Halo Wars – Cabinet War Rooms preview event

Report by Johnus Maximus

Halo Wars blue box artOn the 27th of January 2009, some time before the city of London was besieged by the howling arctic conditions of late, I was lucky enough to be invited to an advance preview of the final build of Halo Wars.

The event was held in Plant Room 7 of the Cabinet War Rooms, a place where in the past vastly important strategic decisions have been made. On that day it would play host to Jason Pace, lead developer of Halo Wars, a select group of UK gaming press, myself and of course a chap dressed up in a sweet Master Chief costume.

Before you read on, if you haven’t yet found your way to the Xbox Live Marketplace then there is still time for you to try the Halo Wars demo, before it is released on February 27th. Follow the jump to read my thoughts on the full game and also to read what Jason Pace had to say when I interviewed him.

Since 2001 the Halo franchise has been one of the most successful game franchises to date and is at the forefront of Microsoft’s marketing efforts. Taking the franchise to the next level, so to speak, was an inevitability and so after the plethora of action figures, books and soft drinks, finally we are about to get some new Halo games.

Ensemble Studios are giants in the field of real time strategy gaming, having created the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series of games for the PC, so there could be no-one better in whose hands to entrust such a valued franchise. In a somewhat bittersweet turn of events, Halo Wars will be their first and last foray into console gaming as it was announced last year that the studio will be dissolved after this title is complete.

At the event we were given a brief presentation in which Jason described what they tried to embody in their game. They want you to experience playing as a hero, they want you to feel the intensity of the visceral action as you propel the game forward and also that the shift from a one-to-many to a many-to-many battle will be just as exciting. I can resoundingly say that the game lives up to these goals.

Sitting down to play we were first teamed up into groups to play a 3 versus 3 skirmish battle, and with no tutorial as to the controls we jumped straight into the action. My first impression was how easy and intuitive the controls were, I had my base up and running in minutes and a few warthogs and marines already supporting my team mates. I didn’t take much flak to begin with so I had a chance to look around and take in the fantastic visuals, the art style and mechanical design perfectly embodies the existing Halo games.

Halo Wars screenshot

Not having to run around harvesting resources frees up your time to control what is most important – building an army to attack your foes and fortifying your bases defences. Getting around the map quickly is easily done, you can either hold the left trigger to speed up the scroll speed of the normal camera, or you can use the d-pad shortcuts, which allow you to cycle through your active groups of units and your base locations.

Most of the unit types have distinct strengths and weaknesses and you can play the skirmish mode as either the human UNSC forces or the alien Covenant. Sadly the Flood are not playable, but with the variation of troop types available depending on the commanding character you choose, there is sufficient variety within each army.

After the game was over we were granted headsets and set off playing the campaign mode. From the opening cinematic I was yet again impressed by how well Ensemble has recreated the feel of the Halo universe. Stephen Rippy’s score fits perfectly into the game, and is hauntingly melancholy as you are introduced to the violent and bloody conflict that follows the events of Contact Harvest.

After playing a couple of levels that are clearly designed to ease people into this style of game, the action was unrelenting and probably the most fun I have had in this genre of game since the original Red Alert. Sadly I did not have time to play through the whole game, but from the six levels I played it was clear that this game is going to delight Halo fans and RTS fans alike and will undoubtedly set the benchmark for a new control system for console based strategy games.

Cheekily, I was able to get shoehorned into Jason Pace’s interview schedule, and so what follows is a transcript of my questions and his answers, enjoy:

Johnus Maximus: Congratulations on the game going gold in time for release. Firstly, as Ensemble Studios have been around for over a decade and are makers of the hugely successful Age of Empires series, why has it take so long to break into the console RTS genre?

Jason Pace: One of the things we discovered early on was that the mechanic that has evolved for PC RTS games is fundamentally incompatible with a controller. At the end of the day you can box it, square peg round hole it, massage it, and a lot of people have done really valiant efforts to make that happen, but it is based around a level of precision and speed that you cannot duplicate on this input device. And I think that’s why it’s taken so long. What we did was fundamentally think about every component of the core game mechanic of the strategy game and so we weren’t tied necessarily to that mechanic on the PC, we actually changed it and evolved it as we were going, in concert with the controls we were developing, so that opened many doors that I think we’ve not been able to see before.

Johnus: What do you think will have fans of the FPS Halo game buy into this new diversification?

Jason: I think there are a few different things, I think the story is every bit a Halo story, when you play through the game you are going to have the same quality of fictional experience that you have when you play through one of the first person games stories. It is absolutely critical for this game and it is every bit a Halo entry. Also, another part of the Halo experience I think you’re going to see is the immediacy of the action, feeling like you’re blowing stuff up, it’s you against this entire insurmountable odds and the action starts from the time you sit down and ends when the game is over. Halo Wars is very similar, we really worked hard to tune both the campaign and multiplayer so that you spend a large amount of your time, if you choose, out in battle in the field, huge explosions, very big Halo events, all of the usual suspects that you would desperately want to see from the Halo games are here and you just get to experience taking them down in a new way.

Johnus: And for people who aren’t Halo fans, but enjoy the RTS genre, do you think there is anything to make this game appeal over other titles?

Jason: I certainly do, I think this is where Ensemble shine. If you don’t have a studio like Ensemble building a strategy game for the console from the ground up with all of their PC experience, you’re going to miss what’s really important to strategy players. Those guys absolutely know what is critical and important for strategy players, they wrote the book in some ways. And so, as they’re going through and thinking the new interaction metaphors we have and the new mechanic we have you can absolutely bet that at every step of that process they are representing for their core strategy fan base as well. And so some of the things that we’ve done, for example streamlined resource production and management, we’ve done it in such a way that it opens up new possibilities for the things that you really care about, because as a strategy player you’re not worried about mining ore for example, what you’re worried about is mining ore to enable you to do certain things, and as a strategy fan you’re worried about the interest that comes from defending multiple remote locations, so Ensemble of course has taken all of this into consideration when developing. So when we have one base that you start working then it is much more friendly to a controller metaphor instead jumping around to 700 different locations. We then allow you to take over different bases in different parts of the map and so you start getting back that complexity, but you get it back in a way that is very amenable to the stick, d-pad and buttons metaphor.

Johnus: When creating the storyline for this game, which is set before the FPS Halo trilogy, do you have to seek creative guidance from people like Joseph Staten, people responsible for the story of those games or was there carte-blanche to do your own thing?

Jason: I think you would be crazy to not seek their guidance and so Bungie was involved at every step of the way as we developed the game, from the story, through to the mechanics to even how we designed the Warthogs, for example. We had awesome feedback through that entire process.

Johnus: Similarly, with regard to the games music, as Halo is known for its large orchestral themes, have you able to retain the feeling of the O’Donnell/Salvatori pieces or will this sound different?

Jason: I think that as you play through the campaign you’ll find that the music is very representative of the Halo experience, we have the luxury of having some of the original Halo music included in this game and the additional music that Stephen Rippy at Ensemble has created is very much a Halo experience.

Johnus: If you hadn’t been able to make the Halo franchise into an RTS, what direction do you think Ensemble might have looked at, a Gears of Wars game or a Fallout game, for example?

Jason: I wouldn’t even begin to be able to speculate that, sorry.

Johnus: Is there any Forge type mechanism in Halo Wars that will allow players to generate their own maps?

Jason: Not currently, but what a great idea.

Johnus: Are there any present plans for the development of downloadable content, extra campaign missions or skirmish maps for example.

Jason: I can tell you right now that we have nothing committed, but we have no shortage of passionate people who would be able to do pretty much anything you could think of.

Johnus: A simpler question now, what’s your favourite unit in the game?

Jason: I am a huge fan of the Locust; it’s just so much fun. Scarabs are amazing but they just take so long to make, so I just love the Locusts and their laser beam.

Johnus: Thanks for talking to me today Jason, that’s covered everything.

Jason: Cool, thank you.

Thus concluded my day out in our nation’s fine capital, where I had mixed emotions – happiness at playing such an exciting game, but sadness at having to wait 1 month until it was released (and 3 weeks until I was allowed to talk about it!). It’s not all doom and gloom though, since that day some news has broken regarding the Ensemble Studios spin-off team – Robot Entertainment – and it seems Microsoft are keen to keep the future Halo Wars downloadable content in their hands.

If you’re interested in picking up the game I would recommend getting the Limited Edition from Play.com, as not only will you be getting this cracking strategy game for £5 less than RRP, but you’ll also get early access to 3 new Halo 3 multiplayer maps.

Halo Wars is released on February 27th.

Halo Wars screenshot