Twenty years before Halo: Combat Evolved the war between humanity and the Covenant was a much more strategic affair, as proven in Ensemble Studios' swan song, Halo Wars.
Halo Wars takes the familiar setting of the first-person shooter series Halo and translates into a console-based real-time strategy game, in which players build up and army, gather resources, and participate in large-scale battles for the future of humanity.
Of course, having played through the Halo trilogy, we know how things turned out, just as we know the fate of most developers who attempt to translate the often complicated real-time strategy genre to the console. Was Ensemble Studios successful in their taste, or did they go out with a whimper instead of a bang?
-After shooting through scores of Covenant and Flood soldiers in three Halo first-person shooters, the United Nations Space Command's story rewinds a few decades in Halo Wars. The game grants you command of both the human UNSC forces and their archenemy, the theocratic alliance of the Covenant. Halo Wars offers quality cinematic presentation and a simple control scheme that makes the game easy to pick up and play, but the limited amount of units, short campaign, and dearth of multiplayer modes make it ultimately feel stripped. Halo Wars is a fun playthrough for casual real-time strategy and Halo fans, but there's not enough depth to win over hardcore strategy buffs.
Now, for those of you who are fans of First Person Shooters, but don't know a power generator from a plasma grenade – don't panic. Halo Wars is quite rookie friendly, and it features very comprehensive tutorials that go so far as teaching you what a cursor is. Handy! After ten or fifteen minutes you can learn all there is to know about busting Covenant chops and setting up pimping command bases – this can be both a good thing, and a bad thing.
...deciding what to build and where is the bulk of the strategic experience. Upgrading your base will net you a maximum of seven building sites, but a single base simply won't provide enough space to support a well-rounded army. It's a simple system, designed to make fielding an army as painless as possible. But Halo Wars' design suffers a bit from the fact that it is designed to be a more casual experience. If you understand rock-paper-scissors, you understand the combat: Vehicles beat infantry, infantry beat aircraft, and aircraft beat vehicles.
Like the Halo FPS games, the Halo Wars campaign is all about quick bursts of fun strung together, and that means missions with carefully defined objectives. For many PC RTS players, the draw to the genre is the ability to step into the shoes of a powerful general with every little bit of the situation at his or her command. But there aren't that many ways to complete the missions in Halo Wars. There wasn't a point where the game really took off the training wheels and said, "There's the enemy – go get him however you see fit."
So the story is good, the controls are great, it does right by the Halo license, what's left? How about the A.I.? Is it challenging? Unfortunately, this is one arena in which Halo Wars stumbles a bit. It's not that the game is too easy or too hard. The problem is, it's both. It's either too easy or too hard. It's never in-between, where I feel like I'm truly evenly matched with the A.I. It never once surprised me or made me think, which is a bummer. I may always have multiplayer, but I would love an A.I. match that felt even.
It's odd, being a long-time fan of both strategy games and Ensemble Studios, to love the single-player experience of a game they made, but feel so flat about the multiplayer sessions. Halo Wars is a fun ride, an action strategy game that delivers on everything but, perhaps, where it needs to deliver most to succeed: multiplayer gaming.