As someone who put many hours into the Warlords Battlecry and Star Trek Armada series on the PC, I've been eagerly looking forward to the release of Halo Wars for the 360. The demo only heightened my anticipation, and the release has failed to disappoint. As much as Armada thrilled my geek-self by letting me control the Star Trek universe, Halo Wars does the same with the very interesting Halo universe.
One common criticism is that, for an RTS, it has been "dumbed-down" for play on the console. As someone who's played a share on the PC, I can certainly see where this criticism comes from. Certain staples of the genre, like being able to assign units to groups, aren't there. But Ensemble Studios said they weren't out to port a PC-based RTS to a console; they wanted to build an RTS that was custom-tailored to the 360 and its controller.
The results are excellent. It controls "differently" from a PC-based RTS, but for a console controller, it's very intuitive. The game has a couple brief tutorials that take you through the basics, and control is smooth and natural by the time you're done. Ensemble has done a bang-up job in making sure that everything you need to do in an RTS, you can do in Halo Wars.
Still, adding Tom Clancy's EndWar-like voice commands or Chatpad support would've been a welcome addition — not in place of, but in addition to the basic controller commands.
The cutscenes are gorgeous. The characters are finely detailed and animated, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. If they ever decide to finally make the Halo movie, they could make it all CG from whatever was used to build these videos, and they would have a blockbuster on their hands. It's that good. I'd put these videos up against Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within easily. And there's one scene in particular where you get to see the Spartans in their prime. I won't go into details, since it's towards the end and possibly a spoiler, but I will say that's one cutscene I haven't skipped yet. :D
There is probably only one major complaint I have in this game as a whole, and that's of the mini-map. A colored reticule appears over it, indicating your current viewing angle (and those of your teammates). However, the colors are very dark, and it is very difficult for me to see most of the colors against the backdrop of the map. As such, it makes it rather difficult to find where I am and where I want to go.
One relatively minor complaint is the use of the D-pad for quick commands. I don't mind this concept in theory, but my major criterion is that there needs to be some kind of on-screen indicator of what the directions do. Left 4 Dead does this well, with a simple graphic that shows a D-pad cross and an icon at each point that shows what action goes where. Both Fable games do this, although their icons unfortunately aren't as intuitive. Halo Wars does not, requiring you to memorize that "left" cycles bases, "right" cycles recent events, and "down" cycles army groups. The fortunate thing, though, is that the consequence of pressing the wrong direction is minor and often immediately apparent, so all it takes is quickly tapping a different direction to switch the camera to the next appropriate target — it's a minor complaint, to be sure, but it can be stressful when you're under the gun and need to make a decision fast.
Another minor complaint is that I often wish I could zoom the camera out a little further than I'm allowed. It seems that I can zoom out to just about see the full line-of-sight for a single unit, but not so much for the whole army I might have selected all at once.
On my wish list, I wish I could zoom in a lot closer to units as well. You can be treated to a very close zoom when using the Arbiter's Rage attack, but you don't get treated to the same close-up detail watching a Spartan jack a Wraith tank. Also, the ability to record and play back battles would be great, especially if you could play them back from the point of view of your opponent and figure out just how he got that mega force built up so quickly. And, following along with the Halo theme, saving film clips, taking screen shots, and a map editor would've been welcome additions.
This game has certainly met all my expectations. I am enjoying it immensely (even when I'm getting overrun after failing to out-strategize my opponent). It really doesn't seem fair that this wonderful game that's selling exceptionally well came from a studio that was closed down before the discs even hit the shelves. My best wishes to the team that put this together.