Joystiq hands-on: Halo Interactive Strategy Game

Interactive level design to the max!

The Halo Interactive Strategy Game is a crown of shame, aiming a Christmas-ruining SPNKr at happy children everywhere. Sure, I tempered my expectations of a board game based off a video game -- especially an "interactive" one. But after imposing it on my regular game night friends, the Halo board game's missed potential let me down. Building the map was fun. Playing capture-the-flag, deathmatch, or an objective-based contest wasn't.

The game is full of weak and unclear rules and an optional DVD just distracts from the strategy. This could have been a chess-like adaptation of Halo, but it just ends up feeling sorry.

I unpacked the box, smelling of freshly molded plastic, with my gaming friends. We usually meet a few times a month, cycling between 360 Halo and a range of strategy board games. So, everyone was versed in both sides of this product, even though we didn't see them approaching like trains on the same track.

While setting up the game and building our map, I was optimistic; the rules seemed simple enough, and we had fun staging our own area with the blocky, plastic pieces. We wanted a medium-sized map for capture-the-flag, building a long rectangle for an overview, and turning it into a snaking hallway with boxy, second-level pieces. I even added a single sniping tower, creating a third floor, which gave a range bonus for shooters.

Some of the pieces assemble for their first -- and last -- group shot.

We scattered item, weapon, and teleporter cards around the level, planted our flags, divided into teams -- it's two players or two teams only -- and began. We stayed simple, with each of us playing a single character for a match of three-versus-three.

Each character can either move a certain number of spaces or attack each turn. Other than movement, the DVD determines the results of any action. Pick up an item, or initiate an attack, and the video shows what happens.

The camera lens simulates peering into the foggy game rules.

Unfortunately, the "interactive DVD for enhanced gameplay" just belabors the process. You have to first select the action -- a standard attack, melee, item, or weapon card -- and then answer a few other questions. Who is performing the action? If an attack, which weapon are they using? Who is defending?

The steps go fairly quickly, but the payoff is a comically short video the box calls an "immersive battle sequence." In fights, we usually saw a several-second clip of the attacker shooting, the defender shooting, and then a graphic that said which team won. There was no relation between the characters, such as them appearing in the same shot. It's like the agents for the Brutes and generic marines couldn't get their clients to meet on the same sound stage.

The shortest videos ended in seconds, barely outlasted by our patience. Thankfully, the game includes dice rules, which the videos had seemingly calculated to avoid the strain of moving our wrists. This is the future. After watching the DVD for many turns, we switched to dice rolls and random cards.

Our XBL stand-in, Brian, taunts a fallen opponent with the traditional teabag.

But the rules caused the most frustration. Melee attacks always kill a character and always felt anti-climactic. Only Master Chief and the Arbiter respawn, and those rules require skipping almost four turns, making their return fairly useless. While weapon upgrades improve your power, the game doesn't factor in headshots and other FPS tactics.

Worst, we spent twenty minutes interpreting -- and debating -- the rules for shooting. The instructions are ambiguous about how to calculate weapon range, even on the same floor. And can a lower-level character hide against the edge of the second-floor lip for protection? We might as well have been the first people to actually play the game.

One friend complained constantly in our trial, bringing a touch of the XBL matchmaking experience. If you play this game, I highly recommend designating someone as the XBL stranger. His ban-worthy whining was the most authentic part of our Halo tour.

With more testing and clearer rules, the Halo Interactive Strategy Game could have been a fun remix of the video game. Designing levels felt original and offered limitless arenas. But without players rewriting the game rules, this Halo ends in disaster.