Going back to the roots of the Halo franchise before it was a shooter, Ensemble Studio’s final project becomes Halo Wars. Despite deceptive advertising that makes it seem like another action title, this fast paced, simple to play RTS is epic in scale, more so than the shooters ever could be. While it may not have the depth die-hard, jaded strategy fans would want, Halo Wars is an excellent entry point for newcomers.
Taking place across multiple worlds, Halo Wars story is loaded with intense CG cinematics, easily some of the best of the series. The Covenant invasion is explored in depth as the player attempts to counter it at every turn.
The opening tutorial, while clear, misses some key aspects. It fails to mention how to select units on screen only or the right trigger swap between units, and while not hard to figure out through experimentation (or by looking in the manual), one would think this should be an exhaustive guide.
Halo Wars sets up a location for a base at the beginning of the stage, and either it’s ready to go or the pre-set squad will have to find it. Once acquired, buildings can be constructed, including barracks, money gather units, generators, and various vehicle platforms.
A number of unique vehicles make their appearance, both on the ground and in the air. In terms of expanding the universe, this is superb. New units, including the first game appearance of the ODST, will also send Halo fanboys into a tizzy.
Controlling the units is easy, but selecting individual units and commanding them remains a chore due to the platform. It’s just not that easy when you’re lacking a mouse. When it comes to controlling large armies, of which most levels require anyway, this is intuitive. A simple two-button command system either says “attack” or “attack with a secondary weapon.” The camera can become hung on edges at times during levels with thinner walkways, making this a minor but notable annoyance.
Sadly, it’s UNSC only in the single player campaign. No separate one exists for the Covenant, and the Flood are never playable. While the latter group isn’t a loss, a campaign for the major opposing side seems like a missed opportunity.
That said, the multi-play does allow for Covenant play, along with the chance to play with six players. This is where Halo Wars and the Ensemble legacy will live on. Two modes seems limited, but there’s not much to do with a RTS aside from Skirmish and the action-oriented deathmatch. The usual Halo lobby system is in place (and the menus could have been pulled from Halo 3), so familiarity will draw veteran shooter fans in as well.
Beautiful and large in scope, RTS fans may initially be put off by the limiting controls. They will quickly learn that the game isn’t designed for complexity. It’s designed for fast paced fun, and taking a full 30-unit army into battle is typically the best way to handle things anyway. This is a fine farewell for Ensemble Studios, and the wonderful credit sequence is a wonderful goodbye.