On paper, Halo Wars doesn't quite look like it should work. This only adds to the surprise that this vibrant, fast-paced RTS really does deliver - despite depriving you of your beloved mouse and keyboard! Ensemble Studios set aside a whole year finetuning the controls alone for the Xbox, and it shows in the gameplay.
Skimming across the map is hardly needed most of the time, due to the simplistic shortcuts bound to the D-pad. Left cycles through your bases, up opens up the circle menu for aerial support (as the humans) or focuses the camera on your leader (as the covenant), and down toggles between unit groups. Pressing right on the D-pad showcases an innovative feature that scrolls through any new developments - such as completed upgrades, incoming attacks, and more.
Controlling the units themselves is also refreshingly straightforward. Holding down the A button causes a transparent "paintbrush" circle tool to blossom on-screen, allowing you to glide it around and group units together accordingly. Getting them from A to B is carried out by panning the camera to whereever you want them to go (or whatever you want them to shoot at/claw at/ram into/etc), and tapping X - there's support for queueing commands too, squaring up to the advanced controls boasted by PC RTS's.
The game has a slick, stylish graphics scheme, which neatly complements the manic scenes of battle it can put out. While it's not as powerful visually as its shooter cousin, it's hardly noticeable when the screen is lit up by hundreds of marines and covenant. I've yet to see the engine get bogged down or choppy, even in larger skirmishes. Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for most PC RTS's in my experiences!
Halo Wars is, as you'd expect, fully compatible with Microsoft's premium online service Xbox Live, sporting three brackets ranging from 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3. From the week or so I've spent getting my arse handed to me on it (damn you matchmaking, damn you), I've had a great time - it really sucks you in when you've got two team mates yelping themselves hoarse with cries for aerial support, or the inevitable cheery trashtalk at the end of each game, as the other team audibly wonders where in god's name your fleet of tanks sprung up out of the ground. Or the occasional covie grunt impression that everybody has a go at, at some point in their life. Or at least, I hope it's not just me.
Overall, this is one heck of an enjoyable buy for the 360, especially if you're a fan of RTS or Halo (if you're a fan of both, jackpot!), and I heartily recommend you pick it up sometime!