Reading Halo novels, playing the original three first-person shooters -- those are the easy (and fun) parts. Converting all of that "research" into a real-time strategy game that won't cause Halo fans to run away screaming like a Covenant Grunt with plasma grenade stuck to its butt? That's the challenge Ensemble Studios had to face. With our recent hands-on time with the Halo Wars campaign and skirmish modes, however, we can tell the developers have done their homework.
"At the beginning of development, we had to learn to love Halo," says Lead Writer Graeme Devine. "There's no point in doing a Halo game if you don't love the canon!" The team visited Bungie Studios, the developer of the original series, every other week to discuss Halo fiction, Halo gameplay and just about anything Halo that's out there. The result is as much fan service as anyone could ever ask of a spin-off title.
Halo Wars, due out Feb. 2009 for the Xbox 360, is a very streamlined, very made-for-consoles RTS (all console RTSes say they're "made for consoles," but this one means it). It therefore won't have quite the same depth as The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II or Universe at War: Earth Assault -- but what made people take notice of this game is that H-word in its title. And when players take to the battlefield, they won't feel a bit like they were misled.
Move it like you mean it
Take the animations, for example. Just about everything moves, drives, and shoots like it should -- it's as though we zoomed right out of Halo's first-person view and went straight into the sky for a bird's eye view of the exact same scene. Warthogs glide over small chasms and land with the bounce one would expect from the jeep's springy suspension (they can splat enemies by ramming them, too). Hot, pink Needler crystals stick in their victims before dissipating. Jackals garrison grav-lifted sniper perches. Fusion coils explode when shot. Even Grunts retreat from battle, arms flailing, if things aren't going their way.
The only notable exceptions may be the giant, crab-like Covenant Scarab and the Banshee aircraft. The Scarab, for RTS gameplay purposes, is more nimble and quick than its lumbering FPS counterpart, while the Banshee will be less vertigo-inducing for its pilots. "We tried for a long time to have the Banshees fly around like they do in Halo," Lead Designer Dave Pottinger tells us while drawing imaginary squiggly lines in the air with his hands. "But it got to be a pain in the ass to target them, so we had to ditch that. Now they hover when they're not being commanded. But we got back that Halo vibe because the Banshee's special ability is boost -- so they move really fast to get into combat or to dodge."
The different weapons in Halo's universe appear in Halo Wars as special attacks (performed with the Y button) or upgrades. UNSC infantry start off with basic battle rifles as their default gun, with frag grenades as a powerful Y-button backup (they're timed, so players can only use them so often). Those grenades make way for rocket launchers as the UNSC side pays for upgrades. Even the infantry soldiers can eventually be promoted to ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, as seen in Halo 3 and Halo 3: Recon) status if that tech research branch is available (depends on the starting general that the players pick).
Vehicles aren't exempt from this design philosophy. Stock Warthogs come off the assembly line as wimpy, weaponless scout cars -- great for clearing out the fog of war or picking up supply crates for extra cash, but not much else -- but eventually get machine-gun turrets, grenade-chucking passengers and high-impact gauss cannons. Hornets can pick up extra firepower or gun-toting wing-side passengers as well, via upgrades. But the most fabulous power-ups have got to be the accessories (like rockets) that the Prophet of Regret leader of the Covenant can add to his handi-capable floating chair.
Been there, done that, doing it again
If it's been done in the Halo trilogy, chances are, it'll be done in Halo Wars. Everyone's seen Master Chief play Grand Theft Auto on Covenant vehicles; his Spartan cohorts can do the same here. "The Spartans jack vehicles," says Pottinger. "They're the coolest unit in the game. The single coolest thing to me is watching a Spartan jump up from behind a Wraith, backflip, jump on top of it, beat the crap out of it, toss out the driver, and now [the UNSC side] has this super unit on the battlefield."
Skulls, those game-altering Easter Eggs seen in Halo 3, are hidden throughout Halo Wars, except they have to be unlocked first by completing various tasks within the campaign chapters, such as "kill 20 Jackals" or "kill 45 Hunters." Once a player reaches that side objective, a brief blip appears on the mini-map, alerting him to the location of a new skull that has appeared. Once found and activated, skulls can change the game in important and very unimportant ways. The Sugar Cookie skull, for example, adds 50 percent health to all units. The Grunt Birthday Party skull, on the other hand, won't be affecting anyone's strategy playbook; it causes Grunts to explode into a cloud of confetti upon dying. (Halo Wars has another set of collectibles -- "black boxes" -- that give players extra backstory bits when found.)
Unlike Covenant leaders, UNSC heroes don?t show up on the actual battlefield -- they command from the sky.
Unfortunately, the Flood is not a playable race in Halo Wars, no matter how badly fans want it to be. According to Devine, balancing the Flood with the UNSC and Covenant sides would have diminished their galaxy-destroying power. But according to Pottinger, they will still make an appearance in the game. "They do show up in skirmish and in the campaign," he says. "It will be the first time humanity has encountered the Flood." (Remember, Halo Wars takes place 20 years before Halo: Combat Evolved.)
Other Halo story elements do show up in various forms -- even if they come from outside of the digital world. "[Bungie writer and 'Halo: Contact Harvest' author Joseph Staten] sent me versions of his book, and I sent him versions of our script," says Devine, "There are little nods to Halo Wars in 'Contact Harvest,' and there are little nods to 'Contact Harvest' in Halo Wars. There was never really an approval process ... there was just a collaboration process." Pottinger adds: "One of the main characters in 'Contact Harvest' was the Deacon Grunt character, and so we have an upgrade in our game called 'Deacon' for the Grunts. It inspires them religiously to kill you better."
You had me at Halo
Halo Wars may be in a completely different and unrelated genre from its source material -- as different as Mario Tennis is from Super Mario Bros. But with all these shared bits and pieces, one might not even notice too much ... or care. "We talked to Bungie a lot about the gameplay," says Pottinger. "What makes Halo as a game for them? It was important for us to capture the Halo feel, while still being Halo in a different way."
This preview was based on an unfinished build of the game seen at Microsoft's Halo Wars press event.