Hands-on preview: Halo Wars!

First hands-on gameplay

GamePro got the world's first hands-on gameplay with Halo Wars, as well as unprecedented access to its esteemed developer, Ensemble Studios.

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"If Halo Wars is successful, it won't only be viewed as a great Halo game," Ensemble Studios executive producer Harter Ryan explains. "We're looking for a bigger success — to establish the strategy genre on the Xbox 360. We want to make a beacon for other developers."

Developers could use the help. Real-time strategy (RTS) games have suffered a dismal track record on home consoles over the years, scoring vanishingly few successes amidst countless failures. The problem is elementary. The very elements that make PC games such as Starcraft so addictive — micromanaging resources, juggling multiple battles at once — bog down the console experience to a near standstill.

But that isn't stopping Ensemble Studios, the masterminds behind the trend-setting PC strategy series Age of Empires. With Halo Wars, Ensemble is aiming to pull off the impossible: craft a simple, intuitive, highly playable strategy game based around the strengths and limitations of the Xbox 360 controller. And you know what? These console first-timers just might pull it off.

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Witness one of the first screenshots of Halo. Bungie's original plan was to create a sci-fi strategy game, an approach being re-visited by Halo Wars.

Full Circle

"Bungie has been quite modest about letting us making Halo Wars," Ensemble Studios producer Chris Rippy says, "because, believe me, those guys are quite capable of making their own Halo RTS game." Other aspirations aside, Halo Wars is already something of an oddity because it's the first Halo game that won't be developed by Bungie Studios, the creators of the Halo series. But Bungie is leaving its mark on Halo Wars in other ways. When Ensemble Studios started work on Halo Wars, Bungie opened up its Halo vault to share rare reference material and storyline secrets from the near-mythical Halo Bible that the Halo creator keeps locked up in its Kirkland, WA offices.

In transforming the Halo universe into a strategy game, Ensemble Studios is ironically bringing the series back to its roots. Before its release as the Xbox first-person shooter loved my millions worldwide, Halo was planned to be a PC strategy game. A series of design tweaks culminated in Halo's eventual rebirth as a white-knuckle console shooter. But Halo's strategy DNA lived on in the series anyway, evident in the game's distinctive vehicles and rock-paper-scissors gameplay philosophy. Ensemble's job is to distill those traits and forge a radically different creation: a fun, easy to play, console-based Halo RTS. It turns out that this is easier said than done.

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The RTS Problem

Reinventing Halo as a strategy game may seem like an easy task — slap a Warthog here, a mob of Marines there, a cursor, and voila! — but the reality of producing Halo Wars has required tremendous effort and thought from the veteran RTS developers at Ensemble Studios. Halo Wars has forced Ensemble's team to re-evaluate its most deeply held beliefs about the function and feel of the RTS genre, in the process turning conventional wisdom on its head. The first challenge was the hardest: making a strategy game that feels utterly natural when played on a game controller, a demanding task since the device can't match the fluidity or flexibility of a PC mouse and keyboard.

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Multiplayer matches are expected to support up to six players over Xbox Live. Two players can play online co-op in the campaign.

"We started by converting [PC strategy game] Age of Mythology to work with a controller," executive producer Ryan explains. "We didn't want to worry about the specifics of the game, just the user interface and the feel of the controller." Though Ensemble's prototype took months of hard work from a dedicated team, the proof-of-concept caught the attention of Microsoft, the studio's owner and publisher. "Then," Ryan adds, "we started talking about Halo."

But making the switch from PC game development to console development brings some serious challenges. "Ensemble has had to step away from our own classic definition of an RTS," Ryan explains. PC RTS games rely on their complex interfaces and detailed in-game economies, features that the studio acknowledges just won't work when played on a TV set in the living room. In designing a more visceral combat system and visual communication style for Halo Wars, the experienced PC studio had to move outside of its comfort zone. "These are all new challenges for Ensemble," Ryan says.

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Capturing the awe-inspiring locales of Halo in an RTS took some fancy coding, but the results speak for themselves.

The good news is that many of Ensemble's bold design decisions in Halo Wars have re-energized and re-focused the team. One promising example is the simplicity of Halo Wars' economy, which isn't structured around wood or gold or money, but simply an all-encompassing resource called "supplies." With such a simple economy in place, players can focus on the real action: upgrading units, building helpful new structures, and sending legions of troops into battle. "The economy is simple but meaningful," Ensemble designer Dave Pottinger says. "All the big strategy decisions remain, but the game style is more adrenaline-filled."

That speedy new game pace, which lowers the learning curve and better captures the energy of the Halo shooters, is another bold move that Ensemble is particularly proud of. Rather than battles that rage on for 30 minutes or more, Halo Wars encourages faster, more vicious conflicts that can play out in a fraction of the time. It's a play style that suits the Halo world well. "In early versions of the game, it took 10 minutes to prepare to fight," Pottinger explains. "Now we've got that down to about 10 seconds." Starting a match is faster and more engaging, too, as you begin every battle with a lone unarmed Warthog that you can drive around to collect the supply crates that dot the environments. Once you collect a few supply crates, you can start pumping out troops seconds into the match.

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The attention to detail is impressive. Note the Marines piling out of the Elephant mobile barracks, and the Wraith looming in the distance.

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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.

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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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Mother of Invention

Though the alien Covenant faction is expansive and detailed, Ensemble quickly learned that the USNC side needed to be expanded for a strategy game. So Ensemble fleshed out the scrappy Marines with a collection of new vehicles, all of which bolster the UNSC's ability to stand toe-to-toe with the Covenant in battle. One of the favorite new additions is called the Cyclops, an Iron Man-esque mechanized power suit that excels at beating the stuffing out of enemy buildings. All told, we counted some

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True to their Halo 3 counterparts, Warthogs are fast and nimble. They can leap over gaps to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

Working in the key details from the Halo shooters has required some crafty thinking from Ensemble. In most RTS games, vehicles simply sit stationary and shoot. But the vehicles in the Halo games feel far more three-dimensional: the Warthog, for example, is highly maneuverable and can run over enemies in addition to blasting them with its chaingun turret. To incorporate more of these concepts, Ensemble added primary and secondary attack buttons for each unit. Tapping the primary attack button will make your Marines fire their assault rifles, for instance. But if you need more stopping power, a tap of the secondary attack button will make them toss out a volley of grenades. You won't need to micromanage these secondary attacks, but it's a handy option to have if you're under siege by a superior fighting force.

Even the Sentinels, the Forerunner sentries that watch over the Halo structures, are being worked into Halo Wars. Some multiplayer maps will contain a "Sentinel shop" that players can capture. Commandeer the Sentinel shop and the Sentinels will reinforce your army, firing their beams at any enemy unlucky enough to draw too close. There's even a beefier Sentinel variant that attacks with electromagnetic pulses, which freezes nearby vehicles in their tracks for several crucial seconds. But you've got the keep an iron grip on the Sentinel shop, lest a crafty enemy take control of the Sentinels for himself.

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Don't get your hopes up — Halo Wars is Xbox 360 all the way. Ensemble confirmed there would be no PC version.

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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.