Impressively, playing a Halo-themed RTS feels instantly natural. After kitting up for your first game, you’ll notice that this isn’t just an idea produced from money-grabbing developers who are unafraid of tarnishing the franchise’s untouchable standing amongst the gaming community. Instead, there’s a sense of occasion about the entire title, as it confidently blasts its way to the top of the current gen console RTS hierarchy with relative ease.
For those that have already finished the FPS fight and are eagerly awaiting the ludicrously named Halo: ODST, this game will serve as an enticing way of donning the Spartan helmets again, and getting ready for battle against the Covenant once more. With the stylishly vibrant visuals fully intact, you’ll witness the fierce engagements that highlight the appeal of the series, although this time on a much grander scale. Before, you’d stand alongside your brothers, ready to put your life on the line at the order of your commanders. Now, you get to make those orders.
While Master Chief himself doesn’t make a personal appearance, you’ll be hinted towards his existence throughout. With the narrative acting as a prequel to the rest of the franchise, you’ll witness the UNSC’s operation to track enemy progress and movement towards gaining a set of devastating weapons. As your foes find something dangerous on the planet Harvest, it’s your job to stop them from wiping out the entire human race, presented to you through some excellently produced cut-scenes that enforce a grit that wasn’t apparent in the FPS games. Voice-work is generally solid throughout, as you’ll often be updated with new objectives and potential threats through each mission via the slick communication system that lies in the top left hand corner of your HUD.
If you’ve never accustomed yourself to the in-depth tidings of RTS gameplay, Halo Wars is an excellent place to start. With tutorials on hand at all times, you’re never far away from learning how to establish your army and presence on the battlefield. Controls are simply laid out, meaning the potential gripes that forced many other 360 strategy games to surrender to the slaughter of critics are largely eliminated. With the analogue sticks controlling the camera, you can really get into the heat of the fight, zooming in to see all the intricate details of the well-known Halo characters and vehicles. The bases in particular are finely presented, with acute niceties littered across their gloriously slick framework, especially when they are upgrading or a specific pad is being built.
In order to succeed, you’ll have to work out and execute some fine tactical procedures in the single-player campaign. Launching yourself straight into enemy territory may work for one mission, but you’ll bet your medium-sized turret it wont for the next. Establishing a solid and quickly functional base is the only way to ensure you’ve got what it takes to meet the might of your opponents. Initially setting up the base building, you’ll have the choice to add a set of barracks, a supply point and even a technology-advancing reactor. Once the bare basics have been applied, you may want to further strengthen your supply income by upgrading to a faster depot, as with the real world, money means power. Establishing a quick income is essential, as this opens up the possibility of training your marines to a Spartan level of perfection, buying additional vehicles to take out the ruthlessly adept Scarab, or even purchasing a new route of attack through the air pad. If all else fails, you can save the day via the satellite support, calling in infantry frying laser beams or an onslaught of stronghold dismantling missile attacks.
In the thick of the action, when there is no alternative but to fight until the bitter end, Halo Wars shows just how slick and relentless the action is. With troops scattered on foot, vehicles ploughing across treacherous terrain, and dogfights frantically taking place in the air, it’s easy to sit back and watch the action with the imagination of what this would feel like if it were happening in the game’s FPS brethren. Although utterly engaging, the single-player campaign does begin to bore, as it’s obvious to see that you aren’t tackling an endlessly thinking and advancing opponent. The AI holds a stern test, but there is nothing like tackling a human mind over Xbox Live.
As you enter the online arena, either against a close friend or unknown newcomer, you’ll witness just how addictive Halo Wars can become. As the clock starts and you begin building an army, you’ll wonder how they are performing on the other side of the map. Of course, this is where decent tactics pay dividends, as you can be embarrassingly caught on the back foot if you’re not careful. As you can only see the enemies that are within a small distance of your own squads, there is always the chance that something bigger and far more sinister is waiting to destroy your team. Playing online runs smoothly, and always offers a thrilling engagement as you desperately battle to establish a number of bases, and finally, an attack on the enemy’s main building. This is how the game is meant to be experienced, as the calm before the storm can be felt with a nervous sense of anticipation. Hugely entertaining against a like-minded friend, you’ll be raining orders insistently with the merciless nature of a dictator in no time at all.
If the online versus arena doesn’t suit your tastes, there is always the opportunity to work alongside a friend on the co-op mode. By playing missions that have already been unlocked in the single player campaign, you may build a surprising sense of unity and agreement in the way you take on each challenge. What’s so appealing is that there is a vast assortment of units and hero characters to dabble with, meaning you’ll be finding new ways of approaching quests on a regular basis. As with the competitive mode, experiencing your defiant success in the face of the beautifully rendered adversary is the most compelling way of playing the game.
Despite the lumbering campaign mode, Halo Wars is a brilliant addition to the series and, more importantly, to the RTS genre. Proving it takes more than a popular theme to make a console based strategy game work (Lord of the Rings, I’m looking at you), the accessibility and sheer scale of the title will leave many wanting to unveil the in-depth entertainment that’s on offer. For fans of the series, this will whet the appetite before ODST lands sometime this year. For everyone else, Ensemble Studios have not only delivered once again on the RTS formula, they have set a new standard for the console.