Published March 20, 2009
Video-game combat has come a long way since the turn of the century. In the 1990s, 3D shooters like "Doom" and "Half-Life" were aimed at the PC audience, with the occasional gem (like "Goldeneye 007") popping up on a console.
All that changed in 2001 with the release of Microsoft's "Halo," which became the Xbox's flagship game.
Since then, the shooter has become the dominant genre in video games, with best-sellers like "Gears of War," "Call of Duty," "Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter," "Resistance" and "Killzone."
On the other hand, the shooter glut has led to some fine games that got overlooked ("Far Cry 2," "Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway") as well as some dogs ("Legendary," "Haze") that should never have been released.
How do you stand out in a crowded market? By taking your war-game franchise in an entirely different direction.
—"Halo Wars" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): As it did with the original "Halo," Microsoft is trying to take a genre played mostly by PC users — the real-time strategy game — and shift it to consoles.
Developer Ensemble Studios built its reputation with the RTS series "Age of Empires"; it was dismantled in January, and "Halo Wars" is its final project.
It's not a bad way to go out. The story begins 20 years before "Halo," with the humans of the United Nations Space Command fighting the alien Covenant on a colony world called Harvest.
As the campaign proceeds, you discover (of course) a larger conspiracy that sends your troops hopping from planet to planet. Missions are nicely varied, from invading alien fortresses to defending civilians from a Covenant attack.
"Halo Wars" simplifies the usual chores of the strategy game, from gathering resources and building bases to training troops and attacking the enemy.
I like the stripped-down approach — frankly, I've always found the resource management of PC RTS games tedious — and the controls are well-mapped to the Xbox joystick.
"Halo Wars" looks gorgeous, too, delivering the kind of explosive moments franchise fans expect. Three stars out of four.
—"Tom Clancy's HAWX" (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Ubisoft's Tom Clancy brand encompasses a variety of genres, from squad-based combat to stealthy spycraft. In "HAWX," the old coot takes to the skies, with middling results.
The acronym stands for "high-altitude warfare experimental (uh) squadron," which translates into some fairly nifty, slightly futuristic aircraft. This isn't a hardcore flight sim — you don't have to worry about fuel or ammo, and every plane can handle elaborate acrobatic maneuvers.
"HAWX" makes other concessions to air-combat newbies, such as displays that show you the best way to approach your opponent.
But the scenarios themselves can be exasperating — too often, you're stuck protecting defenseless ground forces when you'd rather be dogfighting.
It's a blast flying a fighter jet over Washington or Tokyo, but the actual missions are kind of a drag. Two-and-a-half stars.