Monday, March 2, 2009

Go away, Halo.

Resident Evil 5 drops in less than two weeks. Now that’s out of the way, and I can proceed to hate on a game I’ve never played.

Okay, Halo Wars will probably never get a fair shake in my book. I see the franchise’s continued success as symptomatic of an industry in crisis, and an earlier post all but seeded the red carpet with land mines and pongee pits. I anticipated a tepid, uninspired game that did little to advance either the franchise or the burgeoning effort to produce a good console RTS. The game is released and the verdict in: Metacritic renders an aggregate score of 82. Of course, any game with its teeth brushed and shirttails tucked in will get at least a 7.5, and we never had any doubt that Ensemble would at least produce a polished game, did we?

No, I do not own Halo Wars, and no, I never will. If I ever play the game in its entirety, it’s because I’ve read Finnegan’s Wake, painted a self portrait and have nothing else to do. But I spent time with the demo, and feel qualified to say that Halo Wars is not really an RTS. It’s a shooter played from above.

Because a Halo RTS seems more like a dare than anything else, Ensemble and Microsoft released a battery of preview and how-it-works videos begging gamers to take the title seriously. They understandably wanted to convince consumers that an console RTS was not only possible, not only possibly cool, but quite possibly the bee’s knees. Soul-dead Ensemble designers faked amazement as they ordered their warthog to sideswipe a gaggle of grunts. We tell units to do things, and they do, their tones said. Somebody call the mayor.

Bile aside, Ensemble made all efforts to streamline the infrastructuring and micromanagement that define the traditionally PC-based RTS genre. Instead of complicated base building and placement, a central building is surrounded by a series of pads that you can build things on – barracks, pads, armories, and so on. The base interface is as smooth and considerate as one could want, making the production and upgrading of units a cinch. Future console RTS games would do well to consider this model.

But from there, it’s over-simplified, contrived claptrap. The first demo level has the player commanding a warthog, rallying retreating human forces for an eventual counterattack. The recently lobotomized will be relieved to know that at no point during your joyride are tactics employed – the level is completely linear, playing more like Halo 3 than, say, Company of Heroes. Instead of shooting through hordes of Covenant, you get to tell someone to shoot through hordes of Covenant, and watch. Sound fun?

I don’t care if it’s an introductory level. I labored through the (unnecessary) tutorial, and now I wanted to do big-boy things, like flanking maneuvers and feints. No dice.

I couldn’t get comfortable with the camera. The altitude and angle were all wrong, giving me the sense that something incredibly important was happening just off screen, and I would never see it. Endwar had oversimplified tactical components, but at least it let me zoom in to soldier-level and see the action unfold in spectacular detail. Don’t count on that with Halo Wars. The maximum zoom isn’t enough to relish any degree of detail, and even if it were, you probably wouldn’t use it – however well animated (and they are!), the units are kind of ugly. Dumb, pretty things are sometimes nice. Dumb and homely, however…

To give Halo Wars some quarter of credit: The cutscenes are gorgeous and well-directed. For the first time since 2001 I was compelled by Halo’s story. Conventional and rehashed can be good, if done right, and Halo Wars plays all the old favorites with an instrument more in-tune than the broken fiddle that played Halos 2 and 3.

Ironically, I thing Gamespot returns the most honest review, giving Halo Wars a stern 6.5. This says a few things to me: first, we’re nowhere near getting the console RTS game we seem to want; and we need to let this franchise go. Please, people, let it die in peace. Bungie may succeed in freshening the universe with Halo: ABCDEFG (nee Halo: Recon), but I want a few years to pass before I see “HALO” emblazoned in a headline once again.