Halo Wars Impressions: Rock, Paper, Warthog

The Xbox 360 exclusive Halo Wars demo lands tomorrow, so how about some impressions of the final game while you're waiting?

What's Halo Wars? Obviously something Halo-related. You know, Microsoft's trilogy about a super-soldier who never takes his helmet off, and probably smells like a locker room (the entire locker room) all by himself?

Halo Wars is Microsoft's stab at a non-shooter iteration of Halo, a totally new direction for the series (unless you count I Love Bees, which I don't). It's also developed by Age of Empires creator Ensemble Studios , the guys who went on to make Age of Empires II, Age of Mythology, and Age of Empires III. Ensemble didn't write the book on real-time strategy, but it penned several pivotal chapters.

But those were PC games. Halo Wars is Xbox 360 only. Can a console real-time strategy game really work?

It's a tough sell. Some have tried, mostly through ports, but nothing's panned out (unless you count Pikmin, which I do). There's an argument for EA's The Battle for Middle-earth II, but you won't catch me making it.

Real-time strategy games usually require nearly prescient multitasking skills. They're built around keyboard/mouse controls, because that's the medium they were born to. Gamepad thumbsticks by contrast are finicky enough as it is with first-person point-and-aim, let alone managing bases while zipping around maps executing precision tactics with multiple squads of discrete units.

Ensemble's solution: Strip positional tactics (flanking, high/low terrain) out, keep faction bases static (located in fixed positions) and make build queues as simple as possible.

I've had the final build of Halo Wars since last week, but, tempting as it was, vetting Killzone 2 kept me from sampling. I finally popped it in this morning and ran through a few skirmish matches as the UNSC.

Firing it up feels a lot like launching Halo. It's got the same trademark electric blue overlay with the same Halo-y fonts. Difficulty levels are pulled straight from the trunk trilogy's settings, e.g. "easy" on up to "legendary" (here, it's accessible out of the gate). The theme song's slightly altered but follows suit, with the same hallmark monkish chant. The in-engine visuals look so much like Bungie's you'd think they appropriated the Halo 3 engine and simply elevated the zoom level.

You've only got two factions to fiddle with in skirmish mode: the UNSC and Covenant. No sign of the Flood here. They're in the campaign, according to lead designer Graeme Divine, but otherwise inaccessible. That they're in at all seems a bit odd. After all, Halo Wars takes place 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved — well before the UNSC set eyes on the creepy critters. I'm sure there's a detail I'm overlooking, of course. I'm no Halo guru, and if Captain Archer could meet the Borg 200 years before Captain Picard...

No sign of Master Chief, since you're asking. Maybe he's an easter egg. Spartans are a playable unit type, but Master Chief wasn't active in the fiction at the point Halo Wars picks up.

The controls are telling. Half the buttons are used to either move or select. The other half execute attacks and special abilities, or reference recent info and objectives. Getting movement and selection right is crucial for any RTS, so they're appropriately favored here. A tap to cycle through bases, another tap to cycle through heroes. The left bumper select all units, the right bumper selects only what's immediately visible. You can still highlight individual units or double-tap to select all of a type or even tap and hold to select by touch.

Build menus are mono-layered, so you're never deep-drilling. Click on an interactive point and you'll see all there is to see, no secondary or tertiary command lists. Once you've mental-mapped the buttons and digested those construction outlines, it's pretty hard to get lost, because everything right there on the surface.

Take bases. To build one, you tap a button over a preset build zone. This brings up a circular "dial" style menu. Nudge the thumbstick toward the "build base" option to initiate the process. Once the base is complete, you've got a predetermined number of open spots to populate with structures that furnish resources, units, and ability upgrades.

Click on those structures and in the menu dial-wheels that pop up, units are always on the right, abilities on the left. You'll never have to nudge through more than three per side (or up to six per selection wheel). It's game design 101: Keep your interface consistent.

There's an interesting intel wrinkle during skirmishes that's automated as opposed to strategic. No technology involved, i.e. no radar dishes or satellite uplinks. Instead, an "A.I. Advisor" you can toggle on or off occasionally chimes in to warn you where the enemy's most likely to assault, and what they're bringing to the party.

If you speak RTS, you'll want to disable it, but it's probably there to give players with less experience in the genre a leg up, and there's definitely a casual angle here.

Speaking of, computer RTS wonks like to sermonize that your left hand belongs on the keyboard. That's fine, but they're called hotkeys for a reason. Some folks prefer to play using the mouse alone. I'm one of them.

Still, pair both types off for 1v1 competition, and the keyboard commanders tend to dominate.

Console real-time strategy games, by contrast, are intrinsically equalizing. Everyone playing Halo Wars on an Xbox 360 has to work with the same number of buttons. Winning at a console RTS has to be about effective strategy, not QWERTY shortcuts.

Speaking of strategy, building fast and quick-assaulting without upgrading or securing additional strongpoints seems like a great way to lose in Halo Wars. Maps have multiple locations for bases, pre-located sentry towers you have to fight for, and supplementary resource generators you'll need to grab as quickly as possible, then guard while seesawing between flash points.

Two minor criticisms:

1. Camera rotation needs an inversion option. As it is, the screen rotates around a central axis in the direction you push, or counterclockwise. I prefer clockwise rotation around units, or what I think of as "orbital" camera motion. Unfortunately there's no option to swap this in the setup control screens.

2. The left trigger feels wasted. Holding it down doubles your scroll speed, except that the default scroll velocity's generally speedy enough. Use fast scroll and you'll simply overshoot targets. Given the d-pad's options to move instantly between units and/or back to your base, the left trigger could have been used for something better...say pinpointing your leader, or managing a special mixed-unit squad of your own creation. [Update: Okay, I'm back from a few larger campaign maps, and I'm rethinking my position on this one.]

Otherwise, so far so good. I've yet to crack the campaign or skirmish from the Covenant perspective. The centralized, layered base building angle's the same for the latter faction, but the technologies and special powers are completely different.

I predict the sticking point won't be whether Ensemble's created an RTS that finally works on a console controls-wise, but whether some of the dumbing down to achieve the latter makes the gameplay too simple. The controls feel properly streamlined and the game certainly has that audio-visual Halo vibe, but it's hard to say whether the basic factional mechanics are going to be varied enough to give multiplayer the iterative legs RTS enthusiasts expect.

Not-yet-final verdict: It's a shame about Ensemble's untimely shuttering, but Halo Wars looks like they'll be wrapping up on a solid note.

Matt Peckham can't beat you with one hand tied behind his back, but he'll try just the same. You can follow his dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.