Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Halo Bores

(Ensemble's Halo Wars promises to deviate from the beaten path by pitting space marines against aliens.)

If this isn’t abundantly clear already, I don’t like Halo. I think it’s symptomatic of many ills within the industry, and many more without. When Halo Wars was announced, I laughed. A Real Time Strategy game? Those hardly even worked on consoles. A controller will never compete with a keyboard and mouse. What’s next, I thought – World of Halocraft?
Maybe I was primed against Halo Wars, but some part of me was willing to give it a chance. I love the first Halo – you know, the one Bungee remade twice – and, in my more optimistic moments, I hoped the game might stir a chronically static franchise. And I secretly prayed the game would be canned before it could confirm or deny any expectations.
Well, Microsoft knows money when they see it, and damned if they’ll take a chance to risk profit. Ensemble Studios was enlisted to develop the game – you might know them from their genre-defining Age of Empires series. Concept art showed lines of Spartans (what else?) arrayed along a craggy bluff with the barrels of tanks jutting out behind them, the whole scene glowing with that glory-sick, swooningly Wagnerian glaze. It was clear that this would be a Halo game, first and foremost. Hopes for innovation? Dashed.
As gameplay footage emerged, the stakes were raised. This might actually be good, I thought: the level of polish was taken straight from the shooters, down to the sound effects; the battles felt frantic, but manageable; the control scheme looked so easy enough to pick up within five minutes. It was, in a word, vintage Halo.
Which is exactly why Halo Wars will be awful, awful, awful.
First off, “vintage Halo” should never be said in praise, nor should it ever be considered comforting. By vintage Halo, they do mean vintage Halo – not Halo 2, or Halo 3, or any supposed sequel. But whereas Halo was a shooter, allowing you to participate in some skull-numbing action, Halo Wars is an RTS, merely allowing you to watch skull-numbing action. Devotees will play this game like admiring mothers watching their kids at swim practice, thrashing in the shallow end, trying not to drown. To the rest of us, it’ll just look like drowning.
As I said before, RTSs flounder on consoles. The Real Time Strategy game demands that players be in several places at one time, commanding units, building new ones, executing flanking maneuvers and protecting supply lines. A mouse and keyboard can deliver the player to different battlefield locations like a controller can’t – it’s just a fact. (Tom Clancy’s sadly flawed EndWar came close to presenting an alternative, and good for them). RTS ports, like Command & Conquer 3, feel oversimplified, dumbed-down to be playable.
Halo Wars is using glitz and legacy to cover up shallow gameplay. Watch this E3 demo, narrated by Lead Designer Graham Devine. Hovering above a human base – USNC, I think is the acronym here, meaning United Sycophants NOMming Candidly. Anyway, some Covenant groundpounders predictably show up outside the gates, and a few squads of infantry are sent out to take them down. The infantry gets shredded by the Grunts’ needler pistols - Devine mentions this as if it’s a unit-particular weakness. My interest is piqued. Might the rock-paper-scissors have multiple layers? Nope! Two Warthogs are manufactured and sent to dispatch the Covenant troops, which are exactly where we left them. The Warthogs park and open fire, their machine guns chattering. And chattering.
“See, I’m doing much better this time,” says Devine in monotone.
The firefight continues. Chatterchatter. Red tracers, blue lasers, purple explodey needle-things.
“I’m getting some real-time damage done on my Warthog,” he says. He sounds frankly bored.
As the demo progresses, it becomes clear that Halo Wars is not a game of nuance, or even tactics. You move your units to a place on the map, and tell them to kill things. You don’t even have to tell them – they’ll figure it out. If the enemy sends air, summon the anti-air. If they wend vehicles, summon the tank. If they send a big fucking spider-robot, just get your orbiting spaceship to pummel it with bullets the size of minivans (this is called the MAC cannon, which I suspect means More Assholes Camping). There were no unit-specific commands demonstrated (yes, the Warthog can jump chasms. Who cares?), and shockingly little volition on the part of the commander.
Halo Wars may end up being little more than a highly-polished, isometric ride down memory lane. In fact, many Halo fans may prefer it that way. Regardless, the game will sell.
And that’s the worst part – Halo Wars is Ensemble’s swan song. Already, nonessential personnel have been sacked, and after Microsoft has their game, the remaining echelons will be scattered to the four winds. Despite Devine’s insistence that Halo Wars is “an Ensemble game,” it’s a sad end for a legendary studio. I mean, they made Age of Empires, for Christ’s sake! You don’t make them develop a dog-and-pony game and then show them the door.
Of course, Microsoft has retained the rights to Age of Empires, and, in its charming, machine like way, has hinted that it has “future potential.” Who knows – maybe they’ll contract Bungee to develop Age of Empires IV. I’ve never seen a British Redcoat teabagged.