With the March 3 release of Halo Wars for the Xbox 360, one of gaming's most popular brands took a potentially risky step into uncharted waters. Instead of a twitch-based first-person shooter, Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game. This complex genre, perhaps best described as Stratego meets the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, has befuddled mainstream gamers for years, even with occasional hits such as Command & Conquer and Starcraft. (Despite having covered the video game business off-and-on for the past 10 years, I'm still an RTS novice.)
Having had a chance to get some serious hands-on time with Halo Wars during the week before its release, we were actually kind of shocked to find that the game was, for the most part, simple enough that even we could understand it. Most real-time strategy games require players to move lots of little soldiers around a big map, controlling a whole army rather than a single character. But to get those soldiers, one must first gather natural resources, construct buildings, and even research new technology. Of course, this all happens in "real time," so while you're trying to figure out how to do one thing, the rest of your miniempire is getting blown up somewhere across town.
Halo Wars automates much of the tedious resource gathering and construction, to instead focus on the combat, which is what Halo fans want anyway. Most of the game's levels involve building new soldiers and tanks, waiting until you have dozens of them hanging around your base, and then telling everyone to blindly rush the enemy while you sit back and hope for the best. That said, the simplified gamepad-friendly controls may even be a little too stripped down. Telling everyone to attack one target is easy, getting some guys to go right and some other guys to go left is much more of a challenge.
While Halo Wars has gotten a mostly positive critical reception during its first few days of release, we'll have to wait and see if the millions of gamers who bought 2007's Halo 3 are willing to try a Halo game without a first-person point-of-view and without a star turn by series protagonist Master Chief.