Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: February 2, 2009
First announced at Microsoft's X06 conference, Halo Wars has been a long time coming. Developed by Ensemble Studios, Halo Wars is the first time the series has broken from the first-person shooter mold, and it is also set to be the first of multiple Halo titles being developed outside of Bungie. We recently got a chance to sit down with an early version of Halo Wars in order to get a sense of what we can expect when the game hits store shelves in February.
Set a full 20 years before the events in the original Halo, Halo Wars serves as a prequel to the main story arc in the trilogy. The human forces have been fighting the Covenant for years over a planet called Harvest. After an initial win by the humans, the Covenant made a strong retaliatory push, and the battle for Harvest has been raging for five long years.
The game begins on the surface of Harvest, with Sergeant Forge making the rounds to rescue some troops who have been pinned down in a firefight. The first mission is your basic introductory romp, which explains how some of the game mechanics work. You won't do anything too risky, but it does get the story rolling.
It seems that the Covenant have been setting up bases nearby in order to investigate an ancient structure built into a large cavern. The second mission focuses on building your first base while eliminating local Covenant forces and pressing forward to the cavern. Here you'll end up using a variety of troops, as well as learning to exploit Forge's enhanced durability as a hero unit. Unlike many RTSes, the hero units don't die in battle. Instead, when Forge's health is depleted, he simply passes out on the battlefield. In order to revive him (or any other hero unit), you must first restore his health and then bring another friendly unit within range.
Building a base isn't as freeform as you might expect. Given that Halo Wars is a console RTS, the developers at Ensemble decided to limit the player to base templates. You can only build in predetermined locations, and once you find a location, you are allowed to put down the core base, which gives you one building and five expansion pads. If you upgrade your base to a fortress, you're granted two additional pads; these expansion pads are where you can build things such as barracks and vehicle shops.
Because the bases are always located in known positions, you can jump from base to base with a simple button press. This was a bit odd at first, especially given that we're used to the point-and-click aspect of traditional RTS games on the PC, but given some time to get used to the control scheme, it has the potential to allow for easy navigation. This would be especially important in the later parts of the game, where you are building troops at multiple locations.
Resources are handled in an automatic manner. There is no resource gathering in the traditional sense, but your base collects resources over a given amount of time. You can build upgrades that increase the rate, but from what we saw, that looks to be it. As a result, there doesn't seem to be a viable way to starve an opponent of resources, so if you want to attack, you need to do it the old-fashioned way: with troops.
Attacking a base presents an unusual twist due to the way bases are designed in Halo Wars. In many RTS games, killing a central base just kills that single building, and you still have to worry about eliminating all of the other buildings. Not so here. The core base structure is very resilient, but when it goes down, all of the support structures around it also go down. Basically, every base attack presents you with a question: Do you take the time to eliminate the support structures first and then go after the center when you've got a clean shot, or do you risk the safety of numbers and use some of your troops as cannon fodder in an attempt to take down the whole thing in one massive assault?
Moving on, it was time to explore the cavern on foot, in order to do recon and defuse a bomb set by the Covenant forces. It seems that they wanted to destroy the place so the humans wouldn't get a chance to investigate its purpose. As things played out in the cut scene, the bomb was successfully defused but a contingent of Covenant forces, led by Arbiters, immediately attacked. Whereas previously the goal was getting in, now the goal was getting out.
This mission didn't allow us the luxury of a base, so building more troops wasn't an option. Instead, we had to concentrate on tactics and protecting the hero units. In addition to Forge, we also had Anders on the ground for this mission. A female tech, she was on hand to learn the purpose of the cavern. She also came in handy when we needed to repair a broken bridge control in order to escape.
As Anders and Forge escaped the cavern, the demo played a final cut scene teasing more of the main plot before returning to the title screen. The three levels were short, but they did give us a peek at how Ensemble decided to implement an RTS with a console controller. One of the key mechanics is the unit selection. While you can use a paintbrush-style tool to select units, the game uses button commands to select all units on the map or all units on-screen and another to cycle between all selected groups. If you're coming from a longtime PC RTS background, it's a little weird wrapping your head around it and feels a bit clunky at first, but it does have promise. Ensuring that unit manipulation is fast and easy will be a key hurdle to overcome that will make or break the final game.
Visually, Halo Wars looked on par with what you'd expect for an RTS game. The color palette was somewhat muted, with a lot of blues and purples. It's quite possible that the limited scope was due to the fact that we were only allowed to play three levels, so here's hoping that the full experience pulls a bit more from the rainbow. The cut scenes that advance the plot were nicely done, with a good amount of detail.
In addition to the single-player demo, we were also allowed to experiment with the skirmish mode. Unfortunately, Microsoft and Ensemble only allowed us to play against the AI and no human multiplayer was allowed, though it will be supported in the full game. Given that the campaign mode is human-focused, we decided to try a quick run with the Covenant forces.
Playing as the Covenant is very similar to playing as a human, though the Covenant forces seem to be physically stronger, much as they are in the traditional Halo games. You build your base in the same way as the humans, and upgrades come in a similar manner. One difference between the campaign and the skirmish mode is that in the former, the heroes may have a mix of abilities. In skirmish, each hero has a distinct ability in order to ensure game balance.
Developing a console RTS is a daunting task. It's been tried many times before and most of the attempts have been relatively mediocre. A big part of the problem has always been that console RTS games have tried to adapt PC controls for a console environment. With Halo Wars, Ensemble has created a control scheme specifically for the console and focused on what works with a console controller. It's a risk, but given the company's history with the RTS genre, the developers certainly have the credentials to pull it off.
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