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Preview: 'Halo Wars'

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Preview: 'Halo Wars'
It's not surprising that console gamers aren't well versed with the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. Downsizing the mouse and keyboard setup to a controller is a difficult process, and missions are usually long, drawn out affairs, focusing on micro-managing resources and extended dead-locked battles - they are far from a comfortable living room friendly experience. Ensemble Studios, developer of the Age Of Empires series, aims to change all that with Halo Wars, giving us a refined version of what PC gamers have been obsessing over for all these years.

Stripping away the complexities that burden those unfamiliar with the genre, from the ground up Halo Wars has a more streamlined and action-oriented approach than most RTS games. The appeal here, especially for console gamers and Xbox fans, is the use of the Halo universe, which doesn't pull any punches; every unit has a shield protecting their health, Covenant Grunts squeal and run away from whirring Warthogs, and cutscenes are overflowing with quips from arrogant corporals. Even the menus have Halo 3's signature sleek navy-coloured aesthetic against a poetic overture of strings and piano. While it helps that the UNSC and Covenant armies both translate to RTS units easily, it’s the thorough and dedicated use of the universe that makes it feel like a true Halo game rather than a cheap use of the license.

Halo Wars ensures it’s a transparent and efficient process: the base is pre-designated in its location, with spaces to develop your army as you see fit with a selection of barracks, factories and armories. Building and creating units is governed by just a single resource (called resources, to make things easy to remember) which is found in small supplies in the field - or better yet, automatically fed to you through building a supply pad. That is effectively it: once you have established your resource income and amassed a few units, you are free to go off and take some Covenant names.

A single base can only support a certain population of units, so sitting and building up an army isn't an option, forcing you to go out, explore and build more bases. The foils of war require you to go back and replenish the units you've lost, which is just a case of queuing up more and assigning a 'go to' flag for them to all travel to. Later missions require reactors that increase the armies' technology level, gaining access to more advanced units and upgrades, but this is subtly introduced as the game progresses. There is a real focus to keep your attention on the battlefield, and not babysitting your resources, meaning all you have to do is keep track of how well your army is doing, and deciding on a good time to call reinforcements.

No matter how streamlined managing your army is, the deal breaker is effectively controlling it all with the humble controller and its limited offering of buttons. Each button has a just a single command to keep things simple - the A button becomes the left mouse click for selecting units (holding widens the radius), X moves or interacts with the highlighted object, Y performs the unit's special attack, and LB and RB select all units or just those on-screen, with the D-Pad flicking between your leader and bases. The base buildings also operate around a wheel of options that you push the analog stick toward to select, allowing you to instantly snap from one side to another. The control scheme is logical and is easy to use, even under the stress of more hectic mission types, lending itself well for pick-up-and-play accessibility.

Even though it keeps things simple, Wars doesn't let up being an authentic Halo experience. The first few missions reflect the series' signature level design, with huge numbers of units waiting dormant in the next open space, as well as corridors that force you into tight firefights, thanks to clever use of that strategy staple the 'Fog of War' to mask the map. Even though there's a broad overview of the map and the target might be visible off in the distance, what the coming bridge holds remains unknown, giving it that restricted Halo suspense to missions. The campaign, set 20 years before the events of the first Halo game, can be played through with two players, splitting the army neatly into two, with the added attractions of a Legendary difficulty, hidden skulls and mission scoring for higher level players.

So far it seems that Halo Wars will overcome two large barriers: bringing a faithful strategy experience to console, and making it a true Halo game. However, both Halo and RTS fans alike expect depth in their battles, especially online, and this is where its prolonged success will come in. As long as units mesh together to offer strategic depth, and the battle system can offer the signature sandbox feel that Halo fans expect, then this new branch in the franchise could prove to have very long legs. Most critical of all, however, is that the Halo atmosphere seems to have translated very well to the strategy genre, and perhaps that's most important in getting players to take notice.

Halo Wars is released on February 27.

> Click here for our interview with the game's lead producer Jason Pace

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