A Child of Two Worlds
When considering Ensemble Studios' Real-Time Strategy game Halo Wars, there are two different ways to look at it. You can approach Halo Wars as a Halo fan, or you can approach it as a real-time strategy fan. The angle from which you approach the product is incredibly important, as Halo fans will love Halo Wars, while RTS fans will likely find it lacking. Of course, to truly enjoy the game, some element of both is required, but Halo enthusiasts will undoubtedly derive more pleasure from the experience than RTS enthusiasts will.
The controls do their job well, and although you still won't have the precision or control of a PC RTS, you never feel severely handicapped. The gameplay, however, has suffered more from the transition. Fights in Halo Wars are dominated by a Rock-Paper-Scissors dynamic (Vehicles beat infantry, aircraft beat vehicles, infantry beat aircraft), which feels outdated and overly simplistic. Bases can only be built in preset locations, there is only one resource (which is mostly gathered automatically), and little in the way of tech upgrades. Sacrifices made to adapt to a console environment, but hindrances nonetheless to the variety of the experience. Standard multiplayer Skirmish is included, as well as a "Deathmatch" mode where sides start with lots of resources and tech, and gain population by capturing bases- with up to 50 population on a side in Skirmish, and even more available in Deathmatch the game has no problem with large-scale encounters. Surprisingly, the campaign is much stronger than usual RTS fare, which often serves as nothing more than a glorified tutorial for the multiplayer. Halo Wars' missions are challenging, creative, and surprisingly replayable. The campaign is also playable online in co-op mode, but this is not a significantly different experience. Both multiplayer modes are also available online- with matching and custom games handled with a system very similar to Halo 3's.
Of course, Halo Wars is also a Halo game, and it totally succeeds in capturing the essence of the universe and what makes Halo a compelling enough franchise that it can consistently put spin-off novels on the New York Times bestseller list. Everything from the shooters is lovingly transferred to a new genre, almost without loss. All your favorite vehicles are here, the art design transfers well, and little touches like the sound a Spartan's shield makes when it is low are all preserved. The game oozes Halo, and fans are sure to appreciate the love and effort that went into translating the experience. Halo Wars even keeps the Skulls from Halo 2 and 3, collectibles that can be used to alter gameplay mechanics. In addition, the story is told through CG cutscenes done by Blur Studios which show the world in a brand new way- the CG is way more impressive (both in quality and choreography) than anything Bungie has done to date. The story even visits a Forerunner construct that should be intimately familiar to anyone who read the Ghosts of Onyx novel, an example of the fanservice that Halo Wars does so well.
Ultimately, Halo Wars is a competent RTS, little more and certainly nothing exceptional. Only through it's strong use of the Halo license does it manage to craft a cohesive identity and become more appealing. As an RTS fan, there is little of note in this title, and without interest in the Halo universe, your time would be better spent elsewhere. As a Halo fan, however, it's fantastic to be able to experience the universe through a different lens, and see conflicts on a larger scale than the shooters allowed. Halo fans will enjoy seeing Spartans other than the Master Chief (Who doesn't appear in the game), getting to see another Arbiter besides the one from Halo 2, and the early years of the Human-Covenant War. Halo Wars is a game for Halo fans first, and RTS gamers a distant second. If you consider yourself a Halo fan and can stomach RTS games, Halo Wars is definitely worth a try. If not, it's unlikely there is anything for you in Halo Wars, besides a competent but simple RTS that offers little in terms of unique gameplay.