Halo has been one of the kings of the FPS genre since its debut in 2001, but Microsoft enlisted Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios a number of years ago to create a new spin on the franchise with an RTS game that became Halo Wars. With Halo Wars 2 scheduled to come out next month from Creative Assembly, the original game has now received a remaster in Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, which is currently in early access.
Even though the RTS style gameplay is different from the mainline entries in the series, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition still feels like a real Halo game all around. The game offers a campaign, as well as both offline and online multiplayer. The campaign is split into multiple levels that each have specific objectives, whether that be rescuing a group of soldiers or civilians or all-out war with Covenant enemy forces. The campaign features 15 levels overall, with stages of varying length and difficulty. Though like many RTS titles, it’s a good primer to the factions of the game, at least on the UNSC side as it gets you familiar with building bases, units, and the main heroes of the game: Captain Cutter, Professor Anders, and Sergeant Forge and their unique abilities.
The game features the same story as before, which takes place about 20 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. While not all that prevalent in the game, cutscenes have gotten a bit of a visual improvement, but there didn’t appear to be anything too drastically different. The in-game visuals were also improved from the original, textures are much sharper, units have far more detail than the original release, and those that played the original will find small graphical enhancements strewn throughout the game. On the whole, it looks much better than the original Xbox 360 release. While it may be hard to spot some of these differences due to the game being a top-down RTS, you can definitely see a lot more detail in the game overall whether in campaign or multiplayer. This Definitive Edition is just that from a visual standpoint. Halo Wars hasn’t looked better than in this version of the game.
Halo Wars: Definitive Edition also performs quite well on the Xbox One, with the upgrades not causing any technical issues in the game. With a mix of so many group units and both ground and air vehicles, as well as base turrets and such that are often facing off against one another in the game, the lack of slowdown is really impressive. Snapping to the area where action is occurring by pressing on the d-pad is very responsive as well, which is very important in the larger skirmishes.
RTS games have often released only on PC over the years due to the number of buttons required to perform the various tasks necessary, but the original Halo Wars managed to condense this all onto the Xbox 360 controller and Halo Wars: Definitive Edition continues that legacy. There are button options to instantly highlight either all units you have or all units on the screen currently, while you can also highlight the ones you want manually as well. However, this can get a little more difficult to do with the very expansive maps that make up campaign mode especially. Though it’s worth noting, many consider this game as one of the very best to utilize a controller in an RTS. All these years later, the intuitive control scheme from Ensemble still feels great.
Still feels like a real Halo game
As of right now, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is only available to those who pre-order Halo Wars 2 Ultimate Edition, with codes being slowly rolled out. As a result, the online player base has been rather small on both the Xbox One and PC. This isn’t helped by the fact that the game currently lacks a matchmaking element of any sort. Instead, online multiplayer is done through a lobby system. You can either search for games using certain criteria or create your own from scratch. This is significantly different than what’s currently available on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One Backwards compatibility versions of the game. Finding a match can take some time on Xbox One. Testing this on PC was far worse. Not from a visual or performance standpoint, but from a player base view. It just didn’t seem like there were many people on the Windows 10 version, which is a Play Anywhere title. After publishing a public lobby it’s basically a waiting game for someone to join. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow. Hopefully plans are in the works to add in the matchmaking system from the original game.
The biggest problem right now in early access though is the lack of players, with the lobby system really showcasing this. When searching for games with each setting set to “any,” only a few games options are coming up most of the time. In my experience, you are better off just creating a game and waiting for someone to join, because you’ll end up getting booted from many of the already created rooms as soon as you enter. There is also sort of a loophole where room creators can adjust the AI difficulty at the last second, which would not be a problem with simple matchmaking.
Even though the early access version of Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is missing matchmaking entirely for now, there are a respectable number of multiplayer options available nonetheless. There are 18 different maps to choose from right now, including seven 1v1 maps, seven 2v2 maps, and four 3v3 maps. This includes all of the original on-disc content and downloadable content that was made available for the game post-launch.
There are also five modes that you can play with that offer varying objectives or starting points, with three of them only coming as DLC in the original release of the game. Standard is the base gameplay where you and an opponent face off against one another with the goal of taking them down. Deathmatch is a variation of this where you start with higher resources and all techs, which allows for a more high powered showdown between teams, instead of the building from scratch Standard mode. Keep Away is the game’s variation of the Halo staple Capture the Flag, while Tug of War has the two teams competing to tip the scales in their favor by defeating the opponent’s forces. Reinforcements mixes up the training units formula as you instead will receive new units in waves, so you have to play more strategically than in any other mode here.
The online multiplayer is also missing ranked matches and a ranking system to go along with it. In typical Halo fashion, the original Halo Wars had a system where players could rank up by playing well in ranked matches, but here you are essentially playing matches without any sense of meaning. This is something they almost have to add eventually, but for now there is little more than your service record to view that keeps track of your matches. However, it could also be a case of them wanting to keep a ranking system out of the picture, as that could potentially eat into the player base of Halo Wars 2 if players had something to keep coming back to Halo Wars: Definitive Edition for, though we hope that is not the case.
Halo Wars received positive praise from most outlets upon release and with the sequel coming soon, throwing in Halo Wars: Definitive Edition as a pre-order bonus for the Ultimate Edition was a great decision. The game is still in early access right now, so hopefully the missing features mentioned above will be added in the near future, but there is definitely plenty of fun to enjoy in the meantime, especially if you never played the original.