The swan song of beloved developer Ensemble Studios was the console-only RTS Halo Wars, released March 3, 2009 in the US. (The week prior saw its release in Australia, Japan and PAL territories.)
The game sold over 1 million copies its first month, which I thought was pretty impressive for a console RTS.
Halo Wars has the distinction of being only the second RTS I’ve ever actually played all the way through the campaign, and the first I’ve ever replayed a second time plus playing skirmishes against AI. I’ve always been horrible at multiplayer RTS so I don’t bother wasting my time or my teammates’ time online here either. However, out of pure curiosity I have popped onto the multiplayer lobbies at random times over the past month just to check the population, and at any given time there has been anywhere from 700 for the lowest I’ve seen to slightly over 9,000 players online in Halo Wars! I think that is absolutely incredible for a three-year-old console-only RTS to have that population. I see many other newer and more mainstream titles fade away much faster. Players say they never have difficulty finding a match. I had joked several weeks ago that I found it distressing and sad that I could find a match in Halo Wars so much easier than finding a group in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
One reason, aside from the wildly popular Halo franchise it is part of, that Halo Wars did so well is that Ensemble wisely decided to design the game from the ground up around controller inputs rather than trying to shoehorn all the features of a PC RTS into those same inputs like EAs RTS titles did. That decision caused the hardcore RTS critics to sneer at the “dumbed down” game, but bottom line is that Halo Wars plays much more fluidly as a result. I like PC RTS too, but I don’t believe any one platform is best served duplicating another platform, rather than each platform having its own strengths utilized to the fullest.
I keep very few game music songs on my MP3 player, but Halo Wars also has that honor. I love long-time Ensemble composer Stephen Rippy’s haunting theme which easily stands on its own merits while using enough familiar elements from Martin O’Donnel’s Halo soundtracks to keep listeners immersed in that universe.
So Happy Birthday, Halo Wars, and congratulations to the guys formerly of Ensemble, now at Robot Entertainment, who created the game which continues to thrive! I just hope 343 Industries doesn’t forget this IP and I also have my fingers crossed that Robot Entertainment may someday wish to take the lessons learned here and all the community feedback over the years and try their hands at an original console RTS someday.