Ensemble Studios and Microsoft seem very proud of the steps they've taken in making an RTS feasible on a console. But while some of that pride is certainly justified, having recently had some hands-on time with the first three campaign levels, we can't shake the feeling that Halo Wars could turn out to be a dumbed down approximation rather than the real thing.
It would be easy - but irresponsible -for us to pass off the game's simplicity as a product of the early phase of the game we played. After all, what game kicks off at the peak of its challenge, especially in this casual-friendly day and age? But we've got to call what we saw, and thus we have to explain a few definite issues we currently have.
As we say though, it's early days and there are definitely good things to be found in the game aside from our reservations. So we now present you with a full rundown of our reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be fearful of this currently very mixed bag of strategic warfare.
Reason to be cheerful - It's very, very easy to get into
From the very begining, the advantages of designing this game directly for the 360 are apparent. With no pre-existing keyboard and mouse control to port and convert, Ensemble has been able to re-write the rulebook and adapt the conventions of the genre to the 360 controller itself, rather than the other way around.
The core controls are streamlined to using only three buttons and a stick (X for targeting movement and attacks, Y for each unit's more powerful secondary attack, A for manual selection of units), with the bumpers and triggers also used for automatic unit selection. There's none of the 'Octopus finger frenzy' trouble that comes from trying to squeeze too complex a control scheme onto a joypad, and everything is very easy to pick up.
Reason to be fearful - Simplified control schemes can be clumsy control schemes
That unit selection we mentioned? It's easy to use, but slightly problematic in its execution. We were encouraged to use the automatic options; either pressing the left bumper to select all units on screen or pressing the right trigger to cycle through our army one character class at a time. Thus, you either send your entire on-screen forces charging at a single target like homicidal lemmings (a consistently effective tactic, we found to our disappointment), or you direct a single group comprising entirely of the same unit type.
Want to fight on two fronts, sending a mixed squad to each skirmish? It's possible by dragging a paintbrush tool over the units you want, but as we say, during the demo we had very little reason to do anything but send our entire army in as a single mob to swamp whatever we came up against.
Reason to be cheerful - It's full of Halo action and personality
Halo Wars does a brilliant job of fooling you into thinking you're playing an action game. Unit design, character behaviour, sound effects, physics... They're all pure Halo 3. Grunts still squeal and flee like cowardly Jawas. The Warthog still performs gravity-defying leaps over cliffs and chasms. Grenade-struck enemies still fly through the air hilariously. It's even possible to shoot exploding barrels to instantly wipe out nearby Covenant forces.
Everything about the colourful, chunky production design is instantly recognisable, and the vibrant graphics fairly jump off the screen. So much so that at times it feels like playing Halo 3 by omniponent remote control.
Reason to be fearful - It seems full of over-powered Halo weapons and possible balance issues
The amped-up special attacks essentially turned Y into the win button during our play through. Augmenting each unit with a powerful, character-accurate, time-rationed secondary fire move, they let us cut through the enemy forces like a lightsaber through high-altitude oxygen. Marines throw grenades, which cause ludicrous damage when you've got more than a handful of them in active combat. Warthogs charge at ground troops and run them over, unleashing one-hit kills on whole squads at a time.
And worst of all (or best, depending on your perspective), tanks have the cannister shot, a mammoth explosive projectile which utterly decimates anything it comes into contact with over a very wide area. We watched people use and abuse that one time after time, completing missions with a near-constant barrage of its incendiary might. We even overheard one of the devs half-joke that its replenishment timer would need rebalancing before release, such was its nigh-godlike ability to smite the crap out of the enemy. Not, friends, a good sign at all.
Extended regen timer or not, three or four unified cannister shots or ten synchronised grenades are still going to do an unholy amount of damage to whatever they hit. From our play time, it currently seems like a situation that could cause problems unless the Covenant pull out some seriously epic defenses later in the game. We've been shown the way a Scarab can quickly devour UNSC forces, but we've also been shown the way a UNSC orbital weapon can devastate a Scarab. Hmmm. Hmmm indeed.