant on the Heroic difficulty setting.  Each time I thought I finally had a fighting chance, a team of Locusts (not Gears of War. Think mini-Scarabs) and Wraiths wiped me off the map.  So I begrudgingly betrayed my fellow humans and went Covenant to find that smiting helpless marines with the Prophet’s death ray is where it’s at.  I felt like I did a lot worse as the alien horde, but I still managed to pull through to the end.

That kinda pissed me off, so I went back to the UNSC and finally got the chance to kick ass.

Or so I thought.

Pretty graphics, pretty ladies, pretty badass 'staches.

Pretty graphics, pretty ladies, pretty badass 'staches.

My army was fully stocked, fully upgraded, and ready to teach those sons of jackals a lesson.  I left a group of Scorpions and some other units back at the base and proceeded to eliminate the human base to my left.  After sending each and every last marine to his grave, I returned to my base.

It was on fire.

Maybe I didn’t hear the less-than-sassy AI warn me, but now wasn’t the time to point fingers.  I quickly commanded my Scorpions to fire some canister rounds, and my Warthogs to ram the bijillion of little Grunts that seemed to be pistol-whipping my turrets.  To do this, I tried to circle my entire army and press “Y” but that didn’t seem to get the message across.  So I had to click on every individual unit and press “Y” over a specific enemy unit.  Some obeyed.  Others decided they couldn’t reach.  Frantically pointing and clicking, I watched my base crumble to tiny flaming pieces.

I don’t know what to say.  Maybe I do indeed suck, but it was infuriating to go from one unit to another, clicking “Y” and watching my army twirl in circles without activating their secondary abilities.  That and you can’t hotkey your units.

But the thing is, none of that stops me from wanting more.

The game doesn’t seem to have too many options, it’s very beginner-friendly, the “wait to upgrade and survive while doing so” gist of each battle seems a little repetitive, and I’m not a big fan of secondary abilities.  But I have faith that either I’m just bad at the game and I’ll learn or that Halo Wars has more than meets the eye.

Besides, it’s Halo, and I can’t pass that up.