It's Halo, Chief, but not as we know it...
The Real-Time Strategy genre was once a principle province of the PC, but recently a few of its big hitters have tried their luck on current consoles – with limited success. Hardcore RTS fave Command & Conquer couldn't quite make the controls work on a pad, and the voice-controlled Tom Clancy's EndWar focused more on tactical troop deployment than building a base and amassing an army. As such, there remains a definite gap in the market for a truly great console RTS.
Step in Ensemble Studios to fill it. With Halo Wars on Xbox 360, they've created probably the best-ever console RTS control scheme, and a game which, on playing the Xbox Live demo, promises to be both accessible and strategic in equal measure.
Probably the best-ever console RTS control scheme promises to make Halo Wars both accessible and strategic in equal measure.
Halo Wars kicks off with a tutorial that gets you used to guiding your units. The left stick handles the camera's movement, while the right stick both rotates the cam and dictates your viewing angle, which you can have top-down and far away (so your soldiers look like ants), or zoomed in for a more up-close-and-personal experience.
Whichever you choose, at the centre of the screen you'll find a cursor used to interact with your armies. Doing so is simple; press A to select single units, RB for all on the screen, LB to select all units, or you can hold A and manually drag the cursor over the ones you wish to control. When you've chosen your troops, X makes them move, or if pressed when hovering over an enemy unit, the cursor turns red and X becomes attack. Y is secondary attack, which depends on the unit – soldiers for instance have grenades, while the Warthog can ram into enemies.
No Prophet in peace
Halo Wars also has a handy set of shortcuts which replace the super-fast mouse scrolling that PCs do so well. L trigger speeds up Halo Wars' camera, R trigger lets you cycle through unit types, plus you can jump straight to them with down on the d-pad, and switch the view straight to your base(s) with left on the d-pad. Up on the d-pad, meanwhile, accesses Leader Powers, which for human UNSC forces means an airstrike, and for the Covenant you get the similarly powerful psychic powers of the Prophet of Regret – both of which you aim with the left stick.
Because Halo Wars' basic controls are so intuitive, so it's not long before you're well into the advanced tutorial and learning how to build a base. Only certain places on the map are suitable for this, but once you've found one it's a simple case of selecting the option from a pop-up menu to erect the main structure, then clicking one of the eleven empty building sites which form around it and populating them with an assortment of structures.
A streamlined pick-up-and-play experience with all of Real-Time Strategy genre's key conventions.
Your first task will be to get the resources needed to purchase them. Pleasingly, Halo Wars' take on resource management isn't as drawn-out as other RTS titles. Sending your starting Warthog off to forage for initial supplies, you can soon build a Supply Pad, which keeps a steady stream of supplies coming in. Next, you'll need a Reactor to gather power, and with those both up, you can populate the other empty spaces in your grid with Turrets, Barracks, Vehicle Depots and the like, which provide the defences and units needed to wage war upon the enemy – albeit with an initial 30-troop limit, to stop things descending into chaos.
Like the controls, Halo Wars' base building is all easily memorised, and while the grid system is a little simplified from some PC RTS titles, it strikes a good balance, offering a streamlined pick-up-and-play experience with all of genre's key conventions.
Most importantly though, it oozes that familiar Halo feel. The menus, art style, cutscenes and characters could all have been cut from Halo 3, and from the opening skirmishes you really do feel like you're in the middle of the UNSC's five year-long struggle for the planet Harvest. There's even a story which revolves around the Covenant finding an ancient relic on the surface, and on top of all that, Halo Wars' Skirmish mode will let multiple players battle it out as both Earth and alien forces.
Streamlined but still supremely playable, and feeling like a perfect fit for the series despite trying an entirely new gamestyle, Halo Wars on Xbox 360 should satisfy both strategy gamers and Halo fans alike when it arrives in just two short weeks.
Preview by: Mark 'Spartan' Scott
Preview Published: 11.02.09