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     " If this was "Generic Sci-Fi Battle Game X," instead of "Halo," nobody...and I do mean NOBODY...would give a damn about it. "

      Title: Halo Wars by Microsoft

      Format: Xbox 360 Strategy Game

      Reviewing Monkey: Dungapult

      The Hype: Set against a galactic battle for survival, Halo is a franchise that very naturally lends itself to the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. But with the history of RTS on the console reading like a who's who of failed potential, can this 360 exclusive finally bring the concept some respectability? Read on, my Monkeys, and find out.

      What This Monkey Thought...

     When Microsoft first announced Halo Wars last year they bragged that it was going to be the best console RTS of all time. It all had to do with the controller, they explained. Because almost every other RTS had been ported from a PC, where the keyboard and mouse give players exponentially more utility, they lacked the critical commands and subtle nuances needed to make the games truly playable. Halo Wars, they said, would be different because it was being designed from the ground up for the console. They said they had studied every RTS on the market, found out what works and what doesn't, and would bring all of the critical elements to the Xbox and its controller with a polish that was unknown in the industry.

     They lied.

     Which is not to say that Halo Wars is an awful game--it's not. It combines passable graphics, a rock-paper-scissors unit system, and limited resource management to good enough effect to produce a functional game.

     But it is so simple, and so underdeveloped, that it is the very definition of under-whelming.

     The problem starts with base construction, which is designed to prevent massive game imbalances by hamstringing your HQ design. By only giving each player a limited number of expansion slots on bases, and no more than 4 turrets per base, developer Ensemble Studios has made sure that you can't unbalance the game by overproducing resources or defenses. Which might have been fine if it hadn't given absolute credence to rush strategies--encouraging players to stream massive numbers of low-level units at their enemies until defenses are worn down and resource gathering is destroyed.

     Equally as underdeveloped is the control scheme, which is as bad as any I've seen on a console. First, despite the VERY limited navigation allowed by a controller, it still requires players to click on specific buildings to build different unit types--which is preposterous. Nothing takes you out of the action more, or faster, than having to jump back to your HQ to build your units...especially when you have to go hunt for the barracks to build soldiers, hunt for the vehicle depot to build armor, etc. This is especially frustrating when so many games now have gone to central supply options that allow for very simple menu-based unit building.

     Which, at least, is not as frustrating as the pathfinding--which will not only cause units to bottleneck at very inopportune places, but also cause them to completely ignore move orders with alarming frequency.

     But that bottlenecking at least gives you time to struggle with the craptastic unit selection. Though the game does have a nice, and intuitive, "paintbrush" that allows you to select groups of units (or all the units on the screen), and a global select button for grabbing every unit in the game, it does not have any kind of army-assigning function. Which means, in simple terms, that you cannot create select strike forces out of certain units to attack with. Now, in case you're new to RTSes and don't appreciate what a monumental failure that concept is, allow me a few seconds to rant.

     Firstly, this means that it is inordinately difficult to create garrisons. Why is that important? Well, since the developers have chosen to hamstring your defenses, the only way to defend your base is to keep an army there at all times...and the first time you either accidentally or are forced to "select all" (because some of your units are off-screen), your garrison ends up with your attack force.

     Secondly, because the game uses a rock-paper-scissors concept, which means that every unit has an enemy type that they're strong against and one that they're weak against. That means that every time you want to attack something and you don't have time to find each of the units you want to attack it with, you will also be attacking it with a bunch of units that are either ineffective or highly susceptible to its counter attacks.

     Thirdly, the lack of army-assigning sucks because each unit has a special ability, and using those special abilities is a key to playing effectively. But, since you can't assign, say, 2 squads of Marines and their rocket-launching special attacks to a force, your only options will be to either use ALL of your rockets on ALL of your marines at the same time on a SINGLE target, or hunting around the battlefield until you find one marine, selecting them, targeting their special, and then repeating until you've got all the rocket attacks done that you want to do.

     But, most infuriatingly, this sucks because there is NO WAY to effectively separate your forces. That means trying to dominate the map is impossible and it makes doing rudimentary battlefield tactics like probing defenses and performing pincers nigh-unto impossible. Instead, whether by resignation or accident, you will eventually end up selecting every unit you have on the map and hurling them headlong at your opponent. And that, my friends, is not strategy. As a matter of fact, that's the very opposite of strategy. That's insanity.

     So, instead, games tend to devolve into mindless frays where everything you've managed to build gets pitted against everything your opponent has managed to build, and whoever happens to have the best rock-paper-scissor advantage wins. Which is great if you're playing a guy dumb enough to build all of one kind of unit, but otherwise ends up being one big, ugly mess.

     The game's sole shining point is the story, which gives a mildly interesting pre-Halo background told through over a dozen awesomely eye-candied FMV vignettes. But it's really only worth caring about if you are a die-hard fanboy--the kind who's read every Halo novel out there and is dying for the next to come out.


      The Verdict:

       This may be the best example I've seen of a game that will be immensely popular, and sell insanely well, entirely because of the franchise it's based on. If this was "Generic Sci-Fi Battle Game X," instead of "Halo," nobody...and I do mean NOBODY...would give a damn about it.

      The Good: Great story vignettes and decent graphics.

      The Bad: Idiotic control scheme and crappy handicapping design elements.

      The Overall Ugly: I want my 50 bucks back.

      What it's Worth: If you really care about Halo, rent it and beat the very short, 15-mission campaign in one or two nights. Then forget you ever played it.

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