Halo Wars is an easy way for fans to continue the fight

When John 117 disappeared into slipspace at the end of Halo 3, it looked like he had finally finished the fight.

But never one to let a lucrative franchise die, Microsoft Game Studios tapped Age of Empires creators Ensemble Studios to resurrect the Spartans, this time as a real-time strategy game instead of a first-person shooter. (Microsoft subsequently shuttered Ensemble, so thanks for all the hard work, guys.)

There's a symmetry in that, since Halo first sprang to life as an RTS before mutating into the multibillion-dollar franchise it is now. But if Halo Wars, which hits stores on Tuesday, is any indication, it's probably better that the RTS came second.

This one's been anticipated for a long time — Game Stop even plans midnight openings to distribute it — but there's also been plenty of unease about the idea of an RTS Halo game, and with good reason: strategy games on consoles are not that good. As often as I play the Command & Conquer series, I'm used to the standard handheld control scheme, but with a D-pad and no keyboard, the ice-skating camera and cumbersome army functions are still tough to cope with.

No such problem here; in fact, Ensemble has streamlined the controls so much that there's almost no depth to the game, strategy wise. Although, considering the intended audience, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

This is a game designed to augment the existing mythology. The story is set 20 years before the first Halo game, featuring new characters and familiar vehicles (for the most part). This is first and foremost a fan game, built to sate the legion of faithful who already know what the Covenant is and why humanity is fighting them.

Secondly, this is an RTS for the crowd that doesn't like RTS games. Controls are simplified and objectives are usually crystal clear. While that may sound like a good thing, I'm going to go a little hardcore here and say they made it too easy.

Besides the fact that the AI is practically pacifist in nature, the inability to group armies or select air units separately from ground units easily (as you can do in other RTS games) forces your tactics to be grade-school easy: build a massive strike force, then go slug it out with the enemy.

Supply gathering is neatly automated, which is a nice change, and designed in a way that makes sense. But that's the real key — simply race to amass the most supplies in order to get far enough ahead on the technology tree that you can create what you want (although a population cap keeps things from getting too absurd). Once you've built a couple Scorpion tanks, the battle's practically over.

The single-player campaign consists of 15 missions that illustrate splendidly how stories in games should be told. If Gears of War has too little and Metal Gear Solid has too much, Halo has always been the baby bear, bring just the right amount. You're given a cutscene that lasts a couple of minutes at most, then you're dumped into action.

But even while that action is seamlessly blended with objective updates and enemy alerts, the levels are still cakewalks. The only two campaign levels I had to repeat were both timed, one to coordinate a rescue, another to hold out a certain length of time.

But those steeped in Halo lore will forgive those transgressions, because much like its FPS cousins, Halo Wars shines in multiplayer. Besides the ability to play as the Covenant, which is marginally different from the UNSC, the real fun is in matching wits with another human, to see if your Spartans can jack enough Wraiths to hold out against a foe that's as fast as you are. It's the kind of stuff Halo players have always wanted to do, but couldn't in the original trilogy.

And really, even as an RTS, it doesn't stray too far from the originals, even with Bungie out of the picture. Gathering as many as six players to wage war on each other on a dizzyingly complex array of maps outside of the campaign? Hmmm ... that formula sounds awfully familiar.

Chances are, we'll see it again, too.

Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Halo Wars

Platform: Xbox 360

Price: $59.99, or Special Edition for $79.99

Rating: T for Teen

Halo Wars is an easy way for fans to continue the fight 03/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 6:39pm]

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