Recalling surface squads so we can all die together, aye sir.
As a series, Halo owes a lot to the real time strategy genre. Back before Microsoft bought Bungie Studios, they were working on an RTS game for the Mac, and they had it developed to the point where the models were already recognizable, the Warthogs and Pelicans standing readily apparent. The game moved into a third person shooter early in its life, but the memory of a one-time strategy Halo lived on.
Back after Command and Conquer: Generals was released, a home brewed mod began to take shape, molding the Generals engine into a Halo RTS. Called Halogen, this digital alchemy had progressed to an early beta stage before Microsoft slapped the developers with a cease and desist. Rumors broke out on the internet claiming that the legal documents had been issued because Microsoft was cooking up a Halo strategy game within its closed citadel.
The rumors turned out to be true at X06, where Microsoft revealed Halo Wars, being developed by long time Microsoft team and RTS pros Ensemble Studios. Well known for the venerable Age of Empires series, Ensemble Studios are old hands at making well thought out strategy games, and the Halo franchise was deemed to be in good company, even if the game was being made to fit on a console.
Though doubts were raised over the viability of “shoe-horning” the typically complex control scheme of a strategy game onto the X Box controller, Ensemble studios pledged to bring the magic of their PC games to the console. In this vein, they created a very friendly “My First RTS” control scheme, where the manipulations of your forces boil down to two very simple button presses: left bumper selects all your units, and the X button makes them both move and attack. Contextually it’s very straightforward, and that’s why it works. Of course, the controls are a bit more varied than that; Y button gives you access to your units various special attacks, and the D-Pad has shortcuts to your bases and units and gives you access to your various selection of leader powers. Easy to learn and easy to master would be the best way to describe the scheme, and that applies to the game’s mechanics as well.
The first stop for Halo Wars players is going to be the campaign, and, to its credit, Halo Wars’ story mode is actually quite good. Ensemble Studios fully immersed themselves in the Halo lore, so much so to the point where Halo Wars fairly oozes with the presentation one has come to expect from Halo games. Sound effects are lifted straight out of Halo 3, and when you hear the Warthog’s familiar high-pitched whine, you’ll known that not a single audio or visual aspect is going to be out of place, something that will no doubt placate the attention-oriented Halo fans.
The mission set is standard RTS fare in which you build up a sizeable force and take the hurting to the enemy. To its credit, the game does try to mix it up a few times, even if it does enforce the hated enemy of RTS players who like their games to be well-considered: time limits. A high point in the mission set has you solving a puzzle, and over-all the game is well-built and solid, even if the tried and true strategy of overwhelming numbers trumps all other tactics.
Between missions, you’re treated to a series of extremely good looking cut scenes that tell the story of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, a large scale combat support ship thrust into the middle of an interstellar chase. Even though the cut scenes will have you drooling in your seat over their sheer jaw-dropping beauty (especially the fight between the SPARTANS and about fifteen Elites; you’ll know it when you see it) it still comes off as fragmented, and leaves you wanting more. Often times, you’ll be wishing that Halo Wars came with an animated film to complement the game as opposed to a series of short vignettes.
For action outside of the story mode, you can turn to X Box live, or take on the AI in skirmish mode. In multiplayer, you select a certain leader for either the UNSC or the Covenant and in doing so you gain access to a certain set of Leader Powers and special Super Units. For example, Captain Cutter of the UNSC gives you access to the Spirit of Fire orbital cannon and upgraded Marines, while using the Prophet of Truth gives you Elite Honor Guards and a cleansing beam of light to wipe heretics off the map. Multiplayer is carefully crafted if a bit shallow; like the campaign, it gives you a glimpse of something better. Hopefully forthcoming downloadable content will expand on the foundation and give Halo Wars some serious longevity.
For a series that once had a tenuous link to a genre outside of first person shooters, the Halo universe serves a great backdrop for strategy games. The Halo Trilogy created by Bungie always gave the impression of a war going on outside the purview of Master Chief and friends, even though it was never properly expanded upon. Halo Wars gives a greater sense of weight to the galactic conflict that provides the basis for the series, and gives credence to the theory that a story exists in this franchise beyond giant rings in space.
The bottom line is that if you’re a Halo fan, you’ve already bought this, and you’re enjoying it. It has all the trappings you love, and you’re willing to forgive its flaws simply because it’s Halo. If Master Chief has never done it for you, you still might get a kick out of this concrete entry into the 360’s disappointingly small library of strategy games.