Halo Wars is a rare breed. Real Time Strategy games have generally fallen short on the console format which could explain why they are far and few between. However, Halo Wars shows us how it could be done and definitely goes a long way at setting the standard.
Firstly, the controls are nearly perfect. Controls in an RTS can make or break the game. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your arse handed to you by the AI purely because they don’t have to deal with dodgy cameras and jarring controls. Ensemble have done a great job in making the controls feel consistent and simple. Although this is a great thing for simple play on the lower difficulty settings, some more complicated controls for ordering specific groups of units wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Whilst playing through the campaign I repeatedly got annoyed from not being able to select a group of units, bind them to a key and then be able to select them on the fly. With that aside, the controls are tolerable and efficient.
The campaign and main story of the game isn’t terribly exciting or revolutionary, and can sometimes even feel a little disjointed. The variation in different units you are allowed change from mission to mission, leaving you feeling agitated by the fact that you aren’t allowed Grizzlies, air units or even ODST units. On occasion it allowed me to upgrade my infantry to full only to them let me know that it was mostly wasted as the ODSTs weren’t available. In one mission you are allowed to control a pair of Grizzly tanks that are seriously awesome, but they aren’t available in any other missions. It’s like they’ve let me sample the finest wine but then not brought me the bottle.
The actual story of the campaign is fairly generic. The characters are mostly copy and paste from other titles, with the main character being a complete douche. I honestly felt a stronger bond with my lunch than I did with Sergeant J. Forge and actually smiled a little when he dies at the end (whoops, spoiler); like “a true hero does”. The romance between him and Anders was completely shallow and never developed on, nor were their backgrounds or personalities. But hey, at least the missions actually make up for the story.
The missions are widely varied and it never feels like you’re playing the same mission twice. Each and every mission has a unique twist on it that makes it feel different to the others. Whether you’re deploying and defending tanks to disrupt a laser, destroying a half built scarab or simply cleaning the hull of the ship from the Flood, they all bring something different to the table. But like I said before, the only problem with this is that they keep introducing new units for a specific mission and then take them away as if they never existed, only to appear in Skirmish matches. But what also makes the single player re-playable are the skulls that are scattered throughout the missions.
The skulls; once collected, act as game modifiers. They can affect the game by making the enemies harder without upping the actual difficulty by giving enemies more health or by removing your minimap. They can also be used to make the game easier by giving you more supplies or lowering the time it takes for you to build units. They can also be used purely for fun, such as having scarabs shoot rainbow beams of love. The skulls that actually affect gameplay also affect the multiplier on your mission score, giving you another reason to play through the campaign. The skulls add a lot of re-playability to the campaign and can make some annoying missions (I’m looking at you Arcadia) really fun.
Like with any good RTS, there’s a Skirmish mode in which you can play against other real players or AI. XBox Live enables you to be beaten over and over by random people you don’t know, or you can always get beaten hard by your friends. The Skirmish mode also brings consistency to units available and lets you also take charge of the Covenant. Although you do get the choice between these two sides, I would have liked the oppurtunity to play as the Flood. I don’t think it would have been an unreasonable task as there are already a variety of Flood units in the game.
Although the story is lacking, this game is definitely fun. The cinematics in the game are some of the best I’ve seen. It’s rare for me to watch through cinematics a second/third or even fourth time whilst going through a game, but I still find that cinematic with the Spartans at the end breathtaking every time.
The cinematics are great. The controls are great. And most importantly, the game is fun. It might not be the best RTS ever made, but it definitely shines through as one of the best console RTSs made. Amazingly fun and enjoyable… even if it could be improved with a keyboard and mouse.