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Reviewed by Jason Thompson
ell here we are at long last with the first game in the “Halo” franchise being created by someone other than Bungie. In this case, it’s the great Ensemble Studios. Sadly, this is also Ensemble’s last game under that corporate name. Much hype has been given to this game in the lead-up to its release. It’s no surprise that anything with the “Halo” name on it will sell – at least that’s what the odds might dictate – but what happens when the game is a real-time strategy title rather than the popular first-person shooter juggernaut that the “Halo” trilogy was all about? It’s an interesting point to ponder, given that fans of both genres are usually rabid when it comes to what makes a good game in their respective camps.
For starters, “Halo Wars” was created for the 360 console from the ground up. That means there were no PC-based controls or mechanisms to port over, which can often feel clunkier on a console when such a method is applied. At the same time, Ensemble has stripped a lot of the deeper controls that a PC-based RTS game uses in favor of a more console-friendly approach. The number of commands available to the gamer never exceeds the number of buttons on the 360’s controller. While purists are always going to balk at such things (indeed, PC RTS fanboys have already flooded various online forums regarding this game, instantly putting it down while declaring they’d never buy it since it’s on a console, which makes no sense at all), these same people need to realize that console controllers were never meant to equal a mouse and a keyboard. To that extent, Ensemble has done a fine job of making the controls in this game an enjoyable, non-frustrating experience.
But to get to the meat of the enchilada, “Halo Wars” is set 20 years before the events that occur in the first “Halo” game. Humans are battling the Covenant as ever, and while players will not see hide or hair of Master Chief, we are introduced to Captain Cutter and Sgt. John Forge of the UNSC. In single-player campaign and co-op modes, players are only allowed to play the role of the good guys. Not that this matters much, as the ability to play as the Covenant is part of the multiplayer portion of the game, where most players will probably get the most mileage out of their experience here.
Getting back to those simplified controls for a second. Out of all the RTS games released for the 360, “Halo Wars” definitely makes controlling your units amazingly easy. With a click of either the left or right bumper buttons, players can choose their entire units, or the ones currently on the screen. A menu then appears at the bottom of the screen which allows player to scroll through the individual units. Quite simple and effective. Of course, some players may find that the whole experience is on rails from time to time, but again the point here was to create an RTS that was console friendly, and with that some concessions had to be made. But that in no way takes away from the overall experience. In fact, for players who always wanted to try an RPS but were always wary of the advanced control schemes, “Halo Wars” is the perfect introduction to the genre.
Chunks of the game’s story are told through a number of cut scenes. These scenes are quite possibly some of the most beautiful ever created on the 360. While the story might not be as emotionally engaging as when playing behind Master Chief’s eyes in the other “Halo” titles, there’s no denying how amazing these portions of the game look. For everything that Ensemble felt they needed to “strip down” for the console player, they turned right around and gave something back that made up for any perceived losses.
Co-op and multiplayer modes are very satisfying, with the latter giving players control of either the USNC or Covenant as stated previously. Both sides have their given strengths and weaknesses, although the USNC does have the ability to pull off these incredible pinpoint laser strikes against the Covenant, allowing quick and painful decimation of bases and vehicles. With two modes of multiplayer gaming (deathmatch and standard), players should find many hours of enjoyment here. The single player campaign can vary in length, depending on which of the four difficulty settings one picks, along with the number of side missions he may wish to play, as well as collecting the ever-present skulls and black boxes. Bottom line: there’s a lot to do here.
When all is said and done, “Halo Wars” might not be the next greatest thing in the “Halo” franchise, or the most amazing RTS game, but what it does, it does exceptionally well. It’s a beautiful, engaging game that RTS novices and pros can both enjoy – though the latter factions may need to give some concessions. But never let it be said that a rock solid RTS game cannot be created for the console crowd. “Halo Wars” is true fun at its core, and that’s what any game should be at the end of the day. Ensemble couldn’t have gotten a better series to end their great run on.