Since the Halo series of FPS titles was announced as a trilogy, fans constantly pondered what was next for the series. Microsoft was not about to let its most profitable franchise lay dormant, and announced a radical shift for the formerly fast paced shooter game.
Enter Halo Wars, the new real-time strategy title built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 by Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios.
The first question on most gamers minds is how Halo has survived the transition to two very different genres. The answer? Amazingly well. Halo Wars may very well be the first title to unequivocally show that RTS games can be fun, intuitive and easy to play on a console. With only minutes at the controls, I was able to build, harvest, and command my armies into battle seamlessly and efficiently.
What makes Halo Wars so accessible is its control scheme. Players control the camera and a mouse-style cursor with the two analog sticks. The A button selects units, and by holding down the A button, a circle appears that selects all units in the circle. A push of the right bumper will select all units. With a push of the left trigger, players can select all of a particular unit type.
Unlike RTS's like Starcraft, players cannot pick a plot of land and build a tactical building. Instead, players are given a 3X3 grid for a base. In each slot, players can choose what kind of building they want, be it an aircraft hangar, barracks, an upgrade station or a resource harvester. As the player takes over more sections of the map, they can take over additional bases from opponents and have more plots for building. Also, resources are harvested simply by building a resource harvester. There's no need to create builders and order them to harvest wood or vespene gas here.
Unit types are varied and perform well. If you thought it was badass to have a single Master Chief in the shooter trilogy, juts wait until you get your hands on an entire platoon of them. The Spartans are extremely valuable units, with the ability to wield chainguns and steal vehicles with from their covenant opponents. You'll also have access to warthogs, scorpion tanks, pelican dropships, marines, flamethrower units, and plenty more that you may or may not have seen in the original games.
Strategic depth is added with the use of the Y button. Every unit has a special secondary attack. For example, the marines will use grenades, and the Spartans will carjack their opponents. Once the Spartan takes over a unit, he is permanently fused with it until the vehicle is destroyed. Then he has a short amount of time to get out of dodge before you lose him for good. The plus side to doing this is that the vehicle gains statistics bonuses by being piloted by a Spartan, such as increased attack and defence.
Finally, the game makes navigation a snap with the use of the D-pad. By pressing different directions, players can jump to their base or their biggest squadron of soldiers, and call in devastating airstrikes. The sheer power of these airstrikes is truly a sight to behold.
Perhaps most impressive of all is how much the game truly feels like Halo. The graphics are great and attractive. I personally loved seeing the warthogs bounce around the detailed and varied landscapes just like they do in the original games, and the explosions and massive firefights looked simply fantastic. It all ran at a buttery smooth framerate too.
Halo Wars will also ship with three on three multiplayer over Xbox Live, and players will also have to option to play as both the humans and covenant in both modes.
Halo Wars is shaping up better than anyone could have expected. It's looking like a great, yet unexpected addition to the series, and was our choice for best strategy game of E3 '08.