It started with two kids facing off on a sandbox battlefield, kicking up sand while tossing around plastic soldiers in make believe explosions. Then they got older. The figures became hand-painted pewter, the sand became a game board, and you couldn't just blow people up anymore. There were rules to follow now. Rules that became hard coded when the game made the jump to the computer, with digital soldiers matching in formation, following feints and strategies from hot keys and mouse clicks.
Halo Wars is all about kicking over your friend's sand castle.
It's not lacking in complexity. There is a slew of unit types on both sides, each with multiple upgrades to improve its ass-kicking abilities, but the focus of the game is definitely on the offense. The rapid pace leads to building up armies to clash across hostile terrain, creating earth-shaking explosions of mutually assured destruction, and cranking out a fresh army in minutes. With other real-time strategy games, there tends to be a more plodding pace with careful marshaling of your forces and building your infrastructure. Halo Wars streamlines this wherever possible. Bases are forged from a single block, making the various buildings and their wheel of options easily accessible, while your grunts, tanks, and other agents of oblivion open fire at the sight of enemies and pick their targets in battle somewhat intelligently to make use of their strengths. Directing them is as easy as tapping a bumper and picking a target, then unloading with their normal or special attacks. A push on the d-pad will easily switch between armies, bases, and points of interest. So if a firefight suddenly erupts in some corner of the map, you can take command in a flash. You can also make use of command abilities, repairing or transporting your troops by dropship, or unleashing hell on enemy forces with a barrage from space. Seeing a hulking scarab about to level your base explode in a shower of pyrotechnics is pure eye candy. Not so delightful when it's your scarab, watching three thousand supply points go up in smoke.
The cinematics are good enough for the big screen. Never before has the world of Halo been brought to life with such lush detail, like the dirt and smoke as the spartans rush by the camera for the first time, accompanied by the haunting original Halo theme. Voice acting is top notch and the story of events fifty years before the first Halo game is compelling, making it almost a shame when the cut scene ends and you're dropped in to take command. With fifteen story missions lasting from fifteen minutes to a half hour each, it's a fairly short but thrilling ride. Even though there are things to collect, achievements to earn, multiple difficulties to experience, these missions tend to be a little too restrictive to make it fun the second time around. Except they can also be braved in co-op, raising your tactical abilities while cursing your buddy for diverting your supplies into a line of warthogs that just got creamed. It's a shame that you play only as the human side the entire time though, because it leaves you completely unprepared for taking control of the all too different Covenant in multiplayer. A second disappointment is the Flood aren't playable period, since it would have greatly added to the game's longevity.
Freedom is found in the multiplayer modes, either facing the AI or human opponents via Xbox Live (or system link). Matches can be anything from one-on-one duels to titanic three-versus-three conflicts. There are six generals to choose from, each with personal unit types and special abilities, along plenty of maps with their own unique quirks to keep things interesting. But if you play online, get ready for the rush. That's when an opponent churns out a large force of low level units to overwhelm before you can put up a strong defense. In Halo Wars, where your defensive options are more limited than in most RTS titles, the only answer is a strong offense. Slightly disappointing that there are only two modes to choose from, though they play differently. Standard is a slow build with tech needing to be researched to gain more powerful units. In Deathmatch, all the units and upgrades are there from the start, but there's a restrictive unit cap keeping your forces small until you can capture bases and raise your numbers. Expect to lose units and lose them often. Even the destruction of a base you've poured supplies into building up doesn't have to be a crippling blow, just as long as you've been planning well and have a few other bases on tap.
If you're a big Halo fan who has a passing interest in controlling large armies, or an RTS fan looking for something with a quicker pace that you can play from your couch, then Halo Wars is your game. While it's a bit lacking in content compared to the rest of the genre, it's been polished to the nines, sporting some amazing visuals and controls that keep the action fast and fluid without the need of a keyboard. It doesn't really do anything to reinvent the genre, but it has finally proven that RTS games don't have to crippled in the transition from the PC world. It also keeps true to the Halo experience while providing a much bigger sandbox.