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7 years later, does ‘Halo Wars’ need a mouse and keyboard after all?

Many gamers overlooked Halo Wars when it first launched onto store shelves in 2009.

In the wake of the impeccable Halo 3, a Halo without gunplay felt like blasphemy. And if you wanted more, the next mainline entry in the series, Halo 3: ODST, was only a few months away and would undoubtedly satisfy that craving.

With Halo Wars, Creative Assembly took the familiar rivalry of Spartans versus Covenant and completely turned it completely on its head. Microsoft had enough faith in the Halo brand to think that it could sell a real-time strategy game for Xbox 360, a genre that had notoriously flopped on consoles while simultaneously thriving on PC.

Seven years later, Halo Wars has finally come to Windows 10 PCs. Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is a pre-order bonus for the upcoming sequel, the “Ultimate Edition” of Halo Wars 2, which will be widely available in February. All in all, it’s a solid port, albeit not without a handful of imperfections. Luckily, most of them don’t have to do with the controls.

Rolling, rolling, rolling across the screen

Unlike players of nearly a decade ago, your first time booting up Halo Wars: Definitive Edition can be from the Start menu in the bottom left-hand corner of your screen. At first glance, everything from the original version is intact. Glossing over menu interfaces alone, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition on Windows 10 could easily be mistaken for the Xbox editions.

If your first time playing Halo Wars is on PC, you may be curious as to how gamepad controls would even work. Waving your cursor across the screen, or alternatively mashing the ‘WASD’ keys feels far too natural for this to have once been a console exclusive.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Selecting a group of units of the same class is as easy as clicking two of them while holding down the Ctrl key on the second. At the same time, even simple tasks like setting up reactors and supply pads are snappier with a mouse. It may only save you a second or two, but particularly in the time-based flood missions towards the end of Halo Wars, keyboard and mouse can make a world of difference for the outcome of your mission.

If your first time playing Halo Wars is on PC, you may be curious as to how gamepad controls would even work.

Midway through the campaign, you may be tempted to take Halo Wars: Definitive Edition for a spin on Xbox One. Moving from a 4K-equipped, high-end PC build to the 1080p Xbox One version is an unsurprising step back – especially given the striking visual optimizations of the PC port. The jagged edges of your units will, unfortunately, hinder your line of sight. To make things worse, the promised fluidity of the 60 fps gold standard is inhibited by constant frame drops absent from Halo Wars‘ PC counterpart.

On the bright side, the pre-rendered cut scenes flow better on Xbox One, but only because they adhere to a similarly low resolution of the original. This can be a bit disconcerting if you’re a PC user with a 4K monitor immediately before you, as Halo Wars: Definitive Edition makes the switch from cutscene to gameplay then back to custscene throughout its campaign.

Marines, oohrah for technical difficulties

Despite its shortcomings, the Xbox One version’s controls still feel like an improvement over keyboard and mouse. Since you can pair the same controller to a top-end PC for an experience objectively superior to the Xbox rendition, PC gamers reluctant to break away from mouse and keyboard may want to reconsider. It’s evident that more effort was put into perfecting gamepad controls seven years ago than into keyboard and mouse today.

Using the Xbox One’s left control stick to move back and forth between areas is a buttery smooth process, even with only the default settings enabled. Meanwhile, on PC, you may find yourself constantly toggling back and fourth between various sensitivity preferences on your mouse. After settling for a an option that works best for you while navigating the map, you may find that your mouse is a bit too receptive during close combat or artillery management.

Keep in mind that this problem is exclusive to Halo Wars: Definitive Edition  – your mouse isn’t to blame. Granted, if you’d prefer, you could use the ‘WASD’ keys to pan around your environment, and the space bar can be used to teleport between groups of units. However, there’s no denying that the omnidirectional control stick is a more versatile option.

You may even encounter a point in Halo Wars where the mouse input ceases to be recognized by the software altogether. As a result, you’ll be forced into exiting mid-mission to reboot your PC. This is an issue that, rest assured, is not present in the Xbox One version. 

You may even encounter a point in Halo Wars where the mouse input ceases to be recognized by the software altogether.

Audio issues, too, persist on PC alone. On occasion, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition may need to be relaunched as a result of sound inconsistencies. This won’t happen frequently, if at all, but it’s certainly a minor inconvenience for anyone who appreciates the clearly Martin O’Donnell-inspired orchestrations of Stephen Rippy. The music in Halo Wars sets a hair-raising tone for the story, making any outages an irritating blow to your enjoyment of the game.

Even so, it’s still worth picking up Halo Wars: Definitive Edition on PC if you don’t have an Xbox – especially if you’ve never played it before. It may be your run-of-the-mill remaster, not without its fair share of bugs, but sometimes that’s just fine. Its upgraded graphics and newfound home on PC give players who overlooked the title back in 2009 a chance to experience an underrated gem for the first time. Seven years later, Halo Wars still holds up.

Locked and loaded, get tactical, Marines!

Ultimately, Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is an exemplary addition to Microsoft’s cross-buy catalog. Not only does it finally bring keyboard and mouse controls long sought-after by Halo (and RTS) fans on PC, but it even packs Ultra HD 4K support in addition to an unlocked frame rate. Considering there hasn’t been a real entry in the series on Windows since Halo 2, it’s undoubtedly a step forward. But, to be fair, practically anything would be.

Then again, Halo Wars was also designed for a control scheme other than mouse and keyboard. If you’re expecting any PC-specific amenities such as menu overhauls or input optimizations, you’ll be disappointed to find that Halo Wars: Definitive Edition leaves everything as-is. Aside from the resolution upgrade, Microsoft appears to be saving the visual overhauls for Halo Wars 2.

Fortunately, given its age and minimalist style, the barrier of entry for Halo Wars: Definitive Edition is quite low. To run the game at 1080p 60 fps, all you need is a computer with at least a Core i5 processor, an Nvidia GTX 560, and only 1GB of RAM. Of course, if you don’t have a PC already, buying it on Xbox One is the more affordable option. It’s up to you to decide whether $80 is worth it for a basic face-lift to a nearly decade-old game.

Gabe Carey
Former Digital Trends Contributor
A freelancer for Digital Trends, Gabe Carey has been covering the intersection of video games and technology since he was 16…
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