RTS games don't work on consoles. But you knew that. Ports of StarCraft, Supreme Commander and C&C have all suffered without the mouse and keyboard interface. Recent console ports (Battle for Middle-Earth II springs to mind) recently made strides, but (voice control aside?) the genre's yet to see a game that nails it. Perhaps until now...
The Halo universe was designed for real-time strategy - literally. Almost ten years ago when Bungie set out to make a Mac strategy game, we doubt they would've imagined their sci-fi series would go full circle to first-person shooter and back again. But here we are.
Thanks to the three solid FPS games under Chief's belt, we've grown a great deal of affection for the characters and critters of Halo. The waddling Covenant Grunts and the electric bark of a Warthog's cannon hold more charm for us than Bruce Forsyth and Well-Hard (RIP) from Eastenders combined. And this makes Halo Wars the perfect platform to attempt a console RTS jump.
From base-building to the horrors of the front line, managing unit construction and sending tanks in for the kill is simple, enhanced by Ensemble's control set-up. D-pad quick-jumps, a 'painting' option (hold down A) and 'Select All' commands make for a robust and manageable control pad solution.
At the game's most intense moments you'll have several fully-upgraded bases pumping out Warthogs, Spartans and Scorpions, LB brings (that's 'select all') them to the front line while the D-pad quick menu enables you to swiftly call in air-strikes. It's very rare that a console RTS achieves this level of meta-management without you pulling out your hair in frustration - but Halo Wars does it well.
Halo Wars does a great job of capturing the spirit of the series. Perfectly recreated noises from the Halo universe make us want to dust off Halo 3 even though Halo Wars' impressive CGI cut-scenes do a great job of fleshing out the prequel. Menus are perfect, complete with sound effects and there's no end of Spartans elbowing Elites in the face. Even though it's an RTS it still feels like Halo.
Construction is simple. Your base has a designated spot (you can't pick somewhere nice for it to go) and is itself divided up into patches for you to build barracks, generators, turrets and other typical RTS structures on. Buildings can be queued up via a pop-up radial menu, which is also used to select unit and base upgrades, in turn giving you access to more building options.
Resources are gathered via supply pads, which in turn can be upgraded to double capacity. There no building resource collectors and sending them off to the outer rim of the map. Reactors upgrade your tech level, giving you new units and abilities. The main base can be used to build warthogs, call for hero units and upgrade the special commander powers.
Because of the limited amount of build slots on your UNSC Firebase (or Covenant Citadel if you're batting for the other side), you need to think strategically about your build options. Should you build two supply pads, a single reactor, a barracks and a vehicle depot? Or drop the vehicle depot to allow for another reactor, thus upgrading your infantry?
Special mention must be made of Ensemble's carefully paced and consistently entertaining campaign, which rarely becomes too hectic to manage.
Instead of lobbing endless typical 'build and destroy' missions at you, the main campaign threads a well-paced selection of mission at you. These include everything from escort missions (tow a bomb up a steep hill - but have the towing vehicle destroyed and the bomb will roll back down), defensive stand-offs and battles against giant bossmen.