Joystiq impressions: Halo Wars

In his enthusiastic Halo Wars presentation, game developer Graeme Devine is more than willing to share information with the press. Though most of the knowledge gained by eager listeners was related to science-fiction shenanigans and enormous space hoops, the most important fact given is one that's never directly stated. Mr. Devine, like most of his comrades at Age of Empires developer, Ensemble Studios, is somewhat of a control freak.

And that's a good thing, especially when an entire genre hinges on how well you can control your on-screen armies. The real-time strategy genre has never enjoyed the same level of success it has on those platforms equipped with handheld rodents, and it's a problem that's been gnawing at Ensemble ever since the decision was made to plunge into the Halo universe. For the first six months of its two and a half year development period, Halo Wars was nothing more than a testing platform for console-based strategy controls. "There was no game," reveals Ensemble Studios producer, Chris Rippy.

Though iteration and refinement is still taking place, Rippy feels the controls are worthy of being called "pretty revolutionary." Of course, it's fairly easy to stage a revolution in a country filled with drunken generals commanding their tanks into the ocean. Though EA's Battle for Middle-Earth II and Command & Conquer 3 have both given the real-time strategy genre a foothold in console territory, some elements of the design still evoked a desire to ditch the controller and grab a mouse. Graeme Devine thinks Halo Wars will jettison that idea and be the first to satisfy armchair generals. "We cracked the genie open."

You obviously want people to obey your wishes in a strategy game, but first, you have to get them to listen. Devine's very picky about unit selection, noting that it's one of the most vital aspects of managing your army. To demonstrate, Devine moves a central on-screen cursor to a group of UNSC soldiers loitering about the middle of a large base. Where the analog stick and cursor move, the camera follows. A tap of the A button selects an individual unit and pressing X sends it it towards the location of the cursor. A double-press (resist the urge to say "double-click") of the A button selects units of a similar type and holding the same button down creates a much larger reticle for sweeping over every character you wish to include. Tying various levels of selection to a single button seems like it would make for a natural process, though it may prove to be imprecise during heated moments.

It doesn't take long before things get hot. Moments after leaving the military stronghold, the soldiers encounter a group of Grunts and Elites. The ensuing firefight sees lasers lighting up the landscape and the combatants casting tall shadows on the ground due to the light of a nearby blue light from an alien structure. The humans are quickly wiped out, prompting a return to the base (instantly initiated by pressing a direction on the D-pad) and a trip to a vehicle factory. Once the building is targeted, a circular menu is displayed, showing the possible vehicles that may exit its confines. Not too long afterwards, a couple of warthogs come roaring out and are sent off to the previous battlefield. Things go better this time -- except for the grunts that don't jump out of the way in time.

After leaping across a considerable chasm, the warthogs join an occupied human attack force, currently being bombarded by Banshees and Ghosts. Scorpion tanks roll in, anti-air Wolverines take on the flying targets and the graceful Chinchillas wonder why they didn't make it into the game. The battle's climax comes when an enormous Covenant Scarab arrives on the scene, only to be decimated by a massive cannon blast from an orbiting ship.

In case you haven't noticed, Halo Wars remains true to the franchise's interstellar bravado and larger-than-life sensibilities. Devine notes that stuffing new vehicles and characters into Halo cannon allows them to tell their own "over-the-top story" within the universe and that the collaboration with Bungie still allowed "Ensemble to make an Ensemble game."

Based purely on our observations, this Ensemble game looks to be a well-presented real-time strategy title, with only the controls remaining somewhat vague. Things seemed to proceed smoothly and without interference from controller contrivances, but it isn't until hectic micromanagement is required that a control set shines or shatters. A further concern lies in the possibility that Halo Wars may just be shooting too low. Though Ensemble's commitment to efficient controls is commendable, there needs to be a drive to produce a striking example of the genre, regardless of the platform. After all, if you're the first to get it right, it simply means everyone else was getting it wrong.

We'll learn more once Ensemble Studios declares war on clunky console strategy next year.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.