Halo Wars delivers exclusive gaming experience to Xbox 360

As far as real-time strategies go, most fail as ports to consoles. However, Ensemble Studios’ final game, Halo Wars, does things somewhat differently.

Released earlier this month, Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game exclusive to the Xbox 360. Available in standard and limited editions, the game provides both single-player and multiplayer modes.

The Limited Collector’s Edition comes in special packaging that includes a graphic novel, collector cards of characters in the game, a seal related to the game and, most importantly, three of the new Mythic maps, (all of which are playable in Halo 3). This means that a new multiplayer playlist has been added for those who have purchased Halo Wars: LCE.

Halo Wars follows the story of Sergeant Forge, a UNSC officer aboard the Spirit of Fire, a ship in the UNSC armada. The story is generally unrelated to the events of the normal Halo series, and does not do anything to fill in the blanks from the games and the books. However, it does feature many of the characters from the series, including Spartans, the Covenant and the Flood.

The plot is sufficient considering the line of games from Ensemble. The most enjoyable part of the story is that most of it is presented through CGI cutscenes, which are all magnificently done. Some of the story is in the gameplay, but those parts relate more to the mission objectives than the story as a whole.

The gameplay for Halo Wars is the most important aspect. Though the game employs the Halo style–from the characters and story to the user interface and the font–the game still feels like an Ensemble game, having played the Age of Empires series. The animations and mechanics use themes from Halo, but they are not direct copies, per se.

Unlike other RTS games, like AoE, Halo Wars’ buildings are all located on bases. These bases can be upgraded to include more slots and more fortification. To build new units and buildings, there are initial supply units that the players use to build new buildings, create new fighting units and upgrade the previous two.

There are also special powers, like using a MAC cannon or dropping ODST units from space. These units and the creation of buildings and normal units require a build time, just like in the AoE series.

Another form of supplies is the Tech Level. By building more reactors, the player increases his or her Tech Level and can gain access to more powerful units and upgrades, as well as buildings and special abilities. The Tech Level does not decrease like power supplies, and it can be gained by occupying various intrinsic structures if the map includes them.

Once the player destroys a base, that base can be occupied to include more bases. Strategies include having one base solely dedicated to supply warehouses or by having the barracks closer to the front lines.

The player controls units by pressing the A button once to select a single unit, twice to select all units of that type and holds the A button down create a filled circle that selects all units in the circle. Hitting X makes the units attack and Y utilizes the special attack for those units.

The thumbsticks control the view, which is streamlined through a simple game mechanism. Though a mouse and keyboard always help, the game is never frustrating when it comes to controls because the mechanics are not convoluted, though in that case Halo Wars lacks the same depth as AoE or even Battle for Middle-Earth. However, console RTS games are not only more difficult to control, but also suffer gameplay issues with framerate and connection.

The graphics and the audio for Halo Wars are on par with both PC and console RTSs. The voiceovers are excellent and along with the aforementioned cutscenes, they help tell the story in a way simple real-time animations could not. The art direction for the game is not startling, as the Halo series set the precedence, but the real-time animations are still exciting.

For example, the Spartan units’ special attack allows them to board Covenant. Their normal weapons include turret guns and Spartan Lasers, which do well against enemy vehicles. Spartans can even board an abandoned Scarab, an event that occurs during the single-player story.

If players like to play quickly and strategically, they can have a decent experience. The most fun in Halo Wars occurs during heavy stockpiling for complete domination. The excitement of seeing a dozen aircraft and vehicles with a company of troops bombard the enemy is refreshing.

With the addition of the special powers, the mayhem can increase ten-fold. Halo Wars may not be for all players, but veteran RTS players and Halo fans should at least rent the game to experience a solid–if somewhat short–strategic adventure.