"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.
The d-pad isn't reserved only for movement. Up brings up an orbital powers menu courtesy of the Spirit of Fire, sister ship to the Pillar of Autumn, which is central to Halo Wars' mostly under wraps story. The E3 build we played had a number of special powers available, but in the final version you'll only have a very limited number of powers to play with, which are dependent on the general you've chosen to be in charge. We had fun with the Carpet Bomb - via a mini game you can devastate a number of heavily armoured enemy units in one sweeping stroke, as well as the MAC Blast, which acts like the most powerful sniper shot you've ever seen. Great for destroying enemy buildings in one shot, you target a structure via a heavenly sniper scope, press A then kablam! Building gone.
"The whole combat is built around the idea of using your special abilities and having the right guys fighting each other," Dave explains. "The tight base selection makes that happen."
For us the fact that Ensemble looks to have nailed the control system is a much bigger deal than how true the developer has stayed to the Halo universe itself. We're not saying it's not important though, so it's worth mentioning some of the changes and new units we noticed. It was inevitable that Ensemble would have to introduce new vehicles and infantry types, since the Halo FPS games simply do not have enough variety here for your typical RTS, to supplement the iconic Warthogs, Wraiths, Ghosts and Scorpion tanks. And it has.
We notice UNSC Hawks - swift helicopter-esque air units that spring forth from UNSC Air Pads. We climb the tech tree (via the construction of reactors) and build a Vulture, a heavy gunship that Dave describes as the "big, uber end game unit for the UNSC". Its Barrage special attack unleashes a huge missile salvo that's pretty much anti everything. We've already mentioned the new Flamethrower infantry units. And then there's the Spartans themselves, super soldiers who get up close and personal with enemy vehicles Master Chief style. It's new, and it's different, but it's wicked.
Classic units have been faithfully recreated, rather than re-imagined. Hornets, great for killing enemy vehicles like Wraiths but lightly armoured, fly as they should do, with speed and urgency. Warthogs, which dart out of your Command Centre when they're built, fishtail about in that powersliding fashion just as all Halo fans know they do. Warthogs, designed to be fast moving scout units, don't automatically come with a gunner - that's the first upgrade they get as you progress up the tech tree. It's clear that Ensemble has taken great care to make everything people know and love about the Halo franchise appear just as it should.
The point to make about Halo Wars is that it has been built from the ground up for the Xbox 360. It's not a PC RTS that is being ported to consoles, like Command & Conquer 3 or Red Alert 3. Every unit, structure, the way resource is managed, how bases are built, indeed the entire design direction of the game, has been developed to work on Microsoft's console. And it's all the better for it.
There are questions still unanswered of course. We know the Covenant are a playable race, at least in multiplayer skirmishes, but we haven't played with them yet. And we're still hoping the Flood make it into the game in some capacity. Whatever happens, we reckon only having two races would leave Halo Wars light in the variety department.
And then there's the story, which we know next to nothing about. The E3 hands-on demo was on a Forerunner-inspired world, but we don't know how the mysterious race ties into the main plot. The game's front menu shows options for 'Five Long Years', what we assume is the UNSC two-player co-op campaign, which, Dave confirmed to us, will be playable split-screen as well as over Xbox LIVE. There's also options for Halo Wars 101, which we assume is a training mode, and multiplayer, which facilitates up to six-player skirmishes over Xbox LIVE.
There is much here for Halo fans to get excited about here - the music is the same, the sound effects are the same (gotta love those Needlers), the environments are familiar, the vehicles, weapons and everything else we know and love about the Halo universe, sans Master Chief himself, are faithfully reproduced, just in a different form. This is Halo, but not as the millions of fans around the world know it. It's different, it's an RTS and so won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's deserving of your attention and, from what we've played, could be the best console RTS ever made.
Halo Wars is due out exclusively for the Xbox 360 Spring 2009.