The strange thing about Halo Wars is how understated it all seems. How dignified. There are so many ways that Halo Wars is an important game - it's real-time strategy on console, it's Halo in a new genre, it's Ensemble's swansong, it's another blow in the console wars - but while they could easily dominate your thoughts as you play it, they don't. Instead they just evaporate in the face of such a confident, self-assured and elegantly constructed videogame.
It lacks a little flair at times, but Ensemble has always excelled with this kind of small-c conservative design. If you look at the recent trend of RTS on consoles - taking in everything from the forthcoming Stormrise by Creative Assembly to Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's EndWar - Ensemble's game is most like the traditional RTS. Tweaks for the format are small, but meaningful, and they mostly work. Anyone who's played PC RTS has had a tendency to look on console incarnations as though it's sex with a couple of condoms on, but Ensemble's got it down to one extra-thick Durex: awkward, but still fun.
Halo Wars is also rather neat because it's an RTS prequel to a series originally conceived as an RTS. As expected, it tells the story of armed conflict between the Covenant, the UNSC and The Surprise Guest Oh I Wonder Who They Could Be. The story's not told particularly well, and isn't directly relevant to the game's charms, but it's an excuse to cram all your favourite bits of Halo's universe into an RTS: if you've shot it, shot in it, stole it or been annoyed by it while making your way through the Library, and if those events took place in a Halo game, you'll find it here, converted into an RTS, but working just as expected.
The key conventions of the RTS remain intact. While there are a few missions that vary things a little, it all grows from your management of a base. It manufactures resources, which you can then spend on improving your economy by making stuff that makes more stuff, or by improving your troops in term of quality or quantity. Levels are won when the enemy, who is trying to do the same thing, is defeated. Woo! The controls that would form a traditional PC RTS are crammed onto the controller, scrolling with a stick and selecting with the A-button. Shortcuts include being able to select all units or all units onscreen with the bumpers, scrolling faster with the trigger, and jumping between bases and/or danger alerts with the d-pad.
What makes it work isn't in the controller configuration, but what you actually control. Judging what you can manage is what makes Halo Wars sing. Take the bases, which you can only construct on pre-designed points. They open slots where you can construct your buildings (for PC veterans, think Kohan 2 or Rise of Legends), so the strategic questions are immediately clear. You have a new base. You have three slots. Which of your buildings do you fill them with? Alternatively, do you upgrade your base to get more? You're not scrolling around the map trying to find bits and pieces, but have a central position where you know they all are.
The base almost acts like a radial selection menu, allowing swift and decisive economic actions. Things are similarly well-judged on the research side. To access more powerful units and structures, you require reactors. Each reactor you build - or capture, as there are some spread around the map to be fought over - opens up further options. In terms of individual units' power-ups, they're mostly found in the same structure that built the unit, on the opposite side of the radial menu. If it's on the right, it's about making stuff. If it's on the left, it's about making stuff better.
This elegance only really falls apart in one of the research structures, where a few of the more generalised research abilities are collected. It's easy enough to grasp that everything else goes here, but when a few options apply to a specific subgroup (for example, adrenaline boosters to make your troops run quicker) you suspect they may have been better positioned over with the troop-making structures. If you choose to play Covenant - in skirmish or multiplayer, as the campaign is UNSC only - it's a little trickier to get a hang on them. They're really the advanced race, with more things that seem counterintuitive compared to the humans in terms of working out how they advance. Also, playing through the campaign before heading into open play does mean that it acts as an extended training sequence for UNSC - something the Covenant lacks.
The biggest strength for both though is the fact that most people understand the Halo universe. It's not just the geek thrill of seeing a Scarab in action - it's that you understand what the Scarab means on the battlefield (trouble). We know which characters are best against tanks, and which are probably best in special vehicles. Over on the special ability side - also well-judged, with everyone's abilities activated by the Y-button and members of the subgroup selectable with a trigger - some of the more unusual abilities are also familiar. Take the Spartans, who are able to take over most of the Covenant vehicles. You quickly realise in multiplayer that while the Covenant are able to churn out tanks quicker than the UNSC, it's something of a double-edged sword when you're just delivering a spanky new car to our boys in the green hats.
All of which is to say that, as an asymmetrical wargame, Halo Wars performs well. The two sides are both authentically different to one another and offer different challenges which are entertaining to master. It's still too early to talk about absolute balance, but it certainly leads to interesting interactions.
The higher-level choices are fun too. Outside of the campaign, you get to choose which of six commanders you take into action, and these alter your abilities. On the UNSC side, you get a different unique unit, assorted bonuses (e.g. starting with upgrading production centres, easier research, etc.) and an orbital-bombardment side ability. For the Covenant, you get a different specialist unit and get to actually take your leader onto the battlefield. So, rather than the timer-recharging orbital-blasts of the UNSC, your leaders can get involved and use their high-level powers as long as you have resources to fire and they're not dead. The Arbiter's Rage ability, for example, allows you to take manual control of him in the manner of flawed not-classic Rise and Fall, like a mini-game button-basher. It's a rare example of something that a strategy aficionado could describe as an obvious console influence.
If the two main sides are great, it's the third which causes problems. The Flood, turning up in the campaign proper as an antagonist, just doesn't work as an RTS opponent. When everyone's a big old mob, a mob of icky creatures doesn't cut it. Their end-of-the-world-oh-no! nature is basically absent, and in an example of the game's faithfulness not really working out, their pallid yellow colouring means it's difficult to pick them out of the scenery in desert levels.
Bar that, the campaign is smart collection of missions with fine variations on the whole RTS theme. (The missions that have a splash of tower-defence are a good example. The one where an immobilised Scarab plays sentry, with you trying to manoeuvre closer without being destroyed, is another). While not exactly long - expect to get through it in about the time it takes you to play through its FPS-brother's campaign - the fifteen missions are designed to be replayed. Firstly, they're short enough to do so. Secondly, medals - from Tin to Gold - are awarded depending on how well you do, and there are the Halo-traditional four difficulty levels to wrestle.
Aiding this is the game's co-operative mode, which allows two people to play any of the missions - or the whole campaign - together. And that's literal. As in, you both control the same base. Whatever troops you tell your base to make, you get, or can gift to your comrade in arms. In terms of actual research and base-management, you both get to spend the same money however you want. Expect lots of rows akin to co-habiting couples of the "You Spent The Rent Money On Games Workshop Skaven?" variety when someone spends all the resources on something the other player considers stupid. In other words, while fun, it seems a sideshow compared to the intricate conflict the multiplayer and skirmish allow.
The other main reservation is that areas other strategy games have explored well are a little more vestigial here - for example, the ability for infantry to take cover in the occasional defensive structure. Where something like Company of Heroes - or even C&C - made claiming and holding them a key part of the strategy with specific counters against troops in hiding, here they're just dropped in so sporadically they feel like an idea Ensemble integrated then never really developed. And while there's detail to consider with the special abilities, a lot of the game does operate in the simple manner of selecting all and then clicking on something to do or kill.
But then, while the original Halo FPS took many of the best PC innovations in the genre leading up to its release and made a game that seemed native to its new format, and genuinely new, Halo Wars clearly isn't doing that. It's a console RTS that thinks the genre was fundamentally fine the way it was. It's happy with that classical design. All it's interested in is making that fly on the 360, and, on that level, you have to consider Halo Wars a genuine success. I can't think of any console RTS that has achieved that seemingly-simple objective as well as Ensemble's final flourish.
As a developer that always seemed most interested in plain craftsmanship, it's a suitable capstone. As a return to one of the 360's most popular universe, it's about as good an RTS as a Halo fan could expect. And as a game, Halo Wars is a genuine pleasure.
8 / 10