Halo Wars Updated Hands-On

Ensemble's Halo Wars real-time strategy game is just around the corner, and we finally spent some hands-on time with the UNSC single-player campaign.

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Back at the Tokyo Game Show in October, we were treated to a look at Halo Wars' Campaign mode, as well as the game's characters, environments, and story. Last week at an event at London's Royal Observatory Planetarium, we finally got to sit down for a longer hands-on session with the campaign's first three scenarios.

Halo Wars kicks off 20 years before the events in Halo: Combat Evolved on a planet in the Epsilon Indi star system called Harvest. You're immediately introduced to some of the key characters from the Halo universe, including Captain Cutter of the Spirit of Fire and Serina, who takes Cortana's place from Halo as the ship's holographically constructed AI system. Sporting a cap and smoking a cigar, Captain Cutter comes across more grizzled, less diplomatic, but equally as decisive as Captain Keyes from Halo. We also met a few other crew members: Professor Anders, a young female scientist whose exact role on the Fire isn't clear, and Sergeant Forge, who plays the heroic battle-scarred veteran. We didn't see a lot of Serina, except a few short conversations with Cutter, as well as a brief spat between her and Anders. Tension on the ship? We'll have to wait and see.

Alpha Base introduces you to Halo Wars' gameplay, characters, and controls.
Alpha Base introduces you to Halo Wars' gameplay, characters, and controls.

Developer Ensemble has made it clear that the storyline plays an important part in Halo Wars. In addition to CGI cutscenes before and after missions, talking-head portraits will fill you in on your progress during the game. You take the role of Forge in the first mission, and it's your job to help Alpha Base because it is being overrun by Covenant forces. Forge starts the mission in a warthog, and as we worked our way around a linear path, we encountered additional survivors who joined our squad. Small groups of grunts provided little resistance, but jackals and elites soon appeared, with all of the familiar outposts, as well as energy shields, from the Halo universe making an appearance. After fighting your way through the opposition, you leave the warthogs at bay and use troops to pass through the shield to deactivate its generator on the opposite site.

Once we'd finished the first mission, we were treated to a cutscene that introduced us to the Relic, an installation with significant importance to the Covenant. It seems the Hierarchs want the Relic destroyed, and Forge is sent in to see that it doesn't happen. The level, Relic Approach, also introduces you to the resource-building side of the game. While resource management isn't the focus of Halo Wars, it still plays an important part in producing units with a rotary menu used to build power reactors, resource-producing supply bases, vehicle depots, and barracks. Hovering over each structure with your analog stick gives you a brief description of the target, as well as how much power and credit is required to build it. Building units is done in much the same way by selecting the appropriate structure with the rotary menu and then choosing how many of each unit you wish to build. The size of the bases we saw were limited to about eight or so structure "pads" so you'll need to choose carefully. After spewing out a few basic troops and warthogs, we gained access to some more advanced units. These units included scorpion tanks, flamethrower troops, and grenadiers. Unfortunately, we didn't get access to Spartans, but we're confident they'll make an appearance later in the game.

Controlling your troops is also straightforward using the Xbox 360 controller, with face buttons used to select and issue commands, cancel orders, or deploy special attacks. Each unit has a more powerful secondary attack that can be used and reused after a recharge period. The warthog can ram enemy troops, UNSC soldiers can throw grenades, and scorpions can unleash some heavy cannon fire, which decimates structures, vehicles, or hunters within a small area.

Along the way, you'll encounter yellow UNSC troops. Sometimes they'll fall under your command, but on other occasions, they'll be following other orders, such as guarding a particular strategic point or waiting to aid in your extraction. After each mission, you'll be given a score and rank based on your performance, with gold, silver, or bronze awards up for grabs. You'll also earn bonus points for doing the mission in a shorter time period or by completing secondary objectives, such as killing 20 jackals. However, if you want to do everything in each mission, you'll need to do so before finishing the final main objective because doing so will trigger the end of the mission.

Development of Halo Wars is still in progress, and we expect the team to be polishing the game until it's ready to ship. Some of the prerendered cutscenes were high quality while the detail that's gone into the characters and environments certainly did justice to the Halo universe. Some of the Covenant installations looked epic, although some of the outside areas on ice and snow looked less detailed by comparison. One of the first things you'll notice about the game's look is the minimal use of heads-up displays, with only the map and vital statistics shown in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

While the focus isn't on resources, bases will churn out some powerful units for you to command.
While the focus isn't on resources, bases will churn out some powerful units for you to command.

Halo Wars is heading exclusively to Xbox 360 in February 2009. Following Microsoft's announcement to close the studio, Ensemble told us it is working hard to make the final project go out with a bang. The new direction for Microsoft's beloved franchise makes for an interesting proposition, but RTS and Halo fans alike will be able to see for themselves when the game arrives early next year.

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