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E308: Hands on with Halo Wars

Since it was first announced, it was made clear that Ensemble Studios' goal in creating Halo Wars was to do for real time strategy games what Halo did for first person shooters: take a genre predominantly played on the PC and make it work on a console. Bridging the gap between a console controller and the combination of keyboard and mouse is no easy task. Beyond that, RTS games just don't feel like they belong on consoles. So, Ensemble set out to build an RTS title for the Xbox 360 from the ground up, a game designed to work with a controller and work. Did Ensemble do it? Based on my time with the E3 demo, I'm inclined to say yes.

Looking at the control diagram for Halo Wars, you'd think it was a simple action game. Every input on the controller has one function. One. The left stick moves the selection reticle. The right stick adjusts the camera. The A button selects things, whether that means selecting units and buildings or confirming selections in the build queue. The X button issues orders to move or attack. The Y button uses the special ability of a selected unit. The B button cancels actions. The bumper buttons are used to select either all on-screen units or all units in your entire army. Using the D-Pad, you can jump instantly to your armies, combat zones and base (or bases). Up on the D-Pad opens up the Spirit of Fire menu, which allows you to utilize special abilities like orbital strikes and carpet bombing. The right trigger ... well, we'll get to that later.

So yes, the controls are simple. They are so simple that within a few minutes I was queuing up new units to build, queuing up new buildings, issuing attack orders, setting waypoints and generally unleashing hell on the Covenant forces. Once I knew the basic controls, I was actually learning how to do things before the Microsoft rep had time to explain them to me.

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As impressive as the controls are, the design of the game is just as important, as it compliments the streamlined nature of the controls. Rather than building a sprawling base with buildings spread in all directions, Halo Wars utilizes a slot system. Your command center has seven slots, all of which can be fit with one of several facilities. At the beginning of the game, you can only build the most basic facilities like a barracks, power reactors and supply depots, while more advanced buildings become available as you build more reactors.

The slot system is something like a deck of cards in a strategy game. You only get seven and it's up to you to decide how you want to play them. Do you stack your "deck" with four barracks so that you can produce a ton of low level soldiers quickly? Maybe you want to build air units. The airstrip requires the output of four reactors though, which means you'll have to dedicate a full five of your seven slots to build it. Then again, you could upgrade two reactors to double their output, reducing the number of slots needed for the airstrip to 3. Upgrading the reactors takes time and supplies though, time and supplies that your opponent could be spending on a grunt rush that will stall your plans before you can produce your first Hornet aircraft.

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In short, the configuration of your base is essentially an expression of your play style. Conveniently, the slotted system also keeps each facility close to the main base, which means it's easy to snap the screen to your base and quickly build new units. In most RTS titles, you can zip back your base, but then you still have to scroll over to the appropriate building before queueing up new units. With the depot literally <em>attached</em> to your base, that new Warthog is right at your fingertips. Building new units and upgrading them, incidentally, is accomplished using radial menus. Units are always on the right of the menu, while upgrades are on the left. Again, simple and intuitive.

Undoubtedly, one of the areas where most console RTS games truly fail is multitasking, especially when battles get hot and you have to think fast. Let's say that your massive army of different units, each with different abilities, is suddenly assaulted by a Wraith tank. You decide your Spartan should hijack the Wraith before it launches hot plasma into your ranks. How in the world do you pick that tiny Spartan out from the massive army you've assembled? That's where the right trigger comes in.

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When a group of units is selected, pressing the right trigger brings up a menu of icons on the bottom of the screen that displays each unit type in the current selection. Just keep tapping the right trigger until the Spartan is highlighted, place the reticle over the Wraith and press Y. Done. Order issued. Now sit back and watch the Spartan leap into the air, smash the cockpit and turn the Wraith against its former masters.

This ease of use translates to everything I saw in Halo Wars. Snapping back and forth on the battlefield, queuing new units, upgrading, setting waypoints, ordering air strikes, all of it is just easy. On top of all that, the game looks fantastic. The units are well animated and very detailed, right down to the visors and faceplates on the Spartans. I can personally tell you that obliterating an entire Covenant base with a MAC cannon is a glorious sight, one that made me yell and laugh with genuine glee.

As a game that promises to reinvent the console RTS, and as a Halo title, Halo Wars has a lot to live up to. Did Ensemble pull it off? I haven't played the campaign, and there's no telling whether or not the retail version will be able to sustain the satisfaction I felt today, but I can tell you one thing: now that I've played Halo Wars, the 2009 release feels very far away.

Be sure to listen to the next special E3 Fancast for more nitty gritty details regarding things like units and features that were revealed at E3.

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