Halo Wars Preview: Looking Good, Playing Well

When I saw Halo Wars at last year's E3, the Ensemble-developed RTS prequel certainly looked impressive, though I couldn't say much about the game's fabled control scheme.

The entire game hinges on the success of its control scheme, on a player's ability to quickly zoom across a battlefield and issue commands to an entire army. That's really easy to do with a mouse and keyboard, not so much with an Xbox 360 controller.

Ensemble is certainly aware of this--additional control scheme work is part of why Halo Wars was just delayed into 2009, along with general balance tweaks and a crowded holiday season.

Yet even in its current state, I'm happy to report that the game's control scheme works quite well. It's not necessarily intuitive--then again, I can't imagine what button I would instinctively press to instantly select all troops--but I got the hang of it after five minutes.

All it takes is one button press to perform the basic tasks--jump back to your base, select all on-screen units, highlight all troops on a map, center on your troops--mandated by a real-time strategy title. The trick is learning which button to press.

The directional pad is used to zoom across the map from squad to squad, and also to instantly jump back to your base. The left bumper selects all units on a map, while the right bumper selects all units on-screen. Pulling the left trigger lets you scroll through the unit types--Infantry, Flamethrower, Spartan, etc.--in your armada.

Meanwhile, the right analog stick offers manual camera control, letting you move around a map. The A button can be used to select individual troops, or held down to "paint" the selection across multiple squads. X tells them to attack, with Y offering a special attack.

It sounds good in theory, but it's all pretty intimidating when you first pick up the controller. Once you get the rhythm down though, it works. It works surprisingly well.

Within the first ten minutes, I had amassed an army of over 30 troops, comprised of some regular Marines, one or two flamethrower wielders, a couple Spartans and some dude in a Jeep-like Warthog vehicle.

And when my troops got ambushed by Covenant foes, I was able to easily attack with the infantry with my ground troops while the Warthog was separately tasked with taking down a floating, plasma-firing cannon. That didn't end happily for the Warthog, so in the midst of battle, I quickly hopped back to my base and put another few into production.

Jumping back to the battle a few seconds later, the Covenant troops were almost down to nothing, so I had my Marines toss a few grenades at them and kept on marching to the enemy base.

In the introductory presentation, Ensemble kept touting that the Halo Wars built around the rock-paper-scissors mentality of troop strengths and weaknesses, requiring players to actually use strategy instead of relying on sheer numbers.

Sadly, I can't comment much on that part of the game. The level I played--a co-op skirmish match against an AI foe--wasn't all that difficult, as it was meant to get me familiar with the controls. I mostly played the numbers game, building as many troops as I could and sending them out to attack en masse.

This strategy led to my victory, and provided some neat surprises as well.

When I told my entire army to attack an enemy Wraith tank with their special abilities, the Marines threw grenades. One of my Spartans--you know, Master Chief--actually hijacked the thing, and started using it to assault the nearby base.

Still, I have reason to believe my simplistic strategy won't be so effective later in the game. The population limit maxes out at around 60, meaning that it isn't possible to just build up an unstoppably large army and be done with the thinking.

While today's presentation was focused on the hands-on time, Ensemble also issued some new gameplay details. The Covenant will be playable in the game's six-person online multiplayer, which pits teams of up to three against one another or AI opponents.

While playing online, the mini-map displays the location of your comrade's cursor. It's a small but welcome touch--when coordinating an attack, you can just say "they're at my location" and your team will see where that is.

It was also confirmed that the Halo Wars campaign encompasses four different worlds, with at least one of them sporting some very familiar, very Halo-like (the giant space ring, not the game) architecture.

As was the case with last year's showing, I came away impressed by Halo Wars. It certainly seems to be coming along well, but my experience has been quite limited thus far. What I've seen and played has been good, and I'm looking forward to more.