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E3 2008: Halo Wars

E3 2008Halo

One of the biggest games this holiday season is going to be Halo Wars. Thousands and thousands of people will pick up the game simply because the Halo name is on the cover, even if they don’t know anything about it. Thousands will probably be angry and disappointed to find out that they don’t play as Master Chief and that it isn’t a first-person shooter. I can already imagine game store employees explaining the game to unaware buyers to prevent themselves from having to take returns later.

But hopefully most people will actually give this game a fair shot and not base their expectations on the epic trilogy that preceeded it, instead accepting it as an all-new adventure in the Halo universe. I had the opportunity to sit down to play the game in co-op mode while Chris Rippy of Ensemble Studios (known to PC gamers for their award-winning Age of Empires series) looked on and answered my questions.

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Our match began with Justin Rouse (also from Ensemble), explaining how much work the team put into streamlining the controls to be as comfortable as possible. The goal was to minimize to design the game to suit the controller while still capturing the depth of the PC RTS experience that the studio is known for. As a long time player of Age of Empires and other RTS games, I was admittedly hesitant to pick up the controller. I had doubts that the game could control well, but I was extremely surprised. Controls are kept very simple. You select your units with the A button and X is assigned to attack and move.

You move around the battlefield with the left stick and spin the camera around with the right stick. It’s hardly more complicated than that, amazingly. Building creation is handled through radial menus and, to keep things simple, only eight objects are ever in a single menu. Additionally, the D-Pad is used as a hotkey between your bases and the Spirit of Fire (a ship high above that provides on-the-ground bases and fire support). Selecting all of your troops at once is a piece of cake, but you can still micromanage your army and select particular units as well.

During our playtime, the campaign mode was off-limits, but we were told some details. The game takes place 20 years before the first Halo, so there’ll be no Master Chief. I was told by Rippy that the popular Halo novels were also considered as they crafted the story, and that the team also spoke with Bungie, the developers of the original trilogy.

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The game also played much faster than a typical RTS game. It was clear that the developers understand the action orientation of the franchise. I was told by Rippy that it takes the average Age of Mythology player about 15 minutes to get into battles. With Halo Wars, it will take about five. While some units are familiar, such as the Spartans and marines that you can create, there are also new additions like the flamethrower units that I was able to experiment with. This was done to create balance in the game and work with the rock-paper-scissors formula of RTS games.

In addition to familiar units, the buildings are all designed to have a familiar look. Though I was looking on them from an all-new perspective, I could easily imagine tramping through my base as Master Chief. The architectural style is true to each of the game’s races. There are also little touches that extended beyond game design and more into geekdom that only true Halo fans will appreciate – such as the Warthog tipping as it took tight turns or the Spartan units being able to commandeer enemy ships.

Multiplayer is also a pivotal part of the Halo Wars experience. Up to six players will be able to battle across the game’s expansive maps online. Additionally, two players will be able to complete the game’s campaign mode co-operatively. And LAN fans will surely appreciate the system link component.

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Halo Wars definitely seems like another great entry into the already solid Halo universe. Despite a new gameplay direction and new development team, it seems like Halo has translated quite well into an RTS. This is no doubt because of the strong emphasis on “nailing the controls” and the effort the team has taken to ensure that the game stay true to the series. Make no doubt about it though: this is a very unique, very different game than what we’ve grown to love from this franchise.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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