The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Longtime real-time strategy house Ensemble Studios has been shut down by its parent company, Microsoft, much to the dismay of its legions of Age of Empires fans. After playing the developer's last game, Halo Wars, the studio's closure is even more baffling. Halo Wars isn't perfect, but it's a huge step in the right direction for console RTS. For the first time in the sub-genre, I felt like I was playing a game instead of wrestling with a kludged-together control scheme.
The beauty of Halo Wars is its simplicity. There are no modifier keys on the controller, no mutable unit AI stances, and no resource collectors to babysit. More than anything else, the game is reminiscent of StarCraft in that it has just enough depth to be interesting and lets player strategy take care of the rest.
Both the UNSC and Covenant have access to three each of infantry, vehicles, and aircraft (plus uber-units, leaders, and special commander-specific units). The tech trees are streamlined but important; upgrades like the marines' rocket launcher and the Jackals' deflector gauntlet are huge. Special abilities and support powers are likewise streamlined. Units have one ability apiece on a cooldown, with no energy bar to manage. Support powers like calling in orbital artillery are also restricted by cooldowns, but also cost resources to use.
This all adds up to a gameplay formula that is light on the boring kind of micromanagement (tech trees, resource gathering, and base building) and heavy on using awesome units to blow the hell out of the enemy. Along with having few interface problems to contend with, this allows your time to be put to use formulating and executing strategies. All by itself, this fact makes Halo Wars the best RTS on console to date, bar none.
The single-player campaign is relatively replayable, with higher scores to attain and difficulties to conquer, as well as black boxes and skulls to collect. The 15 missions tell a story that Halo fans will dig, though they often rely too much on gimmicks and endlessly spawning enemies to cover up for a lackluster AI.
Offline skirmishes are a disappointment, with that same lame AI (I should not be able to crush a Legendary opponent 100 percent of the time with ease) sapping the mode of its potential. Using skulls to up the difficulty helps offset this, but it's no substitute for a challenging, fair match. Online, however, is outstanding. The maps are varied and well-designed, and the factions and commanders seem balanced. Against human opponents, Halo Wars' excellent gameplay is free to shine without annoying campaign gimmicks or bad AI to hold it back. Co-op campaign play is fun as well, though all it does is let both players control the same units – nothing else changes in co-op.
Though Halo Wars is a vanilla RTS at its core, it's a solidly made one that proves that traditional genre mechanics can work on console. This is a fitting send-off for one of the best-loved RTS studios in the world.
Halo Wars does for the RTS genre what Halo did for console FPS. This is neither the most nuanced or complicated strategy game on the market, but Halo Wars succeeds as no other title before it in building a functional and fun mechanic using little more than a d-pad and some face buttons. Fantastic between-mission cutscenes highlight a story that will please any Halo junkie, and everything from the music to the Spartans' animations are awash in the familiar themes of that fictional universe. Like its FPS cousin, Halo Wars is equally accomplished in its cooperative and competitive multiplayer. In every instance that the game simplifies a mechanic, it makes up for it through thrilling battles and accessible controls. This is the first console RTS that I can recommend to friends without reservation, and a huge achievement as the final project from Ensemble Studios.