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Halo Wars

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: March 3, 2009 (US), Feb. 27, 2009 (EU)


X360 Preview - 'Halo Wars'

by Andrew Hayward on July 22, 2007 @ 1:09 a.m. PDT

Halo Wars is a new strategy title that expands on the universe that has made the Halo franchise so beloved and provide gamers with an unparalleled strategy experience.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: TBA 2008

Halo Wars may not be the first real-time strategy title built from the ground for a console system, but it’s the first that has a real shot to be a smash hit. As the first title to be spun off from the Halo franchise since its debut in 2001, Halo Wars will move units merely on the strength of the brand, despite the unconventional shift from one familiar acronym (FPS) to another (RTS). But with the combined weight of Bungie and Ensemble Studios (Age of Empires) behind it, it seems unlikely that Halo Wars will have to rely on its branding to be considered a success.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the game looks fantastic. That’s not just a reference to its carefully molded terrain, blinding special effects, or its ability to cram dozens of units on screen at any given time. What makes Halo Wars so visually appealing is that everything looks so familiar, from the waddling Grunts to the individual rounds fired from the Needler. Incredible detail has been paid to recreating the animations and aesthetic of every aspect of the Halo series, giving the impression that this is a true Halo experience – just seen from a different perspective.

Set 20 years before the original entry, Halo Wars plots the first battles between the Covenant and the humans. While such a time discrepancy might give the developers free reign to toy around with the familiar iconology of the franchise, Ensemble recognizes the need to respectfully maintain as much as possible from the original games, only adding vehicles or characters when their inclusion will complement what already exists. As such, you might see a handful of new vehicles, but you can bet that the fan-favorite Warthog truck will be appearing in all its original glory.

“The Warthog is the most recognizable vehicle in the Halo games. Everyone knows what a Warthog looks like,” said Graeme Devine, lead designer on Halo Wars and famed developer of The 7th Guest and Quake III Arena. “They know how they drive around, they know what they sound like, they know what they move like, they know what the physics are like. So we really tried hard to make a Warthog a Warthog.”

And what a Warthog it is! As someone whose favorite part of the Halo multiplayer experience is jacking a Warthog and cruising around the map, I take special pleasure in knowing that the sensation has transferred admirably to the RTS landscape. Like their FPS counterparts, the Warthogs are squirrelly mechanical beasts, fishtailing at the slightest turn and armed with the ability to run down foes. Additionally, Warthogs have earned the ability to ramp over gaps in the environment, as seen in the short E3 demonstration. Maintaining this familiarity will win the hearts of Halo fans, but what of their minds?

To make the RTS experience more palatable to console gamers, a streamlined control scheme has been implemented that will rely largely on the face buttons for most direct actions on the battlefield. The A button will be utilized for all selection actions, while pressing X will direct all selected units to a specified location. When selecting, tapping A twice will select all on-screen units, while holding the button gives players the option to “paint” specific units and group them together. However, the most notable alteration comes in the form of the “circle menu,” which uses a circular, full-screen display to offer all necessary actions to the player.

“It’s what we consider to be the most important user interface element in the game,” said Devine. “Everything can be done with the circle menu. Building [structures], building units, building infantry, using powers… everything is done through this.”

Truly, Halo Wars is meant to be a streamlined experience, and while combat has been pegged as the core element of the game, other RTS tenets have not been completely ignored. While routine resource gathering appears to be out of the picture, Devine stresses that the game will feature an economy of sorts, though details are scarce. Players will be able to use the Armory to upgrade their Warthogs and other vehicles, and like most RTS titles, units under construction can be queued up via the circle menu. And while players will receive help and advice from the female voice of Serena (presumably Cortana’s predecessor), there will not be super-powered hero or leader characters on the battlefield.

The brief E3 demo began at the human base, which impressed viewers with its attention to detail. Not only were the structures and vehicles sharply rendered, but non-selectable “flavor” characters could be seen doing push-ups and training for battle, adding significant depth to the scope of the world. Once a respectable amount of marines had been created, they stormed out into the battlefield… only to be swiftly defeated by a troupe of Covenant Brutes armed with the aforementioned Needlers. Time for a change of tactics, perhaps?

A handful of Warthogs were then spawned, storming forth from the base to run down and unleash rapid-fire assaults on the enemies. Shortly thereafter, another skirmish began, this time with the Covenant unleashing Ghost hovercrafts, which had an uncanny advantage over the puny marines. The humans countered with an offering of monstrous Scorpion tanks, which had their way with the little purple fliers. But as the UNSC forces approached an ongoing battle outside a cold Covenant structure, we encountered one foe that could not be so easily topped: the Scarab.

Well, not by the ground forces, at least. The enormous, four-legged beast easily towered over the human forces, using its head-mounted laser to devastate anything that came within several paces of it. Despite a constant barrage of firepower, nothing was getting through. The solution? Use the circle menu to call upon the awesome power of the Orbital Bombardment, a staggering cannon shot from space that devastates anything in its wake (including human units, if in range). A satisfying conclusion, if we’ve seen one. When asked if the Scarab was considered to be a boss fight, Devine replied, “Scarab is definitely an ‘Oh shit’ moment.”

And likely the first of many, based on what we’ve seen. Though we did not get any hands-on time with the game, we were very impressed by the demonstration of Halo Wars. As noted earlier, Microsoft could probably ship anything with the Halo name and have it be a success, but Ensemble and Bungie have clearly crafted an experience that draws equally from the Halo universe and Ensemble’s celebrated history of RTS development. Once all the Halo 3 hoopla dies down, expect to see much more of this sharp-looking offshoot, including a confirmed downloadable demo sometime before its 2008 release.

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