Say Halo to my little friend.
You can make your prom dress out of duct tape. You can stack a rat on a cat on a dog. You can build a non-functional car out of beer cans. And you can make a real-time strategy (RTS) game exclusively for a gaming console.
[image1]Which leaves only one question: Why would you want to?
Sure, the first RTS games may have been on consoles, but games like Herzog Zwei (and possibly Intellivision Sea Battle?) were clunky, simpler affairs. It wasn't until Dune II turned up on the PC that the genre really took its true form and showed us the real possibilities. The mouse and keyboard were (and are) simply a more natural interface, allowing much more precise, complex and natural orders for your little minions.
As RTS games got more and more complex, the console ports, for the most part, only got clunkier. So when Halo Wars was announced as a 360 exclusive, I was both surprised and confused. It's a bit like announcing a new book that will only be released on hand-written papyrus scrolls.
But perhaps that console focus aided Ensemble Studios as they set out to make a definitively non-PC game. Because with all efforts aimed at the 360 rather than a dual-purpose game, everything turned out streamlined and simplified. In short, it works.
Halo Wars is set in the year 2531, 21 years before we first followed the exploits of Master Chief. The colony planet of Harvest has been a battleground between the UNSC and the Covenant for five years, but we humans are finally winning. The Covenant make their last stand at an ancient relic discovered in the polar ice. As Sergeant Forge and his marines, you make the final push for complete victory on Harvest. The ancient relic turns out to be a star map, but a map to where?
Thus begins your galaxy-spanning adventures as Forge, stationed aboard the starship Spirit of Fire. The story unfolds as you travel from planet to planet, unlocking clues to an ancient power. And, in fact, storytelling is one of Halo Wars' strengths, as the beautiful cut-scenes detail a richer tale than the reticent Master Chief ever did.
[image2]And the different planets that act as battlegrounds are rich as well, from the aforementioned polar ice, to blasted wastelands, to populated human cities full of civilians running panicked to evacuation ships. Plus, it all looks gorgeous – from the smallest marine to the gigantic Covenant scarabs, the graphics are beautifully detailed and run smooth as silk in even the most frenzied battles.
The sound is equally good, with competent voice actors, and all the furious clamor of battle. (Although I have to say I've always wondered why the Covenant speak English.)
Unfortunately, it's over all too soon, at least as far as the single player game is concerned. There is only one campaign, you play only as the USNC, and there are only 15 missions. There are lots of easter eggs and skulls to find for a little bit of replay value. However, the focus of Halo Wars is clearly the multiplayer.
Which works well and supports up to six players, and some very crowded, frenetic battlefields. Here you can play as either the Covenant or the USNC and pick one of six leaders (three human, three alien) each with different bonuses for your army. No, you cannot play as the Flood, although they make an appearance in the campaign. From banshees to warthogs, all the vehicles and units you remember are available to you, even SPARTANs, assuming you have enough supplies.
Bases can only be built in certain map locations, and supplies are created right there by either supply depots or warehouses, so no harvesting is necessary. As the USNC, you have a further option to call down support from the Spirit of Fire – repairs, planetary bombardment, and the like. However, that costs precious supplies that could be used to build a Scorpion tank instead. With no starship overhead, The Covenant's special ability to balance the game is their hero units, like The Arbiter, who actually take part in the battles and are uber-powerful.
[image3]This all works because of the simplified controls. The bumpers allow you to quickly select all currently visible units, or all units in your army with a single press. The only two orders are “move and attack” or “move and special attack”. All building and upgrading is done through easy-on-the-controller radial menus and the D-pad lets you cycle quickly between armies or bases. Normally, I yell at writers who describe the controls in a review (telling people to press X to jump is not a review, that's just the manual), but in this case it's integral to why the game is playable (especially on the console) rather than an awkward mess like Supreme Commander for the Xbox 360.
In the end though, while Halo Wars is a RTS that's been dumbed down exactly the right amount, it's still been dumbed down. While a good game, compared to some of the intricate tactics of its PC counterparts, it just feels rather thin, and with only two sides, battles always seem to follow familiar patterns.
It is, in fact, entirely possible to cook food on your car's engine. You might even make some damn good braised pork with onions. Yum. But that doesn't mean it's just as good as cooking in a gourmet kitchen.