E3 2008: Halo Wars Co-Op Hands-On

We teamed up with fellow journalists to take on the Covenant in Halo Wars' co-op mode.

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Since it was announced almost two years ago, Halo Wars has unfortunately been shrouded in mystery. It was a full year ago when we last looked at the game at E3 07, and since then we've not had any hands-on time with this Xbox 360-exclusive strategy game. Thankfully, developer Ensemble decided to take the veil off its secretive project for this year's E3, and took time out to walk us through a full co-op level from the game.

The co-op mode will feature specifically-tailored levels, and up to three people will be able to join a game over Xbox Live. While you won't technically have to work together in order to win the levels, it's obviously beneficial to come up with at least some coordination in order to mount the most effective attacks. The level we played had the difficulty set to a fairly low level, so we were able to forge ahead on our own for the most part. However, things certainly got a bit more interesting once our fellow UK journalist joined in with the battles.

You can take on the Covenant alone or with a friend.
You can take on the Covenant alone or with a friend.

Controlling your units in Halo Wars is a cinch. You move the cursor with the left analog stick and select individual units with the A button. You can select a wider catchment of units by holding the A button down, at which point your cursor becomes a larger circle that will select all units within it. Finally, you can select all units onscreen with the right bumper, or your entire army with the left bumper. Each unit has a primary fire that can be activated using the X button, and a secondary fire with the Y button, meaning you can quickly and easily mix up the attacks.

While there are further nuances to the control system, you can easily play the game using just the buttons we mentioned. If you want to start using your resources or some of the more advanced weapons in the game, then you have to start using the D pad, but such commands are still easy to issue even in the heat of battle. There are some particularly destructive special weapons to play with, from simple airstrikes right up to a powerful blast from the orbiting Spirit of Fire spacecraft, a sister ship of the Pillar of Autumn.

Not only have some of Master Chief's signature moves also made it into Ensemble's RTS, but some have been improved upon. The game takes place some 20 years before the original Halo, so that means Master Chief isn't yet around, but there are still plenty of Spartan warriors to add to your squad. And true to one of the Chief's moves in Halo 3, the Spartans are able to jump on vehicles such as the Wraiths and pull out drivers to repurpose the vehicle for themselves. As vehicles can move between teams in this way, Halo Wars features a simple colour-coding system so that you can quickly distinguish your units from other players' and enemies'.

Silly Covenant, lasers and faces don't mix!
Silly Covenant, lasers and faces don't mix!

No matter how good or bad Halo Wars turns out to be, the development team have done an amazing job of capturing the look of the Bungie series. As well as creating a brand-new engine and control system for the game, they had to capture the distinctive look of the source material--no mean feat given the complete change of perspective. Thankfully though, the game is not only technically impressive, but it really succeeds in immersing you in the world that you've come to love.

There's a lot more to Halo Wars, with a full single-player story and a multiplayer mode that we didn't have chance to check out. Hopefully we should be able to update our coverage with more E3 impressions when we revisit the Microsoft booth tomorrow, so stay tuned for more info soon!

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