Ensemble Studios, the legendary studio behind the Age of Empires series, is no more. Halo Wars, their first title for the Xbox 360, is also their last title - ever. Sad (and inexplicable) as that is, let it not predispose you to assume this game is no good. Whatever the reason for putting the axe through the studio, quality clearly wasn't a factor - Halo Wars is a good game. How good? Let's take a look...
If you're not familiar with the excellent Age of Empires series on PC (and, recently, DS), they're fairly straight forward Real Time Strategy games. The goal of taking a group of low tech savages up through technological epochs by gathering resources and defeating your enemies had very little in the way of original ideas but the execution combined with those ideas was second to none. The games became legend thanks to awesome implementation and a stylistic flair, with a balanced combat engine and an attention to detail that beat most other games, let alone RTS games.
Halo, of course, is the super-success story out of Bungie - the developer purchased by Microsoft back in 2001. No longer owned by Microsoft, Bungie is still cranking out Halo-themed goodies (their next is a stand-alone expansion and prequel to Halo 3, called Halo 3: ODST) and the Halo franchise itself is stronger than ever - even our very own Peter Jackson is getting in on the action, with games and movies with his name (and that of Halo) attached to them.
Halo Wars then is pretty much exactly what you'd expect if you put "Halo" and "Age of Empires" into a magical combiner machine and pressed the "make the expected happen" button. It's 'Age of Empires' on a console, set in the Halo universe. There's more to it, of course, but not much - if you go into it expecting pretty much what you should, that's pretty much what you'll get.
The RTS combat model is pretty basic - if you've ever played Rock, Paper, Scissors you should know what to expect here too: infantry is strong against aircraft, aircraft has the upper hand over vehicles, and vehicles decimate infantry. You can spend resources to upgrade the abilities of your individual units to offset their weaknesses or augment their strengths to a certain extent, but the core strength / weakness / neutrality triangle will always contribute most signicantly to the outcome of any conflict.
Resources play a part here but unlike many other RTS games, including Age of Empires, they're not a "go out and get them" chore. Instead, you create supply depots in your base which will generate resources from that point onward. Crates you can collect are sprinkled around the maps, but they're purely bonus resources to grab on your travels - certainly not something you typically will need to collect.
Aside from the resource of "supplies", the space you have to build on is also strictly limited (should you have any - not all missions have bases to work from). There are only a few designated spots on most maps on which you can build a base, and each base can only support a limited number of support structures. You can upgrade your bases to support more structures but it will cost you a healthy amount of supplies so think wisely before you do. Many buildings can be upgraded to increase their efficiency, often freeing up another building slot for a different building type but this too comes at a serious premium - deciding your exact building arrangement is much of the strategy in Halo Wars.
The third type of resource is supplied by the Reactor building type. Energy is measured in single units and a number of these units is often required to build your army, structures or to research upgrades. The higher the technology level of the thing you want to build, the more of these energy units you'll need. An upgraded reactor supplies just two units of energy and if you want to build the top tier of technology you're going to need several upgraded reactors to power these upgrades. Given that you only have so many building slots to populate with reactors...again, thinking carefully about your building structure is critical in Halo Wars.
The controls are surprisingly simple. Given that RTS games are widely regarded as only a novelty on consoles, the ease with which Halo Wars is able to be controlled is remarkable. At no point did we wish for the comfort of a keyboard or mouse - even in the thick of battle, which can get very hectic indeed.
Camera and cursor control are combined onto the left stick. To accomplish this, the cursor simply remains in the middle of the screen at all times. None of this pesky "move to the outer quarter of the screen and the screen will scroll in that direction" crap - simply move the stick and both mouse and cursor move together. Nice. Selecting units is done with the A button, orders are issued with the X button and alternate attack orders are issued with Y or context actions with A whilst you have units selected. Easy!
Additional controls give you the ability select all of your units at once (press LB), select all of the units on screen (RB) or do sub selections within the selected group via the triggers. Pressing A whilst on a structure or building slot will bring up context-sensitive circular menus (easily navigated with the left stick), allowing you to queue up build orders or research upgrades. You can also jump directly between unit groups using the directional pad, which also allows you to jump back to your base or use your commander's special actions.
Commanders, much like in most RTS games since Warcraft III, have special actions available to them. These actions vary by mission and commander, with offensive, defensive and reinforcement capabilities. However using one of these abilities will consume your supplies and will often require a certain level of energy.
The presentation in Halo Wars is, for the most part, exceptional. The user interface has the classic Halo feel, the music is derived from the same dramatic score as its FPS brethren, and the main cutscenes simply ooze polish. If you're a Halo fan, you're going to want to play this game just to see the cutscenes. However the secondary cutscenes are simple transitions before or during gameplay. They use in-engine graphics rendered to video; the combination of techniques results in a stark contrast to the (rather fancier) story sequences and look positively garish in comparison. It's no big deal but chances are good you will notice it.
The box sports fancy graphics which talk of wonderful sounding multiplayer modes (including support for up to 6 players), however as is often the case with reviews of games that aren't out yet, there's simply no one online to play against - so we couldn't test it.
Gameplay is fun, if not particularly outstanding. Halo Wars is not the most innovative RTS game ever however the key gameplay traits employed here (such as a simplified cover system from Company of Heroes) work and work well. It may lack the depth that hardcore strategy fiends will crave for however there's more than enough here for a less fanatical RTS player to enjoy. If you're an ex-RTS player longing for the days of less complex (yet still strategic) gaming, Halo Wars is just the ticket.
In fact, Halo Wars is the most accessible traditional RTS game we've ever tested - it works, and works well. It's fun to play with varied maps, varied missions and is literally jam-packed with "Halo-ness". The sights, the sounds and the raw feel of the game is Halo to the core. If you're even slightly interested in RTS games and like Halo even a little bit, you should check this out. If you want to see a proper RTS game done well on a console, Halo Wars is every bit worth checking out. If you happen to love RTS games and Halo, well, why did you even read this far? Halo Wars is what you'd expect when you entrust the masters at Ensemble (never forget) with making an RTS game set in Bungie's epic. It's rock solid.