So, the story isn’t going to hit you any harder than a bird dropping and the levels occasionally feel forced and obviously manipulated, but the overwhelming bulk of Halo Wars isn’t nearly as flawed as the plotting and missions.
In fact, there’s one thing that Halo Wars does better than nearly any other RTS game we’ve seen in a long time; pacing.
Halo Wars is a console RTS, which means that it’s naturally made some design concessions in order to make the game work. Controlling armies the size of those in Supreme Commander wouldn’t be feasible on a controller, plus the hardware isn’t nearly as powerful as most high-end PCs, so the army population has a fairly low cap on it in Halo Wars.
Likewise, allowing users to move bases around and put turrets wherever they want opens all sorts of problems, not least of which is that experienced players may be able to stray from the designer's idea of what the game is supposed to be. The game is set in the Halo universe remember, so the idea is to tell a story first and foremost. Therefore, players can only build a certain number of buildings and only in preset places.
That, combined with the ultra-zoomed-in viewpoint, will sound like nothing but bad news to PC gamers used to huge armies, freeform base layouts and zooming out so far you need a microscope.
Somehow though, Ensemble has made Halo Wars not just work, but thrive by designing the whole game around these limitations. Like Dawn of War 2, the focus of Halo Wars isn’t on unnumbered forces, but bitesized squads and small-scale tactics. The key to winning isn’t learning how to tank rush, but upgrading your individual units over time by researching new weapons for your marines and Warthogs.
Basic infantry are longer-lasting and more useful than you might find in most RTS games, so the game rarely feels like it’s artificially restricting the size of your army or the tactics you might use, even though it clearly is.
The fact that the pacing is so excellently handled manages to bring with it a greater sense of accomplishment for novice players too. When you finally manage to lead a group of upgraded ODST and Cobras to victory then it never feels like you won through something as vulgar as sheer force of numbers, but because you’ve actually approached the obstacles intelligently. You moved your troops through cover, used special abilities and super-weapons correctly and succeeded quite eloquently.
This glossy feeling is just a veneer across the face of Halo Wars, but it’s one that covers all sorts of sins. You probably used cover not out of intelligence, but because you had to and you probably used your MAC blasts because that was the only thing you could do at that time. If you’d had the option then you’d probably have doubled the size of your army...but you didn’t because Halo Wars is actually an incredibly linear game, though it hides it very, very well. To a certain extent that’s even true of the multiplayer and co-op modes.
Unfortunately, the brilliance of this linear pacing also brings with it some longevity problems. The singleplayer campaign is kept pretty short and the limitations on player creativity greatly limit the amount of variation that’ll be seen in the multiplayer modes. Unlike traditional RTS games there are set paths for players to follow and few ways to deviate from them.
In the end, Halo Wars has won the initial battle and showed that yes, a Halo RTS is a good idea on many fronts and that a console strategy game can work on several levels. It also fails to win the war though because, as far as RTS games go, Halo Wars just isn’t deep enough to provide any long-lasting appeal.