"It's an Ensemble game, it's Halo, it's got to rock," insists lead designer Dave Pottinger as we select five Hornet units and send them off to deal with a Covenant Wraith. He's right. Halo Wars has 'got to rock' because if it doesn't an army of would-be Spartans are going to descend on the 360-exclusive RTS like a swarm of ants hell-bent on venting their anger on the milking of one of the most popular video game franchises ever.
First, the good news. You need not worry. We've played Halo Wars, and, somewhat surprisingly, it's really a lot of fun. The most important thing, more important than paying appropriate homage to the Halo universe itself, is solving the console RTS control system conundrum so many developers have failed to crack in the past. From our hands-on time with the game at E3 2008 we're just about convinced Ensemble Studios has its hands on the best solution yet.
Our biggest problem with console RTS games, like Command & Conquer 3: Kane's Wrath, for example, is that the joypad control system doesn't afford the player the ability to deal with constant and multi-direction attacks from enemy AI. You simply can't do what you want to do - micro-manage specific units, give orders to certain types of units only, quickly jump from one area of the map to another and build up your base all at the same time - as quickly as your brain wants you to.
Ensemble Studios, which has 15 years of Age of Empires development under its belt, has tackled this problem by combining the radial wheel method seen in Kane's Wrath (to be further refined by EALA in the 360 version of C&C: Red Alert 3) with a simple, three-pronged unit control system.
"We had a really great set of controls about four months ago," explains Dave. "We solved the last thing we had. Then actually we solved the last thing we really had after that a couple of weeks ago. We've been taking buttons out of the game. It's hard because on PC people expect hot keys and it's like, oh what the hell let's add two more hot keys, because you've already got 40 or 50. In a console game it's the fewest controls wins. We do use every single button on the controller but for the casual audience and people learning the game, the stick and the four face buttons, that's good to go."
The 'magical wheel of eight' as Ensemble calls it, presents up to eight build options that you can scroll through with the thumb stick. Be it infantry options, including the new Flamethrower unit, or the legendary Spartans (Halo Wars is set 20 years before the first Halo game, during a time when squads of Spartans terrorised the Covenant army) from a Barracks, upgrades, tanks or air units, it's all there. It's super fast, intuitive, and silky smooth.
The wheel, of course, wouldn't do anyone any good if the actual units themselves were uncontrollable. Here Ensemble has made things as simple as possible by providing three ways to select units. By moving the targeting reticule (yes, like in the FPS games) over a unit you can select it with a simple press of the A button. Then, by moving the targeting reticule somewhere else on the map you can make that unit travel there by pressing X. By combining this control method with secondary abilities, triggered by pressing Y, you can micro manage individual units as well as can be expected on a console RTS.
Things inevitably get much more complicated than that. Double pressing the A button selects all squads of the same type on screen at once. By holding down the A button you can create a small circular paintbrush, which allows you to select any unit you drag it over. If you want to select all your units in the world, LB does the trick. All the units on screen - RB. Useful stuff.
Again, the 'magical wheel of eight', and indeed the three-pronged unit control system wouldn't be of any use if you weren't able to zip about the map and your structures and climb up the tech tree as quickly as you need to. Here, the d-pad comes into its own. By pressing left you'll jump straight to your base from anywhere on the map. You can also use the d-pad to jump back to your battles when you're done with your base. That's super fast map movement, and it works brilliantly in an actual skirmish, the mode we're playing, against the Covenant.