Review: RTS war is hell on consoles. At least, it used to be...
Some might say that Halo Wars, the recent real-time-strategy game set in the Halo universe, is riding on the coattails of its first-person-shooter brethren. I say that those people are cynics and should try actually playing the game.
Set well before the events of Bungie's Halo titles, Halo Wars is at the same time both new and familiar. Much like its brethren, Halo Wars revolves around the conflict between the UNSC and the Covenant. The game is filled with many recognizable Halo icons such as Warthogs, Scorpions, and Banshees but because of the time difference between the games we don't see the likes of Sgt. Johnson, Cortana, or Master Chief. Halo Wars takes the change of timing to introduce us to Captain Cutter, Sgt. Forge, and Serena. The nice thing about this shift is that Halo Wars feels like a real part of the Halo universe, not a tacked-on ancillary title.
Being native to the Xbox 360 controller, playing Halo Wars feels more comfortable than any other RTS game I've played without a mouse and keyboard. That isn't to say that I was left without a desire for my PC peripherals. There are some compromises that Ensemble implemented in order to make this game work. Really, the biggest things that I found myself missing were the definable group keys. Other than that, assigning local unit and all unit selection to the left and right bumpers worked well and using the d-pad to hop around the map (cycling through bases and points of interest), while not immediately intuitive, worked well and helped speed up responses to enemy attacks.
The speed of its gameplay is something that sets Halo Wars apart from many of its RTS peers insomuch that resource gathering is almost non-existent. Resource management is handled primarily through building supply pads and reactors and managing your personnel cap. Sure, you will find random crates that boost your supply level on all of the maps, but those are a bonus instead of the norm. Constructing and adding onto bases is also streamlined by limiting the locations that actually allow buildings and each add-on, such as a barracks or vehicle depot, is placed on a pre-built pad. What all of this means is that you don't have little peons running around carrying stuff and building bases.
Even though you don't have to micromanage a labor force there is plenty of variety in the Halo Wars campaign. Missions range from the typical, ?destroy the other army,? to escorting special equipment to rescuing pinned soldiers. There are a wide variety of locales, too. Snow covered planetscapes to Covenant overrun cities to the exterior hull of a star cruiser are all found within the game. The variety does a good job of keeping the game feeling fresh. It also minimizes how many levels degrade into building a massive army and swarming the enemy.
Like the FPS titles, the Halo Wars campaign can be played and replayed on multiple difficulties and, in case you have friends, a buddy can join you for a cooperative romp through it, too. All of this comes together and equals increased replay value for the game.
Just in case the solo and co-op versions of the campaign aren't enough, Halo Wars includes a very broad and encompassing multiplayer mode. Skirmishes that are playable either locally against and with AI armies or globally across Xbox Live are a breeze to set up and feature the same gameplay strengths that the campaign does. It also opens up the opportunity to play as the Covenant with a whole new batch of units and leaders to experiment with. These matches aren't just head-to-head battles to the death, either. Different maps support up to 3v3 play and there are a slew of different play modes to satisfy darn near any taste. Best of all? The enemy AI isn't a complete pushover.
Once you've played through the solo campaign, the co-op campaign, the skirmish maps, and on Xbox Live there is still more game to be experienced. Halo Wars has maintained the tradition of hidden skulls for you to unlock and then find and black boxes to discover. Once found, enabling the skulls modify either the difficulty or a visual component of the game and the black boxes are one way that you can unlock entries in the Halo timeline. This timeline spans more than just Halo Wars, encompassing both existing and future games (I'm pretty sure that we get some glimpses into the story of Halo: Reach by reading them all). For you completionists out there, Halo Wars packs in a ton of content to uncover. The best part is that the gameplay is solid enough that looking for all of it doesn't become a chore.