Preview: The first article in our weeklong celebration of all things Halo.
The world of Halo just begs for more content. That is why we've seen graphic novels, countless books, and short films from Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop to flesh out the story started in Bungie's three best-selling videogames. That's all well and good but what about those of us who like to be involved in the storytelling itself? There is good news. If you haven't heard already (what, did you just crawl out from under a rock?), Ensemble Studios is treating us to a new take on the series with Halo Wars, a real-time-strategy game coming out next month.
While there have been bright spots, real-time strategy games haven't typically played well when the keyboard and mouse of the PC are taken away. If anyone can pull it off successfully, though, it will be Ensemble Studios. Ensemble is the group behind such RTS classics as Age of Empires (and its two sequels), Age of Mythology, and they developed the technology behind Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. With more than a decade of experience in developing the genre, and a sequel-begging hit in the works, it was a surprise when Microsoft announced their closure last September. Halo Wars will be Ensemble Studios swan song. An opus, if you will. While Microsoft announced the closure of the studio, they rightly did not pull the plug on Halo Wars, the blockbuster-in-waiting.
By developing Halo Wars specifically for play on the Xbox 360, Ensemble is circumventing the problem of porting a PC game to a console. They are implementing a control set in Halo Wars that plays to the strengths and deficiencies of the console controller. Many of the unit selection commands are mapped to the face buttons with the Y button becoming the do-all button, assigning unit specific commands such as hijacking vehicles (Spartans) and throwing grenades (UNSC Marines) or flash grenades (flamethrower units). The bumpers and triggers will also play an integral role in quickly selecting groups of units. This should make up for the lack of programmable hot-keys that often accompanies a PC RTS release.
For those of us that worry about continuity (you know you do too), Halo Wars is taking place some 20 years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved. The UNSC campaign ? no covenant distractions for single-player ? will introduce new characters, vehicles, and environments that will immediately be familiar to anyone that has played the FPS titles. Keep in mind that since this game is taking place two decades before the other titles we will not be seeing the likes of Master Chief, Cortana, or Sergeant Johnson. Instead, a new AI, Serena, and commanding officer, Captain Cutter, will drive the story forward and help fill in the background as to why the UNSC and Covenant just don't get along.
One of the interesting things about Xbox 360 Achievements is that, through their descriptions, they can give away things about the game itself. Things like how the game is played, how long the game is, and some of the gameplay elements themselves. While the advance list for Halo Wars doesn't have a ton of surprises, it does give away a few specific items. For instance, we can expect 15 missions from the game, there will be both co-op and skirmish multiplayer modes, and you can jack vehicles with your Spartan. A little less expected are the implications that you can jack a scarab and turn it on the Covenant, the hulking Elephant will play a role in training your UNSC infantry, and collectible skulls will again make an appearance in a Halo game. The Achievements even hint at a sequel, but with developer Ensemble Studios being shut down by parent company Microsoft, I'd say that the status of a sequel is in question.