If you're a console gamer, the chances are you're not a hardcore Real-time Strategy fan. The genre has never been that popular with joypad jockeys, because all that multi-unit multitasking was considered much better suited to a PC keyboard and mouse setup. Until now.
Halo Wars is an important title in many respects. It's the first new Halo IP we've seen since 2007's Halo 3; it's the franchise's first steps outside of first-person shooter genre; and it's the first fully-fledged RTS to really work on console.
Stars in their eyes
As a Halo game, Halo Wars is an astounding success. It just feels like it belongs in the franchise – the intro resonates with that familiar choral chanting, the menus are presented with the same blue hue and futuristic artwork, and the cutscenes are positively dripping in Bungie's much-loved interstellar melodrama.
Spartans can wield powerful weapons like the Spartan Laser and commandeer Covenant vehicles. Used wisely, they beat everything.
The story too expands the series. Set 20 years before the first Halo game, it's a time when humans are battling alien Covenant forces across the known universe. Halo Wars sees you commanding the forces of the Spirit of Fire as they bound about the stars taking the fight to the enemy.
Which brings us to the new genre. How has the Haloverse translated to tactical gameplay? Pretty well, actually. Halo Wars gives you a single grid-like base to populate with structures, from which you can amass an army. Combat works on a paper-scissors-stone system – ground vehicles typically beat infantry; infantry typically beat aerial threats; flying units beat ground-based vehicles. Special Units meanwhile include Spartans, who can wield powerful weapons like the Spartan Laser and commandeer Covenant vehicles. Used wisely, they beat everything.
It's just annoying that the 'fog of war' effect is so prevalent. In most RTS titles, it masks an area until your troops have explored it. In Halo Wars, you won't be able to see enemies even in the areas you have explored, unless you place troops there. It might annoy PC players, but console gamers new to the genre are unlikely to care.
A new standard
And that's because of Halo Wars' handy control shortcuts. Scrolling with the analogue stick can take its time, but you can speed this up with LT, jump to your base or units with the D-Pad, and sift through unit types with RT. A more detailed control breakdown can be found in our Preview, but sufficed to say, it's easily the new standard for RTS games on consoles.
Halo Wars' online Skirmish mode may prove a huge hit on Xbox Live.
When you're not delegating tactics in Halo Wars, you'll be researching to improve your units. You do this by clicking on the relevant building, which brings up a radial menu. Here, the options to create new units are on the right, and upgrades are on the left. In the barracks, for instance, you can upgrade your basic soldiers to have an extra man in the squad. Click a turret and you can give it an improved rail gun. It's all hassle free, with the cost being the resources constantly flowing in from your supply pad.
A second player could complicate matters, but Halo Wars' online co-op option actually makes it all the more fun. The two players can independently create and direct their own units, and even give units to each other. Having twice as many players doubles efficiency as well, so Halo Wars' higher difficulty settings are best played via this method – especially some of the more frustrating missions involving everyone's [least] favourite parasite, the Flood.
Once Halo Wars' campaign is complete, you can turn to multiplayer. Here you get to pick from UNSC or Covenant forces, each with a choice of different Leaders who bring special abilities into battle (more on that in the Preview). Importantly, the Covenant look and feel suitably different – and markedly more powerful in some areas – and yet the base building and upgrading is handled just the same way, with each race's weaknesses and strengths being countered by the other's. It would have benefited from a further third playable race, but Halo Wars' online Skirmish mode may nonetheless prove a huge hit on Xbox Live.
Surprisingly easy to pick up, deftly balanced and boasting both co-op and competitive multiplayer modes, Halo Wars is a rare success for the console RTS and a brave but brilliant way for Halo to branch out into new genres. It's a little simplistic compared to the Red Alerts of the world, and it may not help the Xbox 360 usurp PC as the home of strategy gaming, but for console gamers Halo Wars offers the best of both worlds.
- A brilliant RTS control scheme on a console controller.
- The story, look, sound and feel are all unmistakably Halo.
- Co-op and multiplayer skirmish will add lots of longevity.
- May feel a bit simplistic to hardcore PC RTS players.
- Fog of war obscuring even the areas you've already explored unless you've got units there.
- Could have done with an extra playable race.
Review by: Mark 'Scarab' Scott
Review Published: 26.02.09