After spawning three best-selling first-person shooters, Bungie's futuristic universe is branching out into uncharted territory with the RTS title, Halo Wars.

The good news is that Halo Wars masterfully transports the series' best elements to an entirely different genre, and its unparalleled accessibility makes for an excellent introduction to real-time strategy. The bad news is that its self-imposed limitations take a meaty chunk out of its longevity.

Halo Wars: building empires

Twenty years before John-117 steps out of cold storage and dons the mantle of Master Chief, the Covenant locks onto the trail of a secret that could give them an insurmountable advantage in the war against humanity.

After the first slick pre-rendered cinematic, I'm tearing across snow and ice in a Warthog, gathering pinned marines so I can retake a base. The basic controls become second nature within moments. The left bumper selects everything, while the right selects only visible units. X issues move and attack orders, while Y tells jeep drivers to run over enemy troops and marines to chuck grenades at hard-points.

Traditionally, the base-building component has been a major hurdle in console RTS titles but Halo Wars pares the process back to its bare essentials. You won't have to find land near resources, you can only build bases in predetermined places, and most resources are flown in.

There's also no need to puzzle over the optimal placement of buildings because each base is simply a central fortress consisting of empty lots that you can develop into six different structures; four turret points also helps streamline base defences.

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Halo Wars: home sweet home

The most tangible benefit of this approach is the immediate feeling of familiarity. The tools have changed, and I'm viewing the action from above each explosive battle, but you'll feel right at home from the outset.

All the tricky decisions that had the potential to trip me up had already been made for me, and yet I was still given the freedom to erect buildings and train units as I saw fit.

The limitations were tight enough to force interesting decisions, like whether to designate the last free slot in my base to something vital like supplies or something luxurious like air support, but it wasn't strict enough to frustrate me - at least, not at first.

There are only a dozen basic UNSC unit types with which to experiment but the superb upgrade system allows for a much appreciated sense of flexibility when it comes to tactics.

For instance, I could choose to steadily improve my marines with rocket launchers and upgrade my medics until they became full-fledged ODST roughnecks, or I could go another route by cranking out reactors until I had the technology available to send a huge and deadly Vulture out to cruise the skies.

Vehicles, aircraft, and infantry form the time-honored RTS rock-paper-scissors triangle - A is powerful against B and weak against C - but individual units also get special attacks to boost their effectiveness in certain circumstances.

NEXT PAGE: diminishing returns

After spawning three best-selling first-person shooters, Bungie's futuristic universe is branching out into uncharted territory with the RTS title, Halo Wars.

Halo Wars: diminishing returns

The fifteen imaginative missions task you with everything from rescuing civilians to dragging gear up a steep slope, and often underscore the long-term ramifications of your command decisions.

This is the spine of any strategy game. But most RTS games feature complex base and resource management mechanics that may make them less approachable to newbs but ultimately allow for more tactical depth. Halo Wars, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: it's incredibly user friendly but it also constrains advanced players by eliminating much of the strategic layer.

You will never roll into an opponent's base and be stunned by his military ingenuity because it's impossible to lay out your buildings in an inventive manner; you also cannot take advantage of environmental features. The end result is that battles will blend together and become less memorable in the long run.

This is no doubt a conscious decision that was made in order to ensure balance and user-friendliness, but there are places where Halo Wars' streamlining goes too far. It's hard to imagine the rationale behind unit selection controls that don't allow you to do basic stuff like gather troops into groups, order them into simple formations, or even subtract individual units from your current force.

Elaborate attack plans aren't impossible, but they require unnatural contortions that felt unnecessary.

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Halo Wars: above and beyond

Such constraints don't limit the fan-service appeal of the many detailed flourishes that enliven the battlefield. You can only have three Spartans at once-so much for the promised "armies" of them-but watching them take out Elite Honor Guard operatives from garrisoned cover and hijack poorly protected Covenant vehicles is energising.

UNSC troops tend to be a staid bunch, cranking out personality-free chatter, but every now and then somebody pipes up about getting enemy giblets in the grill, and you can always count on Covenant grunts to say something silly.

You can even collect skulls by exploring and completing secondary objectives during the campaign to unlock goofy special toggles that exaggerate destruction physics or make Grunts die in a cloud of festive confetti.

Best of all, the prequel story doesn't content itself with simple name-dropping, and instead touches on all the science fiction themes that enabled the original trilogy to capture so many imaginations.

I won't spoil any surprises here, but suffice it to say that there are stranger constructions in this universe than orbital rings. Of course, the enjoyment you get out of Halo Wars' storyline will depend on how much you already love the Halo 'verse.

NEXT PAGE: customised competition

After spawning three best-selling first-person shooters, Bungie's futuristic universe is branching out into uncharted territory with the RTS title, Halo Wars.

Halo Wars: customised competition

Network downtime at Microsoft prevented us from evaluating online multiplayer in time for the print version of this review but Skirmish Mode proved a remarkably satisfying substitute.

Fourteen maps run the gamut from dust-choked Flood-infested wastes to lush green grasslands, and pit humans and AI bots against one another in 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and 3-on-3 matchups.

Special abilities and units unique to each of the six UNSC and Covenant leaders add just enough spice, and taking a break from the eye-in-the-sky view to direct each individual slash of an enraged Arbiter's energy blade is a blast. The only irritating drawbacks are the occasional path-finding glitches and the inability to save in the middle of a match.

What kept Skirmish Mode fun for me even after many hours was the automatic difficulty that tailored itself to my skill level, and indirectly helped me work through some of the weak points in my methods.

Unfortunately, even this learning process eventually underscored the game's limitations more than my own.

If there were a way to pry the training wheels off of building placement, and unlock a more flexible array of unit selection and grouping options, Halo Wars might've been a legendary contender.

Instead, it merely adds up to a wonderful temporary diversion, albeit one still worth every ounce of effort you put into it. Halo fans, especially, will want to take this one out for a spin.

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Halo Wars: Specs

  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Microsoft Xbox 360

OUR VERDICT

It's quite a change from the Halo we all know and love but Ensemble (RIP) has done a great job. The RTS action is fun, the controls are surprisingly tight and the presentation is great. It won't thrill every Halo fan but Halo Wars definitely lives up to the franchise's high standards.

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