It's one of those prequel-sequel situations when it comes to the now late Ensemble Studios' Halo Wars; true, the game may be following up Master Chief's universe-saving exploits in terms of a release date, but, chronologically, it takes place before he was even enlisted. Set twenty years prior to the events of the Xbox's beloved and franchise-making Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo Wars puts the power of not just one, lone, mystery solider into the hands of the player, but entire squads of the UNSC military—Spartan super-soldiers included. Though it may be popular to bemoan the inability of real-time strategy games to accommodate thumbstick and face-button play, Halo Wars shows that it can be done, but at the cost of some of the things that make them so addicting to play.
Though we were introduced to the battle between humans and the alien race known as the Covenant through the Pillar of Autumn's frantic escape from Reach in the series' first game, Halo Wars brings us back to the beginning of the conflict as the two sides vie over humanity's outer most colony, Harvest. Despite five years of grueling battle, the Covenant have been pushed back and it's time to finish the job. However, just as you assume the commanding role of Sgt. John Forge and recapture an UNSC base, the dogmatic Covenant find something in the arctic region of the world that leads to 15 missions of army-building, objective-based gameplay.
Your pursuit of this generation's Arbiter takes you across a great variance of locales, with just as much differentiation of objectives between them. Instead of falling back on the RTS genre's default reliance of capturing evermore base points, Ensemble has done well in implementing different kinds of missions that break up the tempo of game, allowing levels to keep the player engaged for the relatively short single-player duration. Amazingly, although each mission consists of nearly the same process of building up an army and accomplishing tasks assigned to you, it almost never seems like you're doing the same thing twice.
By creating an air of uniqueness between each mission, Ensemble have made it easy to overlook a console-friendly setup that might seem a bit shortchanged for hardcore strategists out there. More inviting to the RTS newbie or casual player, Halo Wars uses simple button commands to execute equally as simple task. Delegating troop movement or unit selections is easily accomplished by two or three buttons, but the RTS faithful might find it frustrating to not quickly be able to group specific units together; it's really an all or nothing gig if you want to set up squads quickly in the heat of battle, as trying to pair a few infantry units, a tank, an anti-air vehicle and whatever else becomes an exercise in tedium. Though the setup works for the console—and the simplicity of a few basic controls does actually work for the game—the inability to customize your layout with hotkeys feels like a strange omission.
However, that isn't to say that the game lacks in delivering fast-paced, strategy-laden gameplay. While the more classical iteration of strategy games is to focus on micromanagment, sending out pithy units to do your dirty work, Halo Wars does well in delivering pacing that requires patience and quickly-planned and executed maneuvers. Instead of detailing where you want to place different buildings and worrying about where the next mine is, as you command your way through the campaign you'll always have designated areas to build upgradeable bases that contain a limited number of spaces for additional weaponries and housings, along with buildings that are specifically meant for gathering resources.
With worrying about small details out of the way, gameplay is opened up to more action than anything else. For the most part, you'll be concerned more with what types of units you can deploy and how you can upgrade them, than you will with how many you can train due to how long your resources last. Such a shift in fundamental focus is what essentially separates this console-specific strategy game from its mouse-and-keyboard brethren—and it's also what could be a deal breaker for RTS diehards.
Those looking for a solid Halo experience from a new point of view, however, will be delightfully refreshed as they go from first-person shooting to virtual commanding. All of the necessary and functional elements that make the Halo games of past stand out have transitioned into the top-down perspective. Everything from shields refreshing on MJOLNIR armor, to the streaks from the wingtips of Banshees, to the cries of grunts find their way into Halo Wars. It's in these small details where Halo fans are going to feel at home, but it's also where newcomers to the series, who are looking for a solid strategy game on the console, are welcomed into the universe.
To complement these details is a story that follows Bungie precedent; and although it might not be wholly novel for the series, it delivers an entertaining context for building and deploying units, and jumping from one environment to the next. While the in-game visuals may get the job done with a mix of some flat textures but lively colors and great scenery, it's in the game's cutscenes where just about anyone would be blown away. Even if the Covenant-human conflict never makes it to Hollywood, you'll believe it entirely possible to make a stellar animated film based on the cinematics between levels. With what looks like a cross between miniatures and CG at some points (though it's probably all the latter), and top-notch voice acting (e.g. Nolan “Nathan Drake and just about every other protagonist as of late” North), it's easy to actually get interested in the story.
Only adding to the mix of fanservice and quality production is Stephen Rippy's assumption of Martin O'Donnell's soundtrack. Taking O'Donnell's and Salvatori's formula of hardened guitar riffs, melodic monk-like hymns, and a harmonious mix of symphony and electronic rhythms, but adding a touch more piano, Rippy creates a soundtrack with both background and forefront scores that can create tranquility or get you fired up for a mission—it's a compilation that's sturdy enough to stand on its own with the rest of your music collection.
All of the above makes its way into multiplayer offerings as well. Though not as robust as Bungie's online content, Halo Wars provides for games of up to three-on-three battles where each player has their choice of three UNSC or Covenant heroes, each with their own special ability. Also, just as in single-player skirmishes (non-campaign, quick-action gameplay), you have your choice of normal game types or Deathmatches, where you start with all available upgrades and a wealthy amount of resources to make for quicker games. Though we doubt multiplayer skirmishes will have as much longevity as the FPS or other RTSs, the necessity for quick-fire decision making makes the more action-heavy Halo Wars an intense-yet-sometimes-frustrating online experience—there is always online co-op, however, if you're in the mood for a challenge by taking on the almost impossible Legendary difficulty.
As the stuido's last outing, Ensemble has made two things clear: Halo games can move past first-person shooters and still deliver excitement; and real-time strategy games can be executed well on the console format. Sure, we argue that the game may be a bit of a watered-down version of the PC-centric genre with some shortcomings, but with satisfying action, streamlined controls, and a non-Master Chief story that still holds your attention (done in cutscenes that are worthy of their own feature), Halo Wars makes for a strong introduction to both the RTS scene, and the UNSC-Covenant conflict.