Hands-on preview: Halo Wars!

First hands-on gameplay

Another Glorious Day in the Corps

We picked up an Xbox 360 controller to play a round of four-player Team Skirmish. Though the game was far from complete, it was already obvious that Ensemble's attention to detail is paying off. We found that the basics of Halo Wars take about 30 seconds to grasp, and require the use of only a few key buttons. The interface in Halo Wars feels simple and natural: the left analog stick moves the camera, a button tap will select units or buildings, and holding the A button and "painting" the crowd will select all nearby units. When you're ready to deliver a crushing offensive blow to your enemy, you can tap the Left Bumper to select all of your units at once. Easy! A simple radial menu system keeps your base-building activities simple and streamlined, allowing you to quickly queue up multiple units or structures for rapid deployment. Multi-tasking is easy too, thanks to a directional pad shortcut that will instantly jump you from the field back to your base.

Based on our hands-on sessions, the gameplay style in Halo Wars is pure punch-counterpunch, packing in plenty of fast-paced skirmishes. If your enemy is overwhelming you with low-cost infantry troops, Flame Marines and Warthogs make an effective counter. If you come under assault by airborne forces, you can quickly counter by building a few anti-air Wolverines, plus a Scorpion tank or two to protect them. One of the pleasures of Halo Wars is that Halo players already know the roles of many of the vehicles, so adapting that knowledge to a workable strategy is a simple task. You already know that Warthogs can't absorb heavy hits, so you'll naturally employ them for speedier hit-and-run raids.

As in Halo 3, online multiplayer will be a key focus in Halo Wars. The final version is expected to support up to six players over Xbox Live, and support a variety of modes including Skirmish and Team Skirmish. Meanwhile, the story-driven campaign will support an online cooperative mode for two players, enabling two UNSC forces to team up against the Covenant.

We're convinced. Halo Wars represents a huge challenge for Ensemble Studios, but judging by our experiences with the game, the developer is making some smart decisions. Ensemble isn't ready to confirm a Halo Wars release date yet, but expects that it will arrive in the second half of 2008. And no, it won't be coming to the PC. Ever. For the first time in history, one of the most eagerly anticipated RTS games of the year is a console exclusive. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

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