Seeing Halo Wars in action, you can't help but think that it's the perfect counterpart to the other new Halo title preparing to leap off the game store shelves and into your hearts this winter - Peter Jackson's Halo Chronicles.
Because where Jackson's project is said to focus on the intimate, personal aspect of war, Halo Wars instead presents the run-up to the events as documented in the main Halo trilogy from the perspective of the battleground. There's nothing glamourous about war, but you'd be hard pressed to see that if you were watching a Halo Wars scrap in full flight. This is the Theatre of War in all its glory, with the goalposts continuously shifting as the two sides attempt to out-manoeuvre each other. It is, in fact, a Halo real-time strategy game in more than just branding.
Unlike many of its kin, which get bogged down with the extraction of random minerals and the building of Lemonade stands for your troops, Halo Wars, while still retaining some of these aspects, is all about reappropriating resource management into time management. As Graeme Devine, lead developer on the project says, it's about managing a battle rather than watching it. Need more troops? You have to keep yourself in the game long enough for the supply run to arrive, rather than watching as new Warthogs pop out of your base as though coming from some kind of honeymoon hotel rabbit den.
You have to actively manage the combat yourself, rather than just pointing troops in the right direction and hoping the numbers game will turn in your favour. It's the same principle that Halo - the shooter - employs. Instead of stashing health packs in your tin-knickers, you have to decide when to fire and when to hide under cover. Nope, Halo Wars definitely has more in common with Halo than its spot on HMV's 'H' rack. In fact, it's hard to believe it was anything other than a Halo game.
And this, to go back to the top of the page, is What Everybody's Talking About. Recently, Devine has gone on record as stating that in actual fact, their latest RTS didn't start life as a Halo game at all. Rather, they approached Microsoft themselves with the idea of licensing out their RTS technology. Does this mean that we should be less excited about Halo Wars, knowing that it wasn't conceived as part of Bungie's Master Plan?
Absolutely not. Indeed, for our money, the fact that on this occasion, the egg laid the chicken is cause to whip yourself up into even more of a feverish frenzy. We now know that Halo Wars' birth wasn't just a case of Microsoft fancying a quick cash injection and freelancing the project out. Instead, we know that Ensemble's vision for the game was promising enough - and similar enough to the source material, as we've discussed - not only for Microsoft to agree to publish it, but also to emblazon it with their most cherished (and most profitable) intellectual property of all.
License to thrive
And that the skeleton of Halo Wars is good enough to stand up to scrutiny without being fleshed-out with the Halo licence should come as welcome news to those hankering for more Halo action but unwilling to subject themselves to another clunky Xbox 360 RTS. And the proof of this is in the playing. The fluid unit selection method (where you double tap a to select all units on-screen, or simply 'paint' over the units you wish to move) is a million miles away from the nightmareish controls seen on ports of excellent PC titles such as Command & Conquer 3 and Lord of the Rings. RTS games which seem to think that just because the Xbox 360 controller's buttons are coloured like a Rubik's Cube, it should be equally as accessible.