'Halo Wars' - The Best G.I. Joe Game Ever Made (A Review, Of Sorts)

Now I know why the Covenant fly purple ships. And now, after playing "Halo Wars," I remember how much fun I had as a kid.


Boys like me who grew up in America in the 80s never soured of certain tastes.

Since an early age, we needed transforming robots and a set of action figures comprised of colorful fighting men (ninjas and a cute redhead were acceptable in that fighting force too). As we got older, most of us packed up the toys but sought similar sensory thrills from video games.

Battling through the campaigns "Halo," "Halo 2" and "Halo 3," were like playing with three new Christmas batches of G.I. Joes.

Video games did not always provide. The offered other delights but failed to deliver the specific thrills of those specific toys of my youth.

Years later, I've still not played a great "Transformers" or "G.I. Joe" video game, at least not anything named as such. I have played them by other names: I discovered "Metroid Prime" to the best Transformers game -- she can transform and roll out, after all -- and the "Halo" series has offered me a definitive G.I. Joe video game experience.

Battling through the campaigns of "Halo," "Halo 2" and "Halo 3," has been like playing with three new Christmas batches of G.I. Joes. Master Chief and the enemy Covenant are action figures held by my fingers.

Like G.I. Joes, the "Halo" soldiers and aliens are lanky and colorful, bending at their many points of articulation. Spaceships look to be made of hollow plastic. Warthog jeeps roll and tumble through the game in that way that toy trucks do when they are driven, not by a steering wheel, but by a kneeling boy whose hand is clamped over their roof.

The "Halo" games could have meant something else to me other than G.I. Joe brought to virtual life. Had I played them in multiplayer more, I may have come to think of them as grown-up versions of backyard war games waged with my brother. And by the time I played through "Halo 3," I did at last savor some other meaning from the series. The grown-up part of me relished the smartness of each battle in the games' campaigns, the tactical intrigue of combat against a capable, crafty, calculating enemy.

The enemies fly purple planes and some shoot pink needle bullets, like an invading force from the Barbie dollhouse of a sister I never had.

But the boyish G.I. Joe delight of "Halo" has lingered for me. That is why the announcement of Ensemble Studios' "Halo Wars" a couple of years ago was a personal delight. As a real-time strategy game, it would let me control the "Halo" characters from an elevated perspective. Other students of the RTS genre might call that perspective a god view. I think of it, instead, as the view of a four-foot 11-year-old looking down at the 3 3/4 -inch forces of G.I. Joe, Cobra, Master Chief and the Covenant -- all toys assembled on the carpet, ready for my direction.

"Halo Wars," which ships in the first week of March, is a brief 15-mission game, its single-player a new tour of duty for some virtual toys that lasted me a weekend. Multiple difficulty levels and multiplayer will give this game more life for others, but for me, I was happy with a trip back to boyhood battlefield management.

Seeing the "Halo" troops and trucks from above makes them seem more G.I. Joe than ever. I realize how much a boy fantasy this series is. The enemies fly purple planes and some shoot pink needle bullets, like an invading force from the Barbie dollhouse of a sister I never had. How primally important it is to smash them.

I haven't played enough real-time strategy games to tell you if this one brings smart new things to the mix, but I have played with enough action figure two decades ago to say this game brings those delights back. The controls which could be cumbersome for a game in a complex genre are a cinch, presented with a hand tied behind the back - no left trigger is used. The base-building is simple; resources for constructing vehicles and training troops are easily and automatically gained. The gameplay is all about scattering your toys across the field, the smashing of them into each other and then witnessing (at long last!) the visualization of all those explosions you used to have to sound out by puffing out your cheeks and growling.

Despite its grander scale than the first-person games, ["Halo Wars"] feels like a minor tale.

The "Halo" universe is a such a good universe for this. The characters do what boys dream of. Spartans can climb enemy tanks, punch their hull and ride them -- as they do in the first-person "Halo" games -- but here they do it in fine detail while sixty other units buzz around them. Special command powers cause Warthog jeeps to ram into the nearest target, back up and ram them again. Super-tuned vehicles (you wait and pay extra for the enhancements) spin their turrets, carry armed men on their wings and fire more rockets then you could ever draw in mid-air with short fingers vaulting to their targets.

The adventure is a "Halo" side story, a bit of pre-history that, despite its grander scale than the first-person games, feels like a minor tale. It's a "Halo" chronicle of a mission that goes somewhere strange, a sequence of levels that provide the variety of chase, siege, and rescue on landscapes ranging from city to slime to the back of a massive starcraft. It's story may be canon, but its events feel peripheral because they are perpetrated by people who lack the star power of Master Chief. The attraction to this game is truly the toys: to see which ones are available to play with next, to see what they can do and which ones they are up against.

In the midst of all of this there is another wonder: the best "Halo" film yet made. Production house Blur has crafted more exciting cinematic sequences of "Halo" characters and crafts in action than Hollywood might ever grant us, even if they weren't botching the plans to make a movie at all. Climaxing with a terrific rendering of Spartan soldiers in acrobatic battle, the "Halo Wars" cinematics are rivaled only by those of a "Metal Gear Solid" or "Final Fantasy" in stealing the show from the gameplay they interrupt.

"Halo Wars" was a wonderful game for making me a boy again for a weekend. It's an action-figure battlefield for those who want to play again.

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