E3 Hands-On: Halo Wars

“First person shooters will NEVER work on consoles.” Not so many years ago that critical attitude towards taking the staple product of PC gaming to the living room was shared by many. Then a little game called Halo came along and shattered whatever doubt was left that an FPS could properly function on a console, leaving PC gamers with their keyboards and mice stuck firmly in their mouths. So can lighting strike twice? Can the Halo franchise once again bridge the gap between these two platforms so that the real time strategy genre may finally cross it?

Obviously, we can’t say for certain yet – the game isn’t due out until the spring of 2009 – but it is safe to say that developer Ensemble Studios is coming closer to achieving the goal of a proper console RTS than anyone before them. It’s also worth mentioning the degree to which Halo Wars feels like a genuine part of the money-printing franchise that Bungie created. Before even getting into the gameplay, the menu alone evokes the Halo theme, with the same ominous score playing and a nearly identical interface, which we were told will carry over to a very similar version of Halo 3’s multiplayer matchmaking system. A stat-tracking function will also be available, but the members of Ensemble didn’t believe that it would be connected to Bungie.net.

Starting up the game, we were shown a UNSC base on a forerunner world whose name was not revealed to us. Ensemble isn’t saying much about the storyline right now, except for the fact that it takes place in the early years of humanity’s war with the Covenant. If you want a primer, it might be a good idea to read the latest Halo novel, Contact Harvest, as events in the book will play a part in the game.

One thing that Ensemble was eager to make clear is the unique nature of Halo War’s storyline, deliberately set apart from Bungie’s trilogy, so don’t hope for any guest appearances by the Master Chief.

Beginning our play session, we went about constructing a barracks building on the seven-pad instillation that served as our base, which is really no chore at all since you don’t have to worry about building placement: all you have to do get them up. In order to fuel this prosperous growth, no annoying item collection is needed; instead, all that’s required are some power plants, and the game will inform you when more need to be constructed. Once the barracks was completed, we prepared a squad of classic UNSC marines, as well as few of the brand new flame thrower units, and naturally, Spartans.

We then took our soldiers out on parade, selecting them by pressing the A button and using X to move them. If you want to select larger groups of units, the A button can be held down and used like a paint brush, or if the battle is hot and you need every man available, hitting the left bumper will automatically select every existing unit.

As our party came to a bridge built in familiar Forerunner design, a team of Grunts led by Elites appeared, and the confrontation began by selecting the enemy and pressing the X button to attack. After the Covies were taken down, and a few Grunts enjoyably rocketed into the sky from ruptured methane tanks we pushed onward, we moved straight into a line of wraith tanks. While some of our Spartans managed to hijack a few of the tanks by our command with the Y button, some heavier guns were clearly needed.

Using the D pad to immediately flash back over to our base, we quickly assembled a fleet of Warthogs and Scorpion tanks to aid our nearly broken battalion of marines and Spartans. The Warthogs slide and bounce exactly as your used to seeing them do in the other Halo games, and with a press of the Y button, will run over enemy ground troops, just like we all love to do in the other games.

In case it wasn’t already apparent, the Y button is used to enable a unit’s special ability, be it jacking vehicles with the Spartans, running over Grunts with a hog, or having marines throw their frag grenades.

After taking out the wraiths, we discovered the heart of the Covenant scum that had been pestering us earlier: an immaculate home base that bore all the stylish markings one would expect from the alien religious organization. In order to take this baby down we needed some major firepower, and the only way to get that was from our mother ship in orbit, the Spirit of Fire, which unleashed hell upon the Covenant base in an incredible explosion.

Now we did mention that the game will not permit you to toy with base construction too much, but it will allow you to fill in the vacant crater that your enemy left behind with another base to help the push into new territory be a little easier. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do anymore expansion, as at this point our demo came to a close.

I don’t want to sound too confident in Halo Wars just yet, but even as one of those skeptics that refuses to believe an RTS can really be played without a mouse and keyboard, I was quite impressed with the way the game handled. Moving around the level and selecting units was a breeze, and having the snappy option of “teleporting” from a unit to the base using the D pad provided an element of immediacy that every console gamer wants. That being said, all this quick and easy RTS gameplay did come from shaving a lot of functions off and sticking with what Ensemble calls “the bare essentials” of a strategy game. While Halo Wars appears to be working on the 360, PC stalwarts may be quick to jab at its simplistic nature, casting it as a cannibalized RTS meant to accommodate twitchy shooter fans.

Regardless of any skepticism, and there will be plenty more of that to come, Halo Wars is shaping up to become what I believe to be one of the first genuine attempts at an RTS game made specifically with a console in mind. If part of that goal involves tinkering with certain elements of the genre, then maybe that’s what it’s really going to take. One thing that Ensemble has definitely done right is creating a game within the Halo universe, and make no mistake, Halo Wars feels like part of the franchise. Hopefully, the final version will replicate not only the color scheme of the Xbox’s most prized franchise, but also its tradition of innovating PC-centric genres for the consoles.

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