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Published: Saturday, 3/7/2009

Halo Wars comes up short in popular series

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Funny, I never thought much of the similarities between the Halo first-person shooter games for the Xbox systems and the real-time strategy series StarCraft.

That is, until Halo Wars recently landed on my desk.

The latest installment in the mega-popular Halo franchise, Halo Wars takes the familiar first-person shooter world and turns it into a rea-time strategy game for the Xbox 360. And now, suddenly, the shared plots, characters, weapons, and even strategies between Halo and StarCraft are evident. Unfortunately for Halo Wars, that s not such a good thing.

StarCraft was a pioneer of the genre when released in 1998, and remains one of the best of its kind. Halo Wars, though, often seems like a pale substitute for StarCraft. When playing Halo Wars, I often found myself wishing for the more enthralling storyline of StarCraft, as well as the PC game s richer set of characters, more expansive game play, and more complex missions.

It s unfortunate that Halo Wars should be compared to StarCraft, but it s unavoidable given how much the games have in common.

Halo Wars and StarCraft are both set in the far future, with the human race involved in a galaxy-spanning war against an advanced alien species. In the case of Halo, it s the Covenant, and for StarCraft it s the Protoss. Both series also feature an uber-aggressive and hellishly frightening enemy that threatens humans and aliens alike, the mutating Flood (Halo) and the insectoid Zerg (StarCraft).

Just like with StarCraft, Halo Wars has gamers initially set up bases on various worlds, and then must build support structures around the base supply pads, hybrid-fusion reactors, vehicle depots and air pads, field armories, and barracks to create an army, military vehicles, and advanced weaponry to fight the Covenant and the Flood.

Players follow a story line set in 2531, two decades before the events of the first Halo game, Halo: Combat Evolved, that has them saving colonists from Covenant armies, launching suicide missions to destroy super-powered weapons, racing against the clock to rescue abandoned soldiers from the Flood, and even cleaning starship hulls of alien contaminants.

Players will be pleased to know they can add Spartans, the genetically engineered superhumans as featured in the Halo games, into their army mix, but can have only three at a time. Naturally, a Spartan costs more money to train than a group of standard marines. That s where strategy comes into play: With limited resources and money, how do you develop your army? Is it better to have more soldiers than vehicles? And is it better to upgrade to new technologies rapidly, or to build up an army with low-tech weapons first? StarCraft players will most likely find the strategies for the games are interchangeable.

The missions in the early rounds can be dreadfully boring, as players click on soldiers and vehicles, and guide them dutifully around maps to their intended target. (I actually found myself nodding off during one of the more rudimentary and slow click-and-move sequences.) But as you progress through the stories, the pace and excitement of the game picks up.

There s also the option to play self-contained battles against an artificial opponent, or up to six multiplayer opponents online and through system links. The game supports up to full 1080p high-definition, and the impressive graphics of the miniaturized world often resemble models from a futuristic train set. The cut scenes from the campaign are even better, near movie-quality though the voice talent in the sequences is pedestrian at best, and the dialogue is often B-movie hokey. The controls can be a nuisance, though, especially when trying to zoom in on a battle or zip through the map to another skirmish. It s definitely preferable to play a real-time strategy game on a PC with a mouse and keyboard.

Halo Wars is late to the party and brings nothing new to the soiree, other than the fact that the game is set in the Halo universe. Judging by the popularity of the Halo series, that will be more than enough to entice many gamers to buy the game. Fans of StarCraft, though, will find Halo Wars a pale derivative, and should skip this game especially since a new StarCraft title is on its way later this year.

Contact Kirk Baird atkbaird@theblade.comor 419-724-6734.



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