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.
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.