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A console RTS done right sends Ensemble Studios out... with a bang

Halo Wars is an RTS title, published by Microsoft Game Studios and developed by Age of Empires creator Ensemble Studios, shortly before Ensemble's closing. Ultimately, Halo Wars does what the original Halo did best - take a hardcore PC genre and make it work by building it from the ground up for consoles. Halo Wars rightfully takes the cake as best RTS to grace the Xbox 360.

Console RTS has been steadily growing. EA has been porting its Command and Conquer RTS franchise to consoles to bring the experience to a wider audience, but console RTS will, almost necessarily, be generally less complex than even a relatively underfunded PC RTS, for the reason that the PC has a mouse and keyboard, and a keyboard has over 70 buttons, compared to 12 buttons, 8 d-pad directions, and 2 analog sticks on a 360 controller.

Halo Wars is a great RTS, however - but it would be arguably accurate to include the caveat "for a console". Players have two useful tutorials, a basic tutorial and an advanced tutorial. The basic tutorial will teach new players how to move their units and how to perform several actions with them, while the advanced tutorial will cover base building, base destroying, and combat - for players that would rather skip this, these are already covered in the campaign.

The campaign puts protagonist Sergeant John Forge in the spotlight during 2531 - 21 years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, when there were many Spartans kicking butt across the galaxy and Master Chief was still in his earlier, less glamorous years. The agricultural planet Harvest has finally been retaken, after a brutal battle lasting five years against a newly discovered alien society, called the Covenant - made up of many different alien races. Forge is assigned the search Harvest for any lingering signs of Covenant activity, but the mission turns complicated when the Covenant discover a fleet of Forerunner ships (the Forerunners were a technologically advanced race that vanished hundreds and hundreds of millennia ago for currently unknown reasons. Think Protheans) the otherwise simple mission turns into a race against time to prevent humanity from being crushed under the mighty heel of the Covenant. It's a shame that, given all of the options that the Covenant has in terms of gameplay and their huge backstory, a Covenant campaign wasn't done - it would have been a great way to showcase their robust abilities and to describe the story from a different point of view.

Of course, the Covenant have several notable baddies as well. The Prophet of Regret is the main antagonist, and he has an Arbiter by his side - not the same Arbiter from other Halo titles. This powerful Sangheili that Forge and his friends are up against is Ripa 'Moramee, and he is overconfident, brutal, and very muscular for his kind, serving the Prophet zealously as a means to redeem himself for past transgressions.

Gameplay is surprisingly accessible, although things were simplified to make it work on 360. Base building, upgrading, and unit movement are fairly easy, and many things such as sensitivity, "aim assist", and camera zoom can be tweaked in the menus to make things easier. There are occasionally issues with pathfinding and unit AI, and it's frustrating when fast humvees (Warthogs) slow down behind the slow Scorpion tanks instead of simply going around them. The entire campaign is playable in co-op mode with a buddy via Xbox LIVE or System Link, which makes managing an army much easier (typically, it's best to divide the two players into roles - one player handles the economy, such as researching upgrades or building new supply pads, and the other player manages the combat units, destroying enemy bases to create new spots to build a command center)

Audio, visuals, and units are all Halo authentic, from the gunfire from an assault rifle to the sound of a Scarab uber-tank walking over a mountain. Tons of familiar units are present as well as new ones - players will be treated to the familiar Wraith, Scorpion, Elites, and ODSTs as well as the new ones, like Gremlin combat support, the UNSC air powerhouse Vulture, and Covenant anti-aircraft Vampires (who actually drains the energy of its victims to heal itself - providing players have the necessary upgrades) and all of them are easy to command.

The campaign spans a fairly long 15 missions, although the first two are mostly just tutorials. Maps and objectives vary greatly, such as repairing a ship's power core while under fire in one mission and destroying a stationary Mega Scarab in another while the humans' command center's cover slowly erodes under the relentless assault beam of the Scarab. All of the of Blur-rendered FMV cutscenes look spec-effing-tacular, even by 2011's standards (Halo Wars released in 2009) and a cutscene toward the end will blow everyone away. Whenever I see the light reflecting off of Ripa Moramee's armor or a Spartan-garrisoned Warthog firing at a flee Covenant dropship, all I think is, "Beautiful," and that is all.

The campaign is excellent, but Skirmish mode is amazing. Two teams battle each other in an attempt to destroy all of the enemy bases, and is playable in 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 in two (five via DLC) - and all but one of these spots can be filled by either AI or a human player (one player is required to start, but if they have an Xbox 360 and they have Halo Wars, they more than likely have a controller, and a controller means a human player) and neutral AI makes up most of the map, requiring players to destroy the hostile base to build a new one in its place. Instead of requiring resource collectors to babysit, players build a supply pad on their base that keeps the money flowing in.

Players select from 6 leaders, 3 UNSC leaders and 3 Covenant leaders, who shape how you play the mode. Humans use a UNSC base and by tapping up on the d-pad they bring up a wheel of powers - like Pelican transport, Heal/Repair, and each leaders' exclusive powers. Captain Cutter, who can take advantage of the UNSC Spirit of Fire's Magnetic Accelerator Cannon (MAC) to deliver huge damage to a small area, and, after researching the Cutter-exclusive ODST upgrade, can request a hot-drop of ODST troops at any point near an allied unit. Sergeant Forge can upgrade Scorpion tanks to Grizzly tanks and can request an airstrike to deliver damage over a longer distance. Professor Anders has access to the upgraded Hornet gunship, called the Hawk, and can deliver a cryogenic bomb to temporarily freeze enemies and hostile turrets. UNSC leaders also have an exclusive unit - Cutter has the mobile minibase Elephant, which can be moved around and serves as a mobile barracks, Forge has the Cyclops, which excels at destroying bases and can also repair mechanized units and buildings - Anders has the combat support Gremlin, which I didn't use very often. UNSC leaders also gain an economic boost. Cutter has upgrades bases, Forge has upgraded supply pads by default, and Anders delivers 1/2 price and research time on all upgrades.

Covenant leaders, on the other hand, physically appear on the battlefield - players can choose from Arbiter Ripa 'Moramee, the unnamed Brute Chieftain, or the Prophet of Regret. Each one has a dizzying number of upgrades available so by the time they are already upgraded, they will easily destroy enemy tanks - perfect for crushing those heretics. Like UNSC, Covenant leaders get exclusive units. Ripa 'Moramee gets the suicide grunts we all know and love from the Halo trilogy, Brute Chieftain gets the Brute race, and the Prophet of Regret gets the skilled swords-Elites, the Sangheili Honor Guards. They also have their own leader power - Ripa 'Moramee can unleash his inner beast with Rage mode, chaining together incredibly powerful energy sword attacks to destroy virtually anything, Chieftain can quickly wipe out all infantry in the area, and Regret has a cleansing beam - similar to the MAC but over a period of time. All of these powers consume resources as they are used, so best to save them until players are up against stronger enemies.

Skirmish mode can also be played in Matchmaking, and it truly shines with human players - AI in Skirmish is wholly lackluster, but at least players can issue orders to their dumb AI that they follow. It's a shame there is no matchmaking for co-op campaign, but even if there was, I'd rather play the campaign with someone I know, given how much success relies on communication on the Heroic and Legendary difficulties. In Halo fashion, Halo Wars uses skill-based matchmaking, and also has a ranking system, so players will often be trying to reach the coveted General rank, netting players 50 gamerscore.

Ultimately, Halo Wars is a huge success. I think it's great for the industry to have a shining example of how to do the genre justice on a simpler interface.

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