Microsoft could slap the word "Halo" on a steaming pile of cow dung and it would sell millions of copies on the Xbox 360, so powerful and popular is brand Master Chief. Halo Wars, Microsoft's first non-FPS, non-Bungie developed Halo game, defies any cynicism gamers might have about the "milking" of the franchise. Not only is it a lot of fun, and unmistakeably Halo, but it's just about the best RTS on a console.
It's also a hell of a brave move, when you think about it. A console RTS isn't an obvious choice for Halo's first tentative steps outside the realm of FPS. They don't tend to sell wonderfully well on consoles and, as PC gamers always argue, you're constrained by controls that are never as good as the mouse and keyboard. We've seen admirable efforts (Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, Tom Clancy's EndWar), but it's safe to say no developer has conjured up an analogue stick-based control system that gives you the speed and level of control the mouse and keyboard provides. Halo Wars isn't the game to solve that problem, but developer Ensemble, of Age of Empires fame (and sadly no more following its closure by MS), has come tantalisingly close.
Halo Wars uses a simple but ingenious control system that combines presses of the face and shoulder buttons with taps of the d-pad. At its most basic, moving the targeting reticule (cleverly nicked from Bungie's FPS games) over a unit, say a UNSC Warthog, and pressing the A button selects it. Moving the left thumb stick to another part of the map and pressing the X button will command that Warthog to go there. Press the X button on an enemy unit, say a squad of Covenant Grunts (those little guys whose cute quips and screams are a hallmark of the series) and the Warthog will attack it. Many units have special abilities, and to use them you need to press the Y button. So, a Warthog's special ability is to ram - run over enemies for more damage, just as you love doing in the FPS games. Press Y on the squad of Grunts and the Warthog will slide over them in true Halo fashion - cue cute alien yelps and the flying of bodies into the distance.
Halo Wars starts to get clever with its unit selection system. It's here that most RTS games on consoles fail - simply being able to send different groups of enemies off towards different objectives, or flanking, or any of that multitasking stuff, is incredibly difficult with a joypad. Ensemble's solution is a simple one: to select all units that appear on screen you press RB, and to select all units on the entire map you press LB. If you want one particular unit type among those you have already selected (small unit icons display at the bottom of the screen), pressing RT cycles through them. You're also able to select all units of the same type by double-tapping A with the targeting reticule over one of them, and you're able to select units manually using a paintbrush style technique - pressing and holding A produces an expanding circle that selects all units within its diameter.
Obviously moving the camera with the left thumb stick isn't an efficient way of getting about the map, especially when your bases are being attacked and you're trying to initiate an assault of your own. Thankfully, you don't need to use it. Indeed once you get used to the controls you won't want to. Instead, you'll use the d-pad to get around. The d-pad allows you to hurtle the camera to your bases and various armies, as well as access your UNSC Leader Powers - an AOE heal, for example, or a MAC Blast from the orbiting space ship Spirit of Fire. Because you're able to move about so quickly, you're able to adequately cope with what the game, and other human players, throw at you.
But where Halo Wars gets really smart is with base building. Halo Wars follows the ridiculous RTS conventions that have underpinned the genre since Dune II (who, exactly, am I buying things from?), but shapes it in a way that keeps everything very manageable and console friendly. There are only a few base locations on any map - you can't build a base just anywhere. Each base has a set number of building sites and turret foundations, and you can construct one facility on each building site. Pressing A with the targeting reticule over a building site opens up construction options. This brings up a radial menu (similar to that found in the console versions of EA's Red Alert 3). You can move around the various build options with the left thumb stick, and cue up as many units as your resources afford.
So, you'll probably want to start with one or two supply pads, which allow you to receive resources from the Spirit of Fire. Then you'll want a barracks, which allows you to train infantry units. To climb up the tech tree you need to build reactors. Then there are air pads for air units, vehicle depots for vehicles and field armouries for special upgrades. It's basic, but it's easy to digest, and given that the game only allows you to build on building sites, you never waste time wondering where to place buildings - essential for a console RTS.