Historically, migration between genres has been more or less synonymous with misadventure. Much like Paris Hilton’s music career, for example, it’s generally better to play to your strengths than risk it all with an insipid, insignificant fumble in some other direction. Of course, one might argue that whatever it was she was doing before was so much insipid, insignificant rubbish anyway, but that’s somewhat beyond the scope of this particular review. In the meantime, however, could the genre-defining console shooter Halo transform itself into a real-time strategy game without choking to death on the cocoon of its own outrageous daring?
In fact, Bungie’s franchise was originally conceived as an RTS, before a series of important board meetings over at Microsoft HQ decided it would be a super successful launch title for the Xbox and – crucially – an FPS instead. So when Ensemble Studios got bored of their Age of Empires series, they swapped the Halo RTS licence with Microsoft for a nice cake (actual events have been simplified for dramatic impact).
With an entire narrative oeuvre conveniently ready-made, Ensemble could sink all their development cash instead into making an RTS that actually worked on a console – an accomplishment thus far about as accomplished as genre migration. Five years and several tens of millions of dollars later, and Ensemble rushed out of their offices triumphantly brandishing what is pretty much a tweaked Battle for Middle Earth clone with marines and tanks instead of all that silly elf stuff, and some cool controller support.
Paced over 15 missions, the game’s campaign sees you taking control of a United Nations Space Command investigation into the enemy Covenant’s business on Harvest, a former human colony planet. The story isn’t especially clever or profound, but the scenarios present an engaging compilation of objectives, mostly avoiding any drab “build stuff, kill stuff, repeat” gameplay. While not playable in campaign mode, the Covenant (and, perhaps more importantly, the awesome Scarab mega-tank-thing) are available in all single- and multiplayer skirmish games. Each faction features its own gameplay idiosyncrasies – where the Covenant has hero units out in the field, for example, the UNSC employs an off-screen orbital battle cruiser for special attacks and other resources. Inevitable disagreements between the two mobs are resolved with a rock-paper-scissors paradigm – vehicles beat infantry, infantry beat aircraft, and aircraft beat vehicles. Well, until UNSC players discover that their Spartan units can hijack enemy vehicles and aircraft, anyway, and Covenant opponents stop manufacturing new rides for their enemies and overwhelm them with five metric tons of Brutes instead.
All this complicated annihilation stuff is mapped to the Xbox 360’s controller with an unprecedented economy and elegance. Primary selections are all available through the A button – a single tap selects the squad, a double tap selects all squads of that type, and holding it down offers a paintbrush-style cursor for finer selections. Moving and attacking are assigned to the X button, while the Y button controls unit special attacks where applicable. Marines, for example, will lob grenades at their target. Base and alert cycling sit on the D-pad, while build options are managed in a radial menu. You’ll be hurling fully upgraded Hornets at your enemies with deadly efficiency before your PC Defence Force cousin can say, “You can’t do that on a console”.
While Halo Wars might be a bit on the simple side for snobby SupCom veterans, it’s big buckets of fun stuff for anyone looking to score 500+ Gamerscore in a single weekend. And you totally get your own Scarab.