I must confess my trepidation when I heard that a prequel to the Halo series was going to be created in the form of a real time strategy game.

I entered the E3 hands-on session with scepticism. How were they going to make Halo, a first person shooter game, into a real time strategy game? Add to this the logistical nightmare of developing an RTS for a console...

My fears were about to take a Spartan-hurled plasma grenade to the face when this fresh, vibrant scene flickered in front of me in all it’s Halo Universe glory!

The team at Ensemble has a fantastic track record with the award winning Age of Empires series under their belt, so maybe - just maybe - they can pull this one out of the bag. The last we saw of Halo Wars was an impressive set of videos; sure it looked good but how would it play? E3 was the first time a playable demo was made available to the general press.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Master Chief isn’t a playable character. After all, it is a prequel. But playing through the stories that framed the Halo universe endears you to the history behind Halo. Making your dent in it feels pretty awesome.

It’s great because it works so seamlessly with cooperative play over a network, which leads me to believe that it will have a strong Live component. The demo began with a foundation etched in the landscape, all ready for base building. Instead of plopping down structures willy nilly, there’s one preset group of base foundations, so you better watch what you build. An eight-way radial menu allows you to select the type of building you want to develop first. You really want to begin with a supply depot to speed up point accumulation, and I intended to crank out my army and get into battle as soon as possible. Then it was off to explore uncharted territory - after all, what’s an RTS without resource gathering? Money comes as a steady stream that can be accelerated by ordering up some supply pads or sending your Warthogs out to gather crystals.

Which brings us to the topic of controls. RTS games are traditionally the domain of the PC. Many traditionalists fear that two thumbsticks and a mere eight buttons won’t cut it when the primary mechanism for getting things done has always relied on pointing and clicking with a mouse.

In Halo Wars, menus are based on a radial system, meaning four were dedicated to upgrades, and the other four for selecting classes of soldiers. It wasn’t hard to click on my barracks and start cranking out Marines, but it was a bit more cumbersome at first to manoeuvre my cursor over an individual squad member and click on where you want to move him. The sniper towers (straight out of a Halo level) were easy to get in and out of, and made for good fortifying positions.

Waypoints can be set by holding X down longer, and Y is the “activate special power button”. The rather clunky individual unit controls are fine when things are nice and peaceful, but what about when things start getting hot and heavy?

More advanced players will not want to click independently on units that way - not when the fate of the universe or that grudge match hangs in the balance. The developers know this, and they’ve put the shoulder buttons to use. The left bumper selects all units in the world, and the right bumper selects all units in the screen. Clicking the left and right trigger moves between selected unit types in that group, whereas double tapping the select button also selects unit of that type. This way, I found it easier to tell all my marines to pound a pesky Covenant unit to space dust.

Halo Wars moves Halo lore into traditional RTS analogies. Marines are your standard grunts, flame throwers are a new addition to Halo canon, Warthogs are present (along with a gunner upgrade), and Spartans are present for dispensing ass kicking by the bucketload. Aside from the standard rock/paper/scissors mechanic of units, each type also features a special power: Marines have frag grenades. Warthogs can run over people. Spartans jack vehicles. After a bit of practice, I didn’t find it difficult to tell all my attacking marines to lob some grenades at an enemy position.

The graphics are shaping up well. Things are bright and true to the Halo feel. Even the animations pay homage to the series. Animations are over the top, and Ensemble admitted that they had fun making them. For instance, when a Spartan jacks an enemy vehicle, they jump flip into the air, land, and steal the unit after jacking the driver Master Chief style.

The game ran well even when the explosions of many battles littered the screen, and keeping track of the action wasn’t that tough. The D-Pad comes in handy - I was able to rapidly cycle between my base, my army of one Spartan out in the field, and the Spirit of Fire. What’s that you say? The Spirit of Fire is the capital ship base for the UNSC, not only is it your home away from home, it is also there to dispense destruction on a large scale. You can call down carpet bombing runs (a pleasure to do with the thumbsticks) and MAC blasts to dispatch your foes.

All in all, Halo Wars is shaping well for it’s release sometime in the first half of 2009. It plays better than most RTS games on console and may possibly be another great entry into a hallowed line of games.

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Want more? Check out the two Halo Wars trailers on GP Downloads:

Trailer #1 (17MB).
Trailer #2 (20MB).