Halo Wars

The Baltimore Sun

$59.99 for Microsoft Xbox 360. Rated Teen *** (3 STARS)

Halo was originally planned as a real-time strategy game, but series creator Bungie didn't make Halo Wars, the first nonshooter in the series. Instead, it was developed by strategy veterans Ensemble Studios, the company behind Microsoft's Age of Empires and Age of Mythologies games.

Ensemble was shut down by Microsoft after Halo Wars was completed. The studio's end is disappointing, especially given the quality on display here.

Halo Wars - to be released today - takes place 20 years before the discovery of a Halo installation in the first game. The war with the alien Covenant is a few years old and still far from the near-total destruction of the human race that has occurred by Halo 3. The game opens with a series of missions on the devastated, icy human colony of Harvest, which the United Nations Space Command has just retaken from the Covenant after five years of fighting that has left the surface a frozen wasteland.

There's still a detachment of Covenant troops searching for an artifact of the Forerunners, an ancient race whose technology the Covenant finds and repurposes. Led by the powerful Arbiter, these fighters are determined to destroy the facility once they've discovered its secrets. From there, the campaign moves on to warmer places. Two players can take on the campaign as a team, online or off.

The other online options include a skirmish mode for up to six players and a faster-paced death-match mode that removes the need for research and economic balance. Players can also set up skirmishes against the computer.

The control scheme is straightforward and accessible. One button is used to activate structures and select individual units or small groups of them, another to issue standard orders, and a third to issue special ability orders. The analog sticks control the camera, the bumpers select units en masse, and the right trigger cycles through selected units.

Most units are familiar from previous Halo games, but there are new ones, such as the Vampire, an anti-fighter Covenant aircraft; and the UNSC Cobra, an anti-vehicle unit that digs into the ground to fire. The vehicle-stealing Spartan super-soldiers - Master Chief's comrades - are also in the game, limited to three at a time. Super units such as the Covenant Scarab walker do appalling damage.

Nearly all units start with a special ability, such as throwing grenades or running over infantry, or can gain one with the proper research. Each side also has leaders who are chosen before a match starts and can drastically affect a player's options.

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