Bungie has owned the console sci-fi shooter market with the Halo franchise over the years. It was only a matter of time before Microsoft would spin the series off with new games. For the first time the series has been given over to another developer with Ensemble Studios’ Halo Wars, a real time strategy game that finally delivers solid RTS controls on the console. Despite some problems that are inherent with using a gamepad for an RTS, Ensemble has delivered a distinctly Halo-esque feel to their game that might actually get Halo shooter fans to stick around for the more plodding nature of real time strategy.

Halo is known for its “five minutes” strategy of action and gameplay, a strategy that doesn’t lend itself to an RTS. But Ensemble has done a fantastic job of translating that to Halo Wars. The levels are all tightly designed, with action happening at a near constant basis. You’ll always feel like you’re going to war and moving forward, just as it was meant to be. To achieve this Ensemble has rid the game of technology trees, advanced base building, resource gathering, and complex squad controls.

Halo Wars is a bit of an introduction to RTS games for non-fans. Bases are built using a grid system where you can bring up a circle menu and use the stick to choose what kind of building you want to build. It’s simple and effective. Resources make absolutely no sense, and nowhere in the story is it explained why you need to have a landing pad built for resources to be shipped down. But it makes that aspect a no brainer as you watch your resource level cycle up exponentially. You’re told where to set up a base, an arrow tells you where to send your army, and you’ll never be left wondering what to do next in terms of strategy. In that way Halo Wars is a game that holds your hand throughout, leaving much of the strategy by the wayside.

The system of control is as simple as Ensemble could imagine. This is both a blessing and a hindrance. You select a squad with a tap of A, move the cursor where you want them to go and press X. They then head that direction, fighting any Covenant encountered along the way. If your squad is equipped with a special attack (the Warthog can ram enemies, for example) you only have to press Y to execute the action. The special attacks have a slight recharge time to keep you honest.

For a game that looks to move you through the campaign story – UNSC only, no Covy story – the tactics chosen by Ensemble work perfectly. The base building restriction keeps you going in the right direction, and the simple drag and drop control of squads makes it easy to get around. Resource management is equally simple. Just watch as you build new Supply Pads, the resources go way up, and you upgrade. Getting the MAC Cannon fully upgraded results in supremely satisfying Covenant base destruction.

The real problems with Halo Wars are an extension of this simplistic control scheme. RTS games usually require you to manage different parts of your army to achieve a goal, and Halo Wars is no different. It’s toned down a bit, but there will be points where a portion of the Marines have to defend your base while another group moves in to take out a Covenant heavy gun or base. It is frustrating trying to get this to work. If you hold A down when selecting squads you can sort of paint over an area, but it’s often too big for what you want. Many times I found myself wanting to send a Spartan soldier and a few marine squads somewhere for a task only to find that I also highlighted a Cobra or Scorpion that I required to stay put and provide defensive fire. Taking the time to move those vehicle squads individually in order to complete the task I desired brought me to the brink of controller throwing a number of times.

While Halo Wars does a good job with RTS controls on console, it isn’t perfect. At some point a team needs to sit down and rethink the controls for this genre entirely. Bungie finally got FPS controls to work on console by not trying to copy its PC counterparts, the same needs to happen for RTS games.

Visually the game is stunning. At least in its FMV cut scenes, which I thought were better than what Bungie had done with even Halo 3. My issue with the game’s style is that it still looks like I’m watching an animated Risk board with all the tiny characters running around. Ensemble brought over the Havok physics, particle effects, and a lot of detail to the world and characters. But they still look like little fake dudes running around. My favorite moment is getting a warning that a major battle was taking place, so as I went to send my squad over I brought the cursor to the location only to find a lone Spartan fighting a huge squad of Covenant. He promptly leaped up onto a tower and then jumped on a Banshee, pounding it in the classic animation Halo fans will recognize. It was like watching a sci-fi Lilliputian war, and it made me smile.

Story wise Halo Wars is a rote galaxy in trouble story. Characters like Sgt. Forge and Dr. Anders are forgettable and cliché. The story itself will disappoint hardcore Halo fans, and for the RTS guys new to the series they’ll likely wonder what all the fuss was about Master Chief’s tale. The only thing of real interest is Serena, the Spirit of Fire’s A.I. construct. Her underlying disdain for humans was fun to watch, plus she’s Cortana hot.

Make no mistake, Halo Wars is a solid game. Ensemble has delivered a satisfying RTS title to consoles with only a few allowances for the controller. It would be nice to see something built with a new mindset for consoles, rather than trying to translate PC RTS controls over. For what it is Halo Wars satisfies both the action hungry Halo fan and the cerebral RTS fan to some degree. It just won’t wow either camp.

Players: 1-6
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft
ESRB: Teen

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