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Games: Making ‘Halo’ history

Franchise’s first strategy game unveils back story

When Master Chief is sprinting through the corridors of alien spaceships, it seems like he’s taking on the Covenant single-handed.

"Halo Wars" proves that’s not the case. The real-time strategy game lets you take command of an army in the titanic struggle between humanity and the alien horde.

The T-rated game is set about 20 years before the classic "Halo" first-person shooters. It’s populated by many familiar types of units: goofy Covenant Grunts, powerful Scorpion tanks, Warthog all-terrain vehicles and formidable alien Elites. You’ll also have numerous Spartan warriors. That’s right: Master Chief is no longer the sole surviving member of his class.

You can play a campaign as the humans, or you can try either side in a quick skirmish match or online competition.

In the campaign mode, the humans aboard the immense Spirit of Fire starship notice that Covenant forces are doing something unusual on the planet Harvest. You command a team that heads to the surface to check it out. Of course one thing leads to another — fighting, kidnapping, threatened extinction of the human race, personal sacrifice, the usual "Halo" stuff.

Microsoft’s Ensemble Studios — whose founders recently established Robot Entertainment — designed the game to be an Xbox-only affair. As a result, the controls are very smooth and intuitive, and base construction and resource management are a breeze.

Controlling units requires clicking on them with the A button and then clicking on a target with the X button to move or attack. You activate a unit’s special power by clicking with the Y button. You can also select multiple units in different combinations with an easy press of a button or two. And if you need a little extra help, you can call down a massive bombardment or healing from the Spirit of Fire by going to the D-pad and accessing a radial menu.

Similar radial menus are used for base construction and upgrades. You build bases on pads that offer a limited number of spots for buildings and defensive gun turrets. The two sides use slightly different setups, but both offer buildings that generate infantry, vehicles and aircraft and buildings that generate resources and permit you to upgrade units.

Unfortunately, the pads offer very little flexibility, unlike the "Command & Conquer" games on the Xbox 360, which permit you to build your base as large as you need in any configuration.

However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Full-blown strategy games can be tedious – especially when ported from the PC to the Xbox 360. A streamlined model that offers a lot of action and fun will find a lot of fans. Indeed, games are fast-paced and exciting in both the campaign and skirmish modes.

The graphics are pretty good – especially in the campaign’s cut scenes, which do a terrific job of advancing the story. However, during actual game play, you can’t really zoom in very far, so there’s never a sense of detail.

Traditional strategy fans will complain that "Halo Wars" offers easy game play at the expense of depth. Other strategy games on the Xbox 360, such as "Command & Conquer," offer more options in virtually every category. More types of units, buildings, attacks and upgrades. And that’s the stuff that strategy gamers love.

Of course, "Halo Wars" might be just the vehicle for bringing a different breed of gamer into the strategy fold.

Platform: Xbox 360

On the Web: www.halowars.com


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