Hands-on preview: Halo Wars!

First hands-on gameplay

Guns or Butter?

Spend a few minutes browsing the Halopedia and you'll see that Halo players are an obsessive, detail-oriented bunch. That poses another challenge for Ensemble: how to make a deep strategy experience while remaining faithful to the iconic look and feel of the Halo shooters. "Warthogs, Scorpions...Halo fans have specific expectations about what these are and how they work," Pottinger says. "Our challenge is to live up to those expectations and still make a great RTS game."

That task is easier said than done according to the game's lead art producer, Lance Hoke. The solution? Constant revision. "We use Bungie's original designs as a reference, but Halo Wars is an RTS game, and that visual style won't always work." Case in point: the highly detailed Halo characters — Marines, Spartans, Grunts — look confusingly similar when viewed from the high overhead camera used in Halo Wars. "We sometimes have to exaggerate a character's proportions, or saturate his colors, to make it work in the RTS setting," Hoke says. Though the character designs look a bit different when viewed up-close, from a distance the battles look strikingly faithful to the landmark shooter series. Banshees swoop and dive through the air, Warthogs run down Covenant Grunts, and sticky plasma grenades send UNSC Marines flying like rag dolls. Yup — this is definitely Halo.

192668-6-1

The maps in Halo Wars look strikingly similar to those in Halo 3, thanks to vibrant lighting and terrain elevation.

In designing Halo Wars, Ensemble has a chance to not only channel the spirit of the earlier Halo games, but also expand on elements of the game's wider universe. Halo Wars will take a broader view of the conflict between the United Nations Space Command and the space-faring Covenant, a perspective that hasn't always been possible in previous Halo games. The campaign storyline is set 20 years before the events of Halo, and it's a story that Halo Wars lead writer Graeme Devine says will set the stage for the first Halo. The specifics of the Halo Wars storyline are still a deeply held secret, but Devine did provide a basic overview of the plot. Halo Wars follows the crew of a UNSC support vessel called Spirit of Fire as it undertakes a dangerous mission, and first encounters the disjointed mish-mash of alien races that make up the Covenant. "At this point in history, the Covenant is at its most evil," Devine says. "They are hell-bent on the destruction of humanity, on scouring us from the universe" in their suicidal search for the fabled Halo ring worlds. Halo Wars also introduces a new villain in its campaign mode, a mysterious adversary whom Devine describes as "James-Bond-villain evil."

Halo Wars' campaign mode will take players to a variety of alien worlds the have never been seen or explored by Halo players. One of the first is Harvest, a lush agricultural world that has since been partially "glassed" by the Covenant in an early encounter. Thanks to the Covenant-induced nuclear winter, Harvest is now a cold, barren world that's scarred with plasma burns. Another confirmed planet is Arcadia, a tropical vacation destination that's popular with adventurous tourists. Though Devine wouldn't describe the importance of Arcadia, he hinted that the world holds something of great interest to the Covenant, which sparks a subsequent invasion and mass evacuation. The battles in Halo Wars' campaign mode aren't expected to lead players to the titular ring worlds, as they won't be discovered until 20 years later, but Ensemble Studios confirmed that the Halos will likely appear as maps in the game's multiplayer mode.

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