TGS 2008: Halo Wars Campaign Impressions

For the first time, we get a private viewing of the Halo Wars campaign.

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TOKYO--New information on Ensemble's upcoming real-time strategy game set in the Halo universe has been steadily trickling out for some time now. For the first time on Thursday, however, we were able to see our first glimpses of Halo Wars' campaign. And this is definitely a Halo game, from the familiar theme music we heard to the game menus, which were pure Halo 3. In fact, as producer Graeme Devine told us during our question-and-answer period at the New Otani hotel in Makuhari, Ensemble Studios wants to get RTS veterans playing a Halo game--and Halo fans playing an RTS. If anything, Halo Wars clearly nails the look and feel of the universe, right down to the cries of Covenant grunts and the vibrant color scheme.

Even the cinematics follow suit. We saw an opening cutscene that introduced us to Captain Cutter and Serena aboard the Spirit of Fire spacecraft, preparing for a mission on the planet of Harvest. A mysterious relic resides there, and it appears that the Covenant will go to any lengths to keep that relic out of the UNSC's hands--even destroying the planet itself. A Hierarch himself demands sacrifice at any cost, and the close-up of an Elite's sneering mug reinforces the point. As you may already know, the game takes place 20 years prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, and according to Devine, there are no crossover characters between Halo wars and its first-person shooter brethren. However, the game is true to Halo canon, though most of the issues that the developer has had to resolve are practical ones rather than continuity issues relating to known characters.

We also confirmed again that the campaign will only allow you to play as the UNSC, though you can also play as the Covenant in multiplayer skirmishes. Devine believes that within the Halo universe, people want to play a good-guy campaign and stated that he personally feels uncomfortable with the thought of being able to control the Flood. Judging from some players' reactions to Arbiter sequences in Halo 2, he may be right about the good-guy approach. While few details were available, Devine did promise that in the multiplayer arenas, the Covenant and the UNSC would cater to different play styles and that they would utilize their units in quite different ways. For now, we'll have to take his word: We have yet to see a demo featuring the Covenant as a playable faction.

Once the mission began, we noted that the story played out via talking-head portraits, with both Serena and Captain Cutter doing the narrative honors. Story is a main component of the campaign, and the voice-over work was of high quality, while the dialogue we heard made sure the player was always informed of the mission objectives. In this case, we needed to fight our way to a detonator to keep it from exploding--and taking the artifact with it. While the demo lasted only about 10 minutes, we saw a variety of mechanics at work. As we already knew, resource gathering is not a primary activity in Halo Wars. Structure building is confined to bases where various resource-producing and unit-building components can be erected. It's all done with the trigger-prompted command wheel, which we'd already seen in action, though the presentation didn't really touch on the control scheme. However, because the controls were built from the ground up to work--and work well--with a controller, Devine expects that most RTS veterans used to a keyboard and mouse will have no trouble acclimating themselves. Even Ensemble Studios veterans strongly inclined to using a PC-centric scheme were apparently converted to the controller approach.

The action intensified quickly at this point in the demo, and soon, we watched as UNSC and Covenant units did battle. Devine showed us one of the new UNSC vehicles: the cobra. This unit is equipped with rail guns that do heavy damage against other vehicles, which is probably a good thing because there was a giant scarab on the battlefield--apparently the largest Covenant unit you'll encounter in battle. Fortunately, a cryo bomb helped freeze it in place. And this was not a moment to soon because the scarab will make short work of almost any unit it attacks. We also noted that a cover command was available in certain locations, allowing marines to get out of harm's way.

Soon, the demo player reached the Covenant base, which was protected by a powerful shield. Shields were actually in no short supply because the relic was also protected by a barrier, and as you would expect in a Halo game, while infantry can pass through them, vehicles cannot (though air units can pass overhead). The shields protecting the base took a few moments to destroy, but once they were gone, the vulnerable base was quickly reduced to ashes. Meanwhile, vultures were making short work of grunts. An attempt to carpet bomb an area, however, was met with a roomful of groans as the powerful area attack missed its targets. But soon enough, the mission was complete, and we were able to ask Devine a few questions.

We'd already heard of the planet Harvest, and because Devine made a point of describing how each map would harbor secrets, we were curious as to what other worlds (possibly familiar ones) would feature in Halo Wars. Ensemble isn't forthcoming with much information in this regard, but Devine did briefly discuss Arcadia, a tourist colony home to a university, teeming with wildlife that visitors enjoy viewing on safaris. He also took the opportunity to mention how important the sound design was to setting the proper tone. Players should expect to receive a constant stream of vocal feedback and other audio cues, just as we did in the Halo shooters.

A few other points were also touched upon. Devine pointed out the differences between console-player expectations and PC-player expectations. Action is important to console players, he said, while resource gathering is a secondary concern. Ensemble wanted players to be able to get right into the action, and judging by how quickly combat was initiated in the mission we saw, the developer has certainly succeeded. We also asked whether the studio was taking steps to minimize the technical issues from which prior Xbox 360 strategy games have suffered. Devine quickly stated that major frame rate drops and sluggish performance keep a game from being fun to play. Because the game was built from the ground up for the platform--rather than being ported from an existing PC game--the team feels confident that Halo Wars will avoid these technical pratfalls and does daily play testing to minimize problems.

Devine also thinks that competitive play and the possibility of downloadable content will keep players coming back to Halo Wars, though he we was mum on exactly what DLC plans the studio was concocting at this time. What we do know is that Halo Wars is a game franchise fans will want to keep an eye on, and we'll bring you more news as it trickles out.

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