Angry Robot

Console War Wars: EndWar and Halo Wars

I’ve sampled two recent real-time strategy games on the 360, Tom Clancy’s EndWar (also available on the PS3) and the demo to Halo Wars.

RTS is a genre born on PCs that rarely works on consoles, despite many noble attempts. The key problem is control. There simply aren’t enough buttons on a console controller, and something designed with rapid mouse movements in mind doesn’t necessarily translate to analog sticks.

EndWar presents a possible solution to the control problem: voice control. Using a simple subject-verb-object palette of grammatical chunks – “unit one attack hostile two” – it’s possible to fight a battle without using the controller at all. I played through the bulk of the single-player campaign this way, and it works surprisingly well, with maybe 90% accuracy. Sometimes, you wind up using the controller because it’s quicker. But voice control is not only more graceful, it’s actually more true to what the game is simulating.

Unfortunately, EndWar has little else to offer. The missions are all the same and the difficulty curve leaves a lot to be desired. If there’s ever a sequel, it could theoretically kick ass, though.

The Halo Wars demo has only two levels, so it’s hard to judge the game at this point. But what you are presented with is a slick, carefully packaged narrative experience with simple, almost casualized gameplay. The control is traditional for console RTS – the left stick controls your cursor, and so press one face button to select units, another to give them a target. The levels required very little actual strategy. You could beat them without anything other than ‘select all units’, and so the feel was more like an action game with a little base-building than an actual strategy game.

Not to get all Sun Tzu here, but that’s a problem with console RTSes. Because the control is a lot harder and slower, the developers can never assume you’ve figured out how to command more than one group at a time, and so the combat never requires much in the way of strategy. A certain level of difficulty is required for strategy games to make sense. It’s not just the usual rock-paper-scissors system of unit strengths and weaknesses, it’s feinting, luring, splitting the defence, etc. Select all and attack isn’t really a strategy.

After watching an “Inside Xbox” video about Halo Wars (which seems to be a console exclusive, so I can’t share it with you) I can say that the potential for more advanced control is certainly there. The developers seemed to have thrown a bunch of possible control schemes at the wall in hopes that one or more actually sticks. Problem with that is the controls can get confusing. I think that Lord of the Rings RTS (Battle For Middle Earth? MiddleWar? Lord of the Wars? EndFrodo? can’t remember what it was called) had a much touted control scheme, and you could in theory assign groups and send them this way and that, but in the heat of fake battle I could never remember how to do it.

Time will tell. I’ll almost certainly buy Halo Wars, if only go get a fresh dose of Halo story action. Let’s hope the controls work out.