Sorry it took me awhile to get to this review, but the game is still fairly new and in much need of one. Halo Wars is a step away from what we have come to expect from the Halo series. It's a Real Time Strategy or RTS. Not many know that Halo was originally intended to be an RTS and many feared that it would ruin the Halo universe forever. Fret naught because it's exactly the opposite.
Halo Wars' story is much more compelling then that of all three Halo games combined. There I said it. Granted that the previous iterations are responsible for the source material, and it's a given that you already know the basic jist of what Halo is about to begin with. Where Halo Wars manages to trample it's predecessors is the break away from the famous Master Chief. We've come to know and love the tough no-nonsence Chief but here we get more of a glimpse at other, more interesting characters. Most of them aren't even Spartans, in fact the central characters necessary for the plot are just regular human soldiers, covenant warlords and a scientist. Never before in a Halo game have we seen quite so much depth in personality as we see in Sgt. Forge, Captain Cutter, Proffessor Anders, Serena and the Covenant Arbiter (not the one from Halo 2 and 3 but the one prior timeline-wise).
Without giving too much away, Halo Wars is a precursor to the events of Halo, and gives us further insight into the people who struggle against the Covenant. We even get to see some Covenant politics and dissent on their side of things.
The gameplay is solid, frighteningly so for a console based RTS. The controls are incredibly accessible for players new to the genre and the learning curve is no steeper then a mole hill. Die-hard RTS players however may not like the simplicity, but it is what it is.
Unit control is smooth, commands are easily issued, and rarely are you left with a moment where your wondering "what just happened?". Each level has it's own objectives and side objectives and can be tackled cooperatively should one (or two) so desire. Objectives vary but all revolve around the same general premise: destroy the enemy. The standard time-limited missions and occasional boss fights are all present. The variations in buildable units are very cool and unique in their purpose/abilities and the player is given a wide selection so that they can complete their goals almost however they wish. However, many will be drawn to the best units in the game, the end result is usually an arms race (especially in multiplayer). And in the end that's basically what every RTS is, an arms race to defeat your opponent, and Halo Wars excels in this.
I mentioned Co-op above and I'd like to continue in that vein in saying that it works very well. It's always fun when you play with a friend, the extra set of eyes is welcome in this genre so as nothing goes overlooked. There are plenty of "holy crap!" moments for you and a partner to share, like a Spartan jacking a vehicle, a giant Scarab death machine (even bigger then all other Scarabs), etc.
In game graphics are what you'd expect from an RTS. The zoomed out camera doesn't seem to reveal a lot of detail but look closer. The game is gorgeous for it's genre. Don't be afraid of the panned out camera, for it is your friend. More units on screen means more information at your disposal, and that is always welcome.
The cut scenes in the game are top notch, and put Halo 3 to shame. The action is unparalleled, dialogue is great and brief snippets of humor from the ship's AI Serena are very welcome. Over the course of the game you really warm up to Sgt. Forge and you really feel for Captain Cutter's strenuous position and the decisions he must make. You also take note of how much more badass this Arbiter is when compared to the Master Chief helping one.
Skirmish, Standard and Deathmatch modes can be fun, if exceptionally hard if you don't know what your doing. Your thrusted into a predetermined map surrounded by neutral enemies whose bases you must capture to further fuel your ultimate goal: destroying the opposition at the other end of the map. Some nice options are available, you can choose your hero (which determines what superpower will be at your disposal) and you can even play as the Covenant. And believe me, nothing is more satisfying then laying waste to the enemy in a Scarab. The mode offers 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 team battles.
Halo Wars is a great game, give it a chance. And it's a fantastic ending point for Ensemble Studios, who unfortunately had to close their doors. Here's hoping that that team will be able to go on somewhere else and deliver a Halo Wars 2 somewhere in the future. It's rated T for Teen for Mild Blood, Mild Language and Violence and is brought to you by of course Ensemble Studios, and the people over at Microsoft Game Studios.