Since their very inception, console RTSs have always been frowned upon as unnecessarily awkward affairs. The supposed problem with them, of course, has always been their lack of support for the more traditional keyboard and mouse setup, with most studios simply choosing to port a PC experience to console rather than spend time exploring a solution to their absence. Ensemble’s view on the other hand is that of the contrary; that a control pad needn’t hinder the genre, but enhance it.
The realisation of Ensemble’s willingness to go against the grain is most apparent upon sitting down with Halo Wars for the first time. Gone is any form of traditional RTS HUD; the removal of the genre’s staple horizontal/vertical bar and ominous cursor icon reinforcing Ensemble’s intentions of providing a console RTS built from the ground up. Instead it’s replaced by a streamlined control setup custom built around the 360’s control pad. A simple tap on the left bumper is used to select all units on the battlefield, while the right selects units on-screen. A squeeze of the right trigger allows you to cycle through individual unit types, before ordering them to move or attack with X. Further attack options are available by pulling up the Spirit of Fire’s (Halo Wars’ equivalent to the Pillar of Autumn) menu with the d-pad, from which more powerful attacks such as carpet bombs and orbital bombardments can be executed. The very implementation of such a simple and efficient system instantly revolutionises how the console RTS will be viewed indefinitely, and is a control setup that will unquestionably be used for any forthcoming titles in the genre.
This streamlining also extends itself to Halo Wars’ micromanagement. Rather than litter the battlefield with individual structures, your base is comprised of one central hub with up to six subsidiary sites on which to build barracks, supply pads, research centres and other essential constructions. The immediate limitation on the number of buildings available at any one time forces the player to consider their options for any prospective combat. Do you build numerous supply pads to bring in a viable amount of cash with which to spend on upgrades and more expensive units, or do you instead focus on building ground and air factories with which to build war machines from the off? By destroying enemy installations or securing areas held by rivals you’re also able to build supplementary bases which, when fully upgraded, allow for a further six constructions on each.
This proficiency in base-building allows the player more freedom to concentrate on actual combat, an area that comes first and foremost in Halo Wars. Battles are brief, with the focus on tighter, short-lived conflicts than fully blown skirmishes. However, in the process of opening up the genre to accommodate the typical Halo enthusiast, there’s an overwhelming sense that the strategy has been toned down a notch, with a strength by numbers approach favoured over any tactical nous.
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