Halo Wars Impressions: Rock, Paper, Warthog

The Xbox 360 exclusive Halo Wars demo lands tomorrow, so how about some impressions of the final game while you're waiting?

What's Halo Wars? Obviously something Halo-related. You know, Microsoft's trilogy about a super-soldier who never takes his helmet off, and probably smells like a locker room (the entire locker room) all by himself?

Halo Wars is Microsoft's stab at a non-shooter iteration of Halo, a totally new direction for the series (unless you count I Love Bees, which I don't). It's also developed by Age of Empires creator Ensemble Studios , the guys who went on to make Age of Empires II, Age of Mythology, and Age of Empires III. Ensemble didn't write the book on real-time strategy, but it penned several pivotal chapters.

But those were PC games. Halo Wars is Xbox 360 only. Can a console real-time strategy game really work?

It's a tough sell. Some have tried, mostly through ports, but nothing's panned out (unless you count Pikmin, which I do). There's an argument for EA's The Battle for Middle-earth II, but you won't catch me making it.

Real-time strategy games usually require nearly prescient multitasking skills. They're built around keyboard/mouse controls, because that's the medium they were born to. Gamepad thumbsticks by contrast are finicky enough as it is with first-person point-and-aim, let alone managing bases while zipping around maps executing precision tactics with multiple squads of discrete units.

Ensemble's solution: Strip positional tactics (flanking, high/low terrain) out, keep faction bases static (located in fixed positions) and make build queues as simple as possible.

I've had the final build of Halo Wars since last week, but, tempting as it was, vetting Killzone 2 kept me from sampling. I finally popped it in this morning and ran through a few skirmish matches as the UNSC.

Firing it up feels a lot like launching Halo. It's got the same trademark electric blue overlay with the same Halo-y fonts. Difficulty levels are pulled straight from the trunk trilogy's settings, e.g. "easy" on up to "legendary" (here, it's accessible out of the gate). The theme song's slightly altered but follows suit, with the same hallmark monkish chant. The in-engine visuals look so much like Bungie's you'd think they appropriated the Halo 3 engine and simply elevated the zoom level.

You've only got two factions to fiddle with in skirmish mode: the UNSC and Covenant. No sign of the Flood here. They're in the campaign, according to lead designer Graeme Divine, but otherwise inaccessible. That they're in at all seems a bit odd. After all, Halo Wars takes place 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved — well before the UNSC set eyes on the creepy critters. I'm sure there's a detail I'm overlooking, of course. I'm no Halo guru, and if Captain Archer could meet the Borg 200 years before Captain Picard...

No sign of Master Chief, since you're asking. Maybe he's an easter egg. Spartans are a playable unit type, but Master Chief wasn't active in the fiction at the point Halo Wars picks up.

The controls are telling. Half the buttons are used to either move or select. The other half execute attacks and special abilities, or reference recent info and objectives. Getting movement and selection right is crucial for any RTS, so they're appropriately favored here. A tap to cycle through bases, another tap to cycle through heroes. The left bumper select all units, the right bumper selects only what's immediately visible. You can still highlight individual units or double-tap to select all of a type or even tap and hold to select by touch.

Build menus are mono-layered, so you're never deep-drilling. Click on an interactive point and you'll see all there is to see, no secondary or tertiary command lists. Once you've mental-mapped the buttons and digested those construction outlines, it's pretty hard to get lost, because everything right there on the surface.

Take bases. To build one, you tap a button over a preset build zone. This brings up a circular "dial" style menu. Nudge the thumbstick toward the "build base" option to initiate the process. Once the base is complete, you've got a predetermined number of open spots to populate with structures that furnish resources, units, and ability upgrades.

Click on those structures and in the menu dial-wheels that pop up, units are always on the right, abilities on the left. You'll never have to nudge through more than three per side (or up to six per selection wheel). It's game design 101: Keep your interface consistent.

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