It is said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In that sense, Halo Wars 7 is the de facto king of real-time strategy games on consoles, where the venerable genre is underrepresented because of the challenges of managing a lot of units at once on a gamepad. I admire Microsoft’s effort to expand its prized Halo series into something that spans beyond an endless procession of first-person shooters, and with Halo Wars 7 (like Halo Wars before it) we get to experience this sci-fi universe from a perspective that emphasizes the scope of its battles. Seeing instantly recognizable vehicles like Warthogs and Banshees on the field adds an inherited personality to what is otherwise a fairly standard set of units. While there are substantial differences in tactics thanks to the unique Banished (a rebel faction of the Covenant) units like suicide grunts and airborne Blisterback artillery, the greatest distinction between them and the UNSC Marines comes from support powers like bombardments and buffs cast from above. The latest Cortana stand-in, Isabel, is a surprisingly endearing character who emotes much more effectively than her human friends. Captain Carter and the three interchangeable Spartans under his command might as well be cardboard cutouts for all the personality they exhibit, but they have a great threat to fight against thanks to the new brute villain, Atriox. He fades into the background after a spectacularly intimidating introduction, but his presence is still felt through Isabel’s fear of him.
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Where Halo Wars 7 feels most limited is in its controls. That’s not at all surprising for the gamepad, where controls for an RTS are always going to be clumsy at best, and though I didn’t expect this problem to be fully solved, developer Creative Assembly doesn’t seem to have done a lot to design its battles to avoid it, either. For example, the speed with which units tend to die in combat isn’t very forgiving when you consider how slowly most people are likely to be able to react. It’s definitely workable, using a very similar layout to what the first Halo Wars has, with some clever changes like using a double-tap of the right bumper to select all units. But even things like that can’t make up for the shortage of buttons and precision on the controller relative to a mouse and keyboard. If, for instance, you’re trying to get your Warthogs and Scorpion tanks out of range of the anti-vehicle gun of a Hunter before they can inflict real damage and move up your anti-infantry Hellbringer flamethrower units to counter, it’s tricky to pull off in the heat of battle. You have to select all units on screen using the right bumper, then use the right trigger to cycle through the available unit types – which can be a lot in a large army – and then you can move that unit type independently. Then it might be faster to target and double-tap a unit with the A button to select all of that type, then hold right-trigger and double-tap one of the other types to select both at once. Good luck with that if you’re working with air units. That said, it’s impressive that Creative Assembly was able to pack all the controls you need, with the ability to assign up to four control groups to the D-pad and even queue up move commands, onto a gamepad. The catch is that much of that is accessed by holding the right trigger to change the functions of the rest of the buttons, which means you basically need to learn twice as many controls as you do for most games. Again, it’s not insurmountable or unusable, but it’s no picnic. That’s where the support powers come in and compensate for the lack of micromanagement dexterity. Some of these are strikingly powerful when fully upgraded, such as the Archer missiles that destroy a swath of enemies and the extremely useful ODST soldier drops, and using them at the right moment feels great and can absolutely turn the tide of a battle.
Controls are better on the PC version (this is a Microsoft Play Anywhere game, meaning that if you buy one version digitally you get the other for free) but there are some strange issues that make it feel unpolished and disappointing next to its PC RTS peers. Clicking the minimap frequently messes up and simply doesn’t work, forcing you to use the WASD keys to scroll for navigation. Likewise, the command for a unit to use its special ability seems to only work every few attempts. And you can’t bind the mouse scroll wheel to the camera zoom, because that control is permanently locked to cycling through unit types in your selection (which is something you barely need to do on PC). I still prefer to play on mouse and keyboard, but this experience should be better. Speaking of things that should be better, back on the Xbox One side I saw frequent bugs in the campaign missions, which is something I didn’t expect from a Halo game. I’ve had crashes, infinite loading screens, five- to 65-second freezes, stuck units, mission events failing to trigger (forcing me to replay the mission) and more. I got through it, but I was surprised to see such technical roughness. Spotting a bunch of enemy units camped on top of a control point is an excellent time to use a bombardment ability, for example. And because you’re given the choice of seven commander characters with different sets of support abilities, you have lots of options there - including some who can temporarily cloak groups of units or create holographic diversions. But again, the base building options feel limited by the predescribed locations, which constrains build order freedom. That means the variety is going to be down to which of the handful of maps you’re playing on. Similarly, there’s a different territory-control mode called Stronghold where you’re competing to control the most base-building locations on the map when the timer ends the twist is that everyone has completely unlimited resources. That makes it all about unit tactics, which, if you’re playing on Xbox, is not Halo Wars 7’s strongest point.
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