Halo Wars' unit selection, unit movement and base building mechanics combine to provide a remarkably intuitive control system. You never feel constrained, hand-tied, unable to deal with what's being thrown at you. There's room for improvement - being able to build units and upgrades from anywhere on the battlefield, ala Red Alert 3, instead of having to manually travel back to a base and do it from there would have been much more efficient - but the highest praise we can lavish on Halo Wars' controls is to say that you don't notice them, a bit like a good referee.
Halo Wars is divided up, as is RTS convention, into two distinct parts: campaign and multiplayer. The 15 mission campaign, which will take you at least 10 hours to work through depending on difficulty level, can be played solo or co-operatively (much more fun) via Xbox LIVE or system link. Story wise, Halo Wars is set 20 years before the "Halo Event" - Halo 1 on the original Xbox. So, no Master Chief. Instead, we've got the UNSC's disappointingly generic chisel-jawed American soldier type Sergeant Forge, who doubles as one of the UNSC Leader units. The game begins with Captain Cutter, commanding the Spirit of Fire, AI Serina (who consistently annoys - bring back Cortana), and Professor Ellen Anders, the headstrong scientist, arriving at Harvest, a planet devastated by five years of war. It's not long, though, before you're chasing the Covenant across the galaxy. We're under strict instructions to avoid spoilers, but what we will say is that the Covenant are in pursuit of Forerunner (mysterious long gone aliens) technology, which they believe will allow them to build an army so powerful that it will wipe the humans out in the blink of an eye.
The campaign offers a good deal of fun, but it feels a tad uneventful, unfortunately, and a bit of a slog. Indeed the tremendous CGI cut scenes steal the show (forget a live action movie, make it CGI). Objectives range from taking a small number of predetermined forces on a trip through a map to hour long skirmishes involving multiple base building and advancement through the entire tech tree. It's not easy, either. Some players will hit a brick wall when Ensemble ramps up the difficulty level during mission four - you need to protect three passenger ships as they load up with civilians amid an intense Covenant invasion. Even on the default difficulty, the Covenant isn't afraid to pound you from all directions as often as it can. In order to complete the game, you need to get used to skipping about the map quickly and hardwire the rock, paper scissors combat - vehicles beat infantry, infantry beats aircraft and aircraft beat vehicles - into your brain.
Despite the lack of a wow factor, Halo fans will enjoy unravelling the back story the campaign provides to the ever expanding, and complex, Halo universe (a time line with unlockable entries proves a strangely compelling motivator). Because it's on console, and because Halo FPS fans will make up most of its audience, Halo Wars' campaign is under more scrutiny than campaigns in other RTS games, which, let's be honest, usually amount to nothing more than a glorified tutorial for multiplayer. That certainly isn't the case here. In fact, Halo fans are guaranteed to get that "Halo feel" from the game, despite it being an RTS. Ensemble's done a great job of capturing the spirit of the series. Warthogs are perhaps the best example: they power slide around just like they do in Bungie's games. The sound effects, too, are bang on: everything from that classic Needler burst to exploding plasma barrels. Even the menus and the music are classic Halo.
While the graphics are, from the default perspective and further out, impressive, it's perhaps telling that you can't zoom in to the degree that you can in other RTS games. Explosions are pretty, and the game handles mass chaos without breaking sweat. But the physics are a mixed bag. Yes, enemies will spiral off into the distance when they suffer particular powerful blows, but vehicles break apart like Lego when they're destroyed - you almost feel like you can pick up the pieces and click them together. Still though, the overall feel is unmistakeably Halo. Those expecting the immediacy and impact of the FPS games will be disappointed, of course, but you can't accuse Ensemble of "not getting" the franchise.
The multiplayer, however, struggles to captivate, in part due to the lack of races (only the UNSC and Covenant are playable) but also because the races work so similarly. Covenant base building follows the same constrained model as the UNSC. You can only build a citadel, as it's called, in predetermined spots, and can only build structures on the pads provided. For supply pads see warehouses, for barracks see halls. There are subtle differences: the Covenant can protect their base with a shield generator, for example, and gravity lifts transport units to the leader unit, but you can't help but feel that the addition of just one more playable race would have improved multiplayer immeasurably. In Ensemble's defence it's hard to see where that race would come from - the Flood doesn't make much sense as a playable race (ever seen a Flood tank, or Flood base?), and the fact that it's a console RTS doesn't leave much room for manoeuvre in terms of adding complexity, but PC RTS players will feel that the game is a little light weight.
Overall, Ensemble's greatest success is that it's managed to conjure up a console RTS that is fun and doesn't suffer from its controls. Indeed those ex-Ensemble staff who have now gone off to form new companies can be proud of Halo Wars, the studio's final game. By virtue of the control system it's the best console RTS available. There are problems of course - the campaign is a bit of a slog, the multiplayer lacks variety and PC RTS players will no doubt dismiss the game, saying it would have been better on the PC (there's a degree of truth to that) - but those issues don't prevent Halo Wars from being as good as RTS games get on console. It's the perfect opportunity for 360 owners who have never played an RTS before to see what all that geeky micro-management stuff is all about.