- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Halo Wars(for Xbox 360, Microsoft Game Studios, rated T for teen, $59.99).

The earliest conflict between the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) forces and the Covenant unfolds in this epic real-time strategy game. Developed with the purest of Halo fanatics in mind, it takes players on a journey to experience the action-packed minutia of the famed universe.

What’s the story? In the year 2531, 20 years before the heroics of Master Chief, the crew of the UNSC vessel Spirit of Fire, led by commander James Cutter, is on an urgent and dangerous mission to retake the planet Harvest from a hostile alien coalition called the Covenant. Little do Sgt. John Forge, professor Ellen Anders and the toughest of Marines know just how important their work will be to the survival of mankind.

Play the role: In a 15-mission solo campaign, a player controls the UNSC and fights against Covenant and infectious Flood forces on Harvest, Arcadia and Shield World by building bases, upgrading resources and commanding soldiers, vehicles and airships to meet objectives.

Get to the action: First, I need to remind part-time Master Chief devotees that this is not a first-person action game, nor does the hero star here. Rather, players become gleefully mired with resource management and the strategic micropositioning of troops to win skirmishes on large, varied-terrain battlefields.

For example, build a base, add a supply depot, construct a barracks and train troops within minutes through intelligently designed controller commands. Then, direct forces across a map and engage the enemy by pressing a few buttons.

A key to the action requires amassing resource points, mainly through supply depots’ output. Everything built and deployed relies on the currency, including some slick special equipment upgrades that get better with every mission.

Memorable moments: Smiles are inspired the first time a mighty Spartan - Spartans are in their prime here - automatically climbs on and into a Covenant Wraith, taking control. Also, watching as a base is built (down to a welding line-closing pieces together) or destroying one (a colorful collapse of fire and metal) offers an empowering sense of accomplishment.

Star power: A wide range of troop types and vehicles is available, all delightfully based on the imaginative Halo license. Some of the coolest include a napalm-loaded flamethrower Marine, a Spartan armed with a chain gun, a Jackal with a beam rifle and the anti-aircraft vehicle the Wolverine. Also, a constant command narrative and a haunting musical score add to the gravity of battles.

Violent encounters: Mainly shown through an overhead perspective, the camera can pull in tighter to reveal the explosive intensity of firefights. The results, such as Grizzly supertanks taking down a legion of Brutes (the enemies’ vocalizations actually are humorous) or a Warthog running over Covenant suicide grunts, are not superviolent or graphic but are enough to justify the teen rating.

Multiplayer access: A completely fresh level of fun opens for those who tap into Xbox Live and go online in up to three-versus-three player skirmishes or a two-player cooperative mode. A team can choose to control all of the firepower of the Covenant down to the Prophet’s plasma cannon attack (rained down upon enemies from an orbiting ship) and heavily armed Banshees.

Read all about it: Purchase the Limited Edition package ($79.99) and get the full-color, hardbound 48-page graphic novel Halo Wars: Genesis (about half the size of a standard comic book) which explores the background of Anders, Forge, Cutter and the Covenant’s 17th Arbiter just before the game’s story begins.

Pixel popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. Computer-animated cut scenes are a Final Fantasy force of vivid detail and emotion that will impress. The actual ground combat can’t compare but holds its own level of fine detail that truly brings a cinematic experience to a player’s actions.

The bad: The often-hand-holding, linear action in the solo campaign will wear down the serious lover of real-time strategy games. Simply overstocking and deploying a maximum amount of troop variations often is enough to complete objectives.

What’s it worth: I prefer Halo Wars to the first-person shooting rampage that has defined the franchise. It’s an easily accessible strategy game that unfolds as a blockbuster film loaded with heroes, action and drama.

* Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages (www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).

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