E3 '07: Halo Wars Impressions - First Look

This console strategy game will be based on the blockbuster Halo series, and we finally get a chance to see it in motion.


SANTA MONICA--Nothing says "summer" quite like a media summit for video games, which is fortunate, because the 2007 E3 summit conference is in full swing in sultry Santa Monica. Among the list of games being shown at the event is Halo Wars, the Xbox 360 real-time strategy game from Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios. Halo Wars is, of course, based on the Halo universe, the sci-fi world in which Bungie's Master Chief battles the alien armies of the Covenant (and sells millions of video games).

This is the first time we've been able to see the actual game in motion, and it looks very promising. The demonstration we saw took place on a planet that looked much like the mountainous, forested outdoor environments from the previous Halo games, and much of the action could've come right out of a Halo level, even though the game's story apparently takes place about 20 years before the events in the first game. Apparently, the game's single-player campaign will follow the crew of a single support ship through a campaign against the Covenant aliens.

Click to enlarge!
Click to enlarge!

Our demonstration opened with a dropship buzzing through a craggy and picturesque river valley, escorted by a pair of Hawks, a brand-new attack chopper vehicle with dual mounted cannons on either wing. The dropship swooped into a human base where several structures had already been built, then dropped off its crew, a small squad of marines, who joined up with another infantry squad that had been on the ground waiting. The combined infantry forces went off to take on a nearby contingent of Covenant goons--grunts (the stubby-limbed, shrill-voiced alien troops that Master Chief encounters early in his adventures) armed with needler weapons and brutes (the taller, lankier aliens) with energy blasters. Unfortunately, the Covenant troops we saw were especially effective against infantry enemies, so they butchered the human squads quickly. To counter these anti-infantry foes, we commissioned some warthogs from our vehicle depot, one of the structures the humans can build for their base. The four-wheeled attack vehicles came tumbling out of the blocks and made short work of the aliens. They blasted the aliens to bits with the rear-mounted minigun and plowed right into them, which sent them flying.

Apparently, though the game has been in development for about two-and-a-half years, much of Ensemble's time has been spent working on the control scheme to make sure it feels right and is streamlined enough to work on a console controller. In fact, one of the team's primary goals was to make the game fully playable using only the left analog stick and the four face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller, though we're told that other functions can be accessed by using other parts of the controller. The basis of the control scheme seems to be the A button, which can be used to select individual squads (companies of infantry or various vehicles) by hovering your cursor over them and pressing the button. However, you can also double-press the A button with the cursor over a specific unit to select all units of that type you control. You can also press and hold the A button group-select units as you would in a PC real-time strategy game by "clicking and dragging" over an area with your mouse.

Apparently, the game will use a radial "circle menu" to perform most of the other actions in the game, including building structures, units, and vehicles. For instance, clicking the vehicle depot opens the circle menu with the various types of vehicles that were unlocked and could be built. Though the game will apparently focus strongly on combat, you'll be able to quickly jump back to your base by tapping the D pad on your controller in case you need to build more units or defend yourself.

We then watched several other vehicles in action that were commissioned at the vehicle depot, including the wolverine, a rocket-launching tank; and the scorpion, the heavy-duty battle tank from the Halo shooter games. We watched these vehicles brought into play against a contingent of Covenant infantry supplemented by powerful vehicles taken right out of the Halo games. Specifically, the flying phantoms will make an appearance in the game as formidable flyers that can wreak havoc on ground troops until they're brought down by the surface-to-air missiles of the wolverine. The Covenant will also have ghosts, the low-flying, one-man, armed hovercraft vehicles from Halo 2, and these vehicles can cause serious damage to undefended infantry unless the human foot soldiers have cover from Scorpions.

Click to enlarge!
Click to enlarge!

Just as the pitched battle was turning in favor of the human forces, a brief cinematic sequence introduced the scarab, an absolutely gigantic Covenant unit that looks like a giant, armored beetle all in Covenant purple. But this bug had a nasty head-mounted laser that cut through the human forces like chaff until the humans unleashed an even more-powerful weapon, a targeted orbital strike from a space satellite that targeted and zoomed in on the scarab then bombed it back to the Stone Age in a hail of spectacular fire.

Though we still know very little about Halo Wars' gameplay and single-player structure, it's clear that the game is being created by some devoted Halo fans. Many, many little details have made their way from the Halo games to Halo Wars, from the squealing grunts (who can be sent flying with a powerful blast, just like in Halo) to the physics of the Warthog, including the way it fishtails on tight turns, as well as the way the infamous four-wheelers can clear chasms by jumping clean across them. We're told that other little details and touches from the Halo series will also appear in the game. For instance, you can expect to see the energy sword from Halo 2 make an appearance. We're also told that the game will use a rock-paper-scissors balancing scheme among its units so that combined forces will usually win the day against an army of tanks. We were unfortunately given very few details about Halo Wars' multiplayer other than the fact that it will support co-op mode through the single-player campaign and that it should offer the same kind of robust multiplayer features you'd expect from a long-lived Xbox 360 game on Live.

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