E3 07: Halo Wars First Look

The most important thing to note about Ensemble Studio's upcoming Halo Wars, the company's real-time strategy take on Bungie's insanely popular Halo series, is that, unlike other strategy games on the Xbox 360, it isn't a mere port of an existing PC RTS. This isn't a Halo-themed rendition of Ensemble's popular PC RTS series, Age of Empires, with a new control scheme. Instead, Halo Wars has been designed from the ground-up around on the Xbox 360. This is key in several areas, most importantly control.

Of the two and a half years the game has been in quiet development, the first six months were spent researching and optimizing the control layout. The end result was a scheme that primarily relies on two buttons, A and X. By either pressing, double tapping, or holding A, players can individually select units, select all available units, or bring up an circular cursor that selects any unit it touches. From there, a simple press of X is all it takes to set a destination and send the selected troops on their ways, with a quick tap of the d-pad bringing the player's base back into view.

Relative to PC-oriented real-time strategy games, Halo Wars features a much closer camera, which permits more precise control over troop selection and placement with the controller, along with more detailed graphics and a smaller number of overall troops. A large battle towards the end of our demonstrations featured about 100 units on-screen at once, which an Ensemble representative described as "a comfortable number"--not too small to be boring, but not too big to be unwieldy. The emphasis, he explained, is on strategically fighting through the battles, not sitting at your base and pumping out a massive army. In that same vein, the representative also mentioned that the game's resource management, which enables players to buy and build new units, will be a bit simpler and more streamlined compared to PC RTS efforts, in order to avoid too much micromanagement.

But Halo Wars is not just a real-time strategy game, it is also an entry in the Halo franchise, and Ensemble's implementation of that property is where Halo Wars really begins to impress. The ideals and quirks of Halo permeate every aspect of the game, from the rotating circular objects in the blue-heavy menus to the familiar sounds of the distinctive Halo weaponry and alien battle cries. In the opening cinematic of the demonstration, which showcased an impressively detailed ship hovering near over a lush horizon, even the camera angles and movements were reminiscent of those in Bungie's work.

The cinematic was so detailed, in fact, that I first assumed it was pre-rendered. "There's no way this a strategy game with its tiny troops would have this much detail in its models," I thought. But as the ship flew over the player's command base and an Ensemble representative took control, it became clear I was wrong. As the rep panned around the base, numerous minor touches were visible, such as the infantry troops doing push-ups near a chain link fence and the sparks flying from Warthog maintenance being performed by mechanics.

Speaking of the Warthogs, the jeep-like vehicle behaves and operates as anyone who has played Halo would expect. Players can set multi-point paths for the vehicle to follow, with too sharp of a turn resulting in its backend whipping around in that familiar fishtail. Of course, as in the original Halo titles, the Warthog can be used to physically mow down enemies, a handy technique when coupled with its on-board gatling gun and side gunner. It can even be used to reach portions of the map inaccessible to other vehicles by, say, ramping off a ledge and jumping a canyon.

For its encounters, Halo War utilizes rock-paper-scissors balancing, pitting the weaknesses of one unit against the strengths of another. A Covenant squad of Elites and Grunts armed with needlers made short work of some human infantry troops, but they were wiped out once the more heavily armed and armored Warthogs arrived. That's not to say the Warthogs made it through the battle unscathed--one vehicle's windshield cracked and its sides were riddled with needler rounds--but they certainly fared better than the Covenant. This encounter also highlighted the game's real-time lighting, with the headlights of the Warthog casting realistic shadows on the side of a canyon.

However, the appearance of Banshees flying overhead represented a problem, as there was nothing to stop the aerial fighters as they proceeded to slaughter Warthogs and infantry uninhibited. That is, until the ground-based anti-aircraft batteries, known as Wolverines, were called in to take them down. The next wave of Covenant forces, all driving Ghosts, likewise presented an issue until the Scorpion tanks arrived. As a Scorpion tank took out two Ghosts with one well-timed shot, I smiled, thrilled that Ensemble had managed to retain the chaotic and enjoyable essence of Halo's vehicular warfare.

With the battle seemingly won, a giant Scarab suddenly appeared on the map, plowing through troops and vehicles with its powerful laser blast. Just then Serina, the player's AI companion, mentioned something about using the MAC laser cannon on an orbiting spaceship. Selecting the proper option from the menu and taking aim, the representative called in the Halo equivalent of an airstrike, leaving the Scarab as nothing more than smoking rubble. Much like Cortana in the other Halo games, Serina watches over player's actions in Halo Wars, occasionally providing feedback and bits of tactical advice.

Amusingly enough, there's one Halo standby that Halo Wars' campaign won't feature: a Halo. With the game set at the beginning of the human-Covenant conflict, roughly 20 years before the first Halo and Master Chief's discovery of the ring-shaped station, the inclusion of a Halo would break Bungie's carefully crafted continuity. Fortunately, multiplayer matches aren't bound by the same restrictions, so expect to see some familiar circular locales when playing online. What's particularly interesting about this scenario is that, as Halo fans are well aware, it puts players in a war they will eventually lose, with no hope of victory or overcoming the alien menace.

When questioned if the various multiplayer modes and customization aspects Halo fans have come to know and love would translate over to Halo Wars, the Ensemble rep remained tight-lipped, but promised the modes would be very similar to the offerings found in Halo 2. Likewise, he refused to elaborate on the number of potential opponents in multiplayer, noting that different configurations were still being worked out and tested. However, he did confirm co-op campaign play over Xbox Live.

With its release listed as the incredibly vague "2008," there's still a fair amount of time and work left before Halo Wars hits store shelves. That said, the E3 demo provided a surprisingly strong debut for the title, and I'm eager to see what else Ensemble has up its sleeves.

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