Digital Download: Real-time strategy is name of game

Halo helped Microsoft establish the Xbox. Now the company hopes to spread the halo effect to a more esoteric genre: strategy games.

Halo Wars, out today for Xbox 360 (rated T for teens 13-up, $60; limited edition, $80), transports the hit sci-fi game franchise from a first-person shooting style to a more cerebral, real-time strategy mode. Unlike the in-your-face, run-and-gun nature of action games, real-time strategy (RTS) games are descendants of the board game Risk. They're played from a top-down perspective, with the player surveying the landscape.

In the first three Halos, which have sold 25 million copies worldwide, players saw things from the point of view of the main character, the Master Chief. In this new game, you are a general directing the theater of war. "We give them an entire army to command, so the explosion content increases by tenfold or more," says lead producer Jason Pace.

Halo Wars takes place 20 years before the first Halo game, Combat Evolved. The Master Chief does not make an appearance, but other powerful Spartan soldiers do, of which the Master Chief eventually is the remaining survivor.

By extending the Halo franchise, Microsoft hopes to get console gamers to expand their horizon and, at the same time, attract some PC players.

"While not perfect, Halo Wars presents the most compelling case yet for the real-time strategy genre's viability on home consoles," says Scott Steinberg, publisher of DigitalTrends.com. "There's certainly the potential to have PC holdouts seriously reconsidering hoisting the controller."

Real-time strategy games have been a mainstay on computers for more than a decade, but there have been recent attempts to broaden their appeal by amping up the action. Most RTS games require a lot of resource management — harvesting, mining, chopping trees — to solidify and improve bases.

Halo Wars was developed to let players "concentrate on the play of the game — finding the enemy, building the right units to defeat them and then actually fighting the battles," says Bruce Shelley, co-founder of Ensemble Studios, which developed Halo Wars. "Traditionally in RTS games, there was a much longer period of exploration and economic buildup before you actually came to grips with your opponents." (Despite the game's expected success, Microsoft shut down Ensemble at project's end.)

RTS games used to be "the bread-and-butter of PC gaming," says Frank O'Connor, formerly with game developer Bungie, which created Halo, and now Microsoft's development director of the franchise. "One of the cool things about Halo Wars is (that) it's going to give a shot in the arm to a genre that could use it on the console, frankly."

Other new strategies of RTS games:

•Empire: Total War (rated T, Sega, out today for PCs, $50; collector's edition, $70), the latest in a line of popular battle strategy games, for the first time lets players control naval battles. That and a special American Revolutionary War campaign make Empire "a good introduction to our series of games for American players who may have never played it before," says Kieran Brigden of U.K.-based developer The Creative Assembly.

•Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (rated M for ages 17-up, THQ for PCs, $50), based on the tabletop game, also emphasizes combat over economics. "It has the most beautiful graphics engine and plays more like an action game," says Tom Chick, who reviewed the game on CrispyGamer .com. Another recent release, Tom Clancy's EndWar (rated T, Ubisoft, $40, for Xbox 360, PS3 and PCs), lets players use their voices to command troops.

•World of Warcraft publisher Blizzard is making a sequel to its 1998 classic StarCraft with "almost an adventure-game element," says Blizzard's Rob Pardo. The developer hopes to begin online testing later this year. "If Halo Wars is a huge success, certainly StarCraft and any other RTS will benefit," he says.

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