It's no doubt safe to say that Halo Wars has been awaited with much anticipation in the gaming community. Some have been awaiting it as the next instalment in the Halo universe, expanding upon the UNSC's war with the alien Covenant which preceded the Halo trilogy. Others have been expecting the first perhaps truly great console real-time-strategy game, a genre which has not had the greatest track record on anything other than PC. And then there are those who have been looking forward to Ensemble Studio's last hurrah, previously being responsible for the massively successful Age of Empires series. These expectations are obviously well founded. After all, take the developers of a great strategy series, add in the Halo mythology and make it enjoyable for even the casual player. What could go wrong?
The Halo Wars campaign puts you (we assume, since you take the role of an omnipresent force on the battlefield) in the shoes of USNC Captain James Cutter, commander of the Spirit of Fire. Under his command are Sergeant Forge and Prof. Ellen Anders, who discover an ancient Forerunner facility on Harvest, after re-taking it from the Covenant. This facility points the way to another, and from there, it's a familiar race against the enemy to find Forerunner technology, and it should be no surprise to anyone that the hive-minded Flood turn up once again too. In terms of Halo plotlines, it's by-the-numbers, although the cutscenes in which the plot is advanced are visually excellent. Unfortunately, it's a one-sided tale, as the Covenant aren't playable in the single player campaign, only in multiplayer. And the Flood? They aren't playable at all.
So, slight disappointment about the playable factions aside, how does the game work? Rather simply, as it turns out. In the campaign mode you'll usually be presented with a small collection of units, who'll need to be directed to various points along the maps to fight with enemy forces, escort civilians or build bases. Along the way, you'll also have side objectives as in Halo 3, things like killing a certain number of Elites or Grunts, which are interesting diversions to try and achieve. Building bases is a simplified process - you start off with a base with a limited number of build spots around it. You can increase this number by upgrading your base, and there are only six kinds of buildings to choose from, which are essentially your bare basic strategy options. Namely, barracks, vehicle factory, research lab, etc. Instead of money or minerals, you'll be building your troops with 'supplies' which can be found in small piles around the maps or more efficiently constantly airlifted in via supply drop buildings in your base.
At first glance, this simplified structure actually works well with the simple control scheme on the Xbox 360. The A button selects single units, and with a tap of LB, you can select all of your units on the field. Hitting the right trigger will let you cycle through various unit types, and you can select groups of units by holding down the A button and passing a selection circle around the units you want. While all of these methods are certainly easy, they simply don't allow you to manage your troops efficiently. All too often, you'll simply direct all of your troops to a single spot, rather than customising your squads and sending them out to multiple locations. You can do it, although it's hardly user-friendly and when you're going back and forth between several teams, you have to reselect all the units in that squad using the hold-A-button method. Maybe this is a necessary concession due to the lack of a mouse and keyboard on the system, but it ends up feeling just a little too limiting.
Unfortunately, there are other chinks in Halo Wars Spartan armor. For starters, the maps often seem entirely too small when compared to other games in the genre, and there isn't much variation in their size either. Again, this lends itself to making the game easier to pick up for newcomers, but also feels rather limiting, especially in the campaign. There are also other issues that you'll encounter along the way, such as the at-times surprisingly stupid unit AI and pathfinding. All too often, we'd station overpowered units around a key defence point and then turn our attention to our base, only to find upon returning that the defence point was a smouldering ruin and the stationed units hadn't so much as moved a muscle. Other times, you'll direct your most powerful airship to the enemy base, wait for a while and wonder why it hasn't shown up, then scour the map to find it stuck against a mountain or building, and unable to find its way around. It must also be said that in playing the campaign on the normal setting, the enemy AI wasn't exactly a nuclear scientist either, and the solo campaign experience is unfortunately far too short.
Of course, the game also offers other modes in addition to the campaign, with skirmishes and a mandatory multiplayer mode, which offers matches of up to six players or three teams against each other in 'standard' or 'death match' modes, the latter offering an accelerated rate of play. The big draw here is the ability to play as the Covenant, who in all honesty aren't very different from the USNC, aside from a larger occurance of the colour purple. The game would have benefited from a completely different race (like the Flood) to mix things up a little, but as they stand there are few differences between the sides, one being the different special abilities that each side's Leader units can activate. We found that in multiplayer, the game's reliance on the all-inclusive 'supplies' meant the difference between victory and defeat, as if you'd set up enough supply drop buildings and taken over enough bases (scattered throughout the maps for you to find and claim), you have a near infinite supply of resources with which to build a constant flow of attacking units. Interestingly, there's also an option to play the campaign co-operatively, allowing you to co-command for a single mission or the whole game.
The graphics in Halo Wars occasionally dazzle, but never match the truly impressive cutscenes. There are a decent selection of iconic Halo units, from Spartans to Wraith tanks to Warthogs, and the units themselves look great. Also, the bases are all well-detailed having several intricate moving parts which hold up well once the camera's zoomed in. Unfortunately, the landscapes in comparison are fairly plain and dull, and the sometimes gaudy colour scheme (which is something of a Halo tradition, we must say) doesn't do the game many favours either. The sound design, on the other hand, is fantastic, with some great orchestral tones mixed with fan-servicing Grunt wails and sound effects.
There are some who say that there hasn't been a good real-time strategy game on a console yet. Unfortunately, Halo Wars does nothing to prove them wrong. While it definitely captures the look and feel of the Halo universe quite well, there are just far too many simplifications and limitations to make it more than just an average RTS. If you're new to the strategy genre, and have enjoyed the Halo series, it's conceivable that you might like parts of the game, despite the short single-player campaign and repetitive multiplayer. There are measures of clever thought that have gone into the game, and there are definitely some unlockable rewards to be found if you stick with it. It's just not a game that is deep enough, or just plain enjoyable enough for you to want to stick with it. It's sad, but Halo Wars is neither truly great nor truly terrible, instead settling for the mediocre middle, unfamiliar territory for both Ensemble and the Halo franchise.