In this post- Halo 3 world, it's fallen to studios other than Bungie to keep the Xbox's most revered franchise afloat. Age of Empires maker Ensemble is the first out of the gate with Halo Wars, a PC-style real-time strategy game set a number of years before the first Halo. The game gets a lot of mileage out of the Halo universe and gives a respectable strategy experience, though the limitations of its gamepad-based control scheme can make for some frustrating moments in the thick of battle.
Ensemble wastes no time establishing this game's Halo-ness; all of the menu and front-end interface elements are straight out of Bungie's shooters, the score is likewise reminiscent, and though Master Chief himself doesn't make an appearance, you still get to see a few Spartans tearing it up against the Covenant--not to mention all the Warthogs, Elites, Scorpions, Scarabs, and Wraiths your Halo-loving heart could desire.
In a broad sense, Halo Wars pays a lot of service to fans, even if the game's specific storyline isn't much to write home about. You've got salty old Captain Cutter in command of the UNSC capital ship Spirit of Fire, Halo Wars' equivalent of the Pillar of Autumn. There's Serena, a sardonic British version of Cortana; sassy, no-nonsense scientist Anders; and Sergeant Forge, a square-jawed boy scout type who's your man on the ground in most missions. The characters are a little one-dimensional, and their interactions don't make them nearly as likable as the banter you regularly got between Master Chief and Cortana in the previous Halo games.
The Spirit of Fire spends most of the game chasing the Covenant around the galaxy, running up against other familiar Halo factions and ultimately getting involved in some events that very nearly changed the course of history in the Halo universe. The dialogue can get a little corny and the general flow of events feels disjointed due to all the abrupt planet-hopping, but it's all presented in lavishly produced CG cutscenes between each mission that are fun to watch, especially when the Spartans really get down to doing what they do.
The story campaign--which takes place only from the human perspective--does a decent job of introducing you to the nuts and bolts of Halo Wars' strategy gameplay and controls. Ensemble made some smart design calls here to simplify traditional RTS aspects that don't translate well to the console. You generate resources transparently in dedicated supply buildings; no worker drones or static gold mines to hassle with. Buildings go into preset slots that spiral from your main base, so you don't have to fiddle with building placement. In terms of the basic rules, the game feels nicely streamlined.
Still, I wish the controls were more fully realized. Halo Wars' unit management gets by on a minimum of controller shortcuts, offering only basic methods of selecting, grouping, and controlling units. You can select all of your units on the map, or you can select only the ones currently onscreen, and when you've got a group selected, you can cycle through the individual unit types, which at least lets you access their secondary abilities quickly.
But you can't split all units of one type up into subgroups, even though you may not want to move all eight of your Warthogs across the map at once. You also can't set fixed control groups that you can toggle between, once you do get the right units selected. To be fair, once units are in different parts of the map, you can cycle between de facto groups based on location pretty quickly. But when you've got a big clump of units mashed together in one place, it's a clumsy and time-consuming process to split them up manually.
Then again, a big clump of units is usually all you need. Can you really fault the game for its lack of control subtlety, when the controls that are here are sufficient to get you through both the campaign missions and the back-and-forth attrition of the multiplayer? No, not really. As tempting as it is to go "Waaaah, RTS on a console! Mouse and keyboard for life," my frustration with Halo Wars' controls typically petered out at the academic level. From time to time I thought it would be cool if I were able to get into higher-level tactics, but I never found a serious need to do so in practice. And at least most of the campaign's 15 missions avoid the old standby "blow up the enemy's base" victory condition. There's some kind of unique mechanic going on in almost every mission.
The familiar Halo trappings extend all the way down the game's feature list, including the campaign, mission scoring, and secret goodies. You rack up a score during each of the campaign's levels--based on your completion time, enemies killed, and finished secondary objectives--then you get a bronze/silver/gold medal based on your score. Heroic and Legendary difficulty modes are available, and you can play the whole campaign cooperatively if you want. There are even secret skulls to find in each mission that will provide various positive and negative effects on subsequent plays, just like in the Halo shooters, and you can unlock entries on a lengthy Halo timeline that fill in the broad picture of the series' history. From a top-level perspective, this is certainly a complete Halo package.
And of course, no Halo game would be complete without a robust multiplayer mode. You've got the Halo-style party system here to facilitate matches for up to six people on a healthy variety of maps, and you can mix and match AI players on either side at different difficulties to fill out slots if you want. There are two modes, starting with the regular skirmish that has you starting from scratch, building up a base and teching up the tree to get the best units. The other mode, deathmatch, turns the game into nonstop total warfare. You start with all units and tech fully researched and with a huge amount of capital, so you can launch straight into building war machines instantly. Your population in this mode scales to the number of expansions you control, so the matches here can get huge and intense as you expand your territory. The scale of the battles that resulted from playing a one-on-one match on a map meant for six people was laugh-out-loud funny at times.
Ultimately, I had more fun with the multiplayer than the campaign, perhaps because I'd completed the latter and used it as a kind of extended tutorial before getting into competitive play, and already had a handle on the controls and all the UNSC units. You can also play the Covenant in multiplayer, and there are three unique hero units on each side that give a good variety of additional unique units, attacks, and abilities. The UNSC and Covenant are pretty different to begin with, design-wise, so between your choice of race and then subsequent choice of a leader character, the two modes, and wealth of maps, there's a lot to come back to in the multiplayer here.
It's also worth noting that by the time I'd gotten to the multiplayer, I really wasn't sweating the controls. On the contrary, I surprised myself a few times when I managed to make some units do what I wanted them to do without consciously thinking about the required controller inputs. Call it a steep but surmountable learning curve.
If you haven't heard, Halo Wars marks Ensemble's last project as a development studio. There's no doubting many of its longtime fans (and perhaps some of its employees) would have preferred to see the company go out by doing what it does best with a traditional real-time strategy game on the PC. Still, Halo Wars is a mostly successful effort to bring the strategy genre to the Xbox 360, and not a bad way to kick off a new era of Halo games, to boot.