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Joystiq hands-on: Halo Wars


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We've reached a mid-way point between when we first played Halo Wars at E3 '08 and the game's scheduled release in early '09. We're not sure if Microsoft simply wanted to prove that, yes, the game does still exist despite the looming closure of developer Ensemble Studios or if it just wanted to be nice, but whatever the case we recently had a chance to sit down and play the first three campaign missions ... and partake in a bit of Skirmish mode.

As we experienced at Tokyo Game Show, this is every bit a Halo title – but not your typical console RTS. It's not a PC port, and that's freed Ensemble up to design what we've found to be some very controller-friendly gameplay.

Gallery: Halo Wars (11-17-2008) | 11 Photos

One of the most telling things with respects to the game's control scheme and overall ease of play is the fact that, by the time Ensemble staffers suggested we try the "advanced tutorial" (prior to controlling the Covenant in Skirmish mode) we had already figured out how to do 99% of what it ran us through on our own. The move away from any significant resource management may irk some RTS diehards, but it feels right for this game, which is potentially the most action-heavy strategy title we've encountered.

We'll admit letting out a small squeal of glee as we used the Warthog's secondary "ram" ability.

The control scheme, as we've said in the past, is great. Ensemble has managed to anticipate all of the most handy actions a player might need and fit them onto the controller without the use of any shift buttons or other such nonsense. The D-Pad is even used to quickly jump between bases and conflicts occurring on different areas of the map.

Kicking off with the same CG footage used in the recent Halo Wars trailer, the game offers up some easy-as-pie objectives in its first two missions, which also continue to ease you into its concepts and controls. Mission one has you – as Sgt. Forge – trudging towards the besieged Alpha Base in a Warthog (which, in every way, "acts" like a Warthog), helping and rounding up USNC forces along the way. We'll admit letting out a small squeal of glee as we used the Warthog's secondary "ram" ability to run over some Covenant grunts for the first time.

The second mission began with the actual rebuilding of Alpha Base and served to get us into the groove of laying out a headquarters and assembling a competent army. Some things we found useful early on were building at least two supply pads (where "ferries" bring down supply crates – the sole resource – from the orbiting fleet) in order to amass forces more quickly, and not forgetting to spend said resources on researching better secondary abilities for all our units (turrets for Warthogs, missile launchers for infantry, etc.).

The Halo look, sound, and feel is evident in every bit of the game.

The latter moments of mission two and the entire final mission we played were quite linear and heavily story-driven. We had to fight our way inside the building seen in the trailer to prevent its destruction by the Covenant, and, later, come to Forge's aid after he's pinned down inside.

The Halo look, sound, and feel was evident in every bit of the game we played, as was a very noticeable attention to even the smallest details, such as unit animations (no matter how tiny) and effects such as the welding together of base components as they're added.

The game was incredibly easy to get into and, yes, even control – we can imagine that even the greenest of green RTS players will enjoy it right off the bat, which is especially important given the wide appeal something with Halo in its title is undoubtedly going to have. The way we felt coming away from this latest hands-on session, Halo Wars has the stuff to make it a major component of the Halo universe. Now, if that indeed becomes the case, the question begs to be asked: who will handle the sequel?

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