Halo Wars - Xbox 360 - First Look

So you've blasted your way through spaceship loads of Covenant in the Halo trilogy. So what's next? Microsoft is hoping a quick change of genre will do the trick. But do you really want to play a real time strategy game with the Master Chief on your Xbox 360? We got some time with the new game, due out later in the month, at a preview event in the UK.

Set 20 years before Halo, Halo Wars takes place before the first Halo FPS game, during the UNSC’s initial encounters with the Covenant and sees you controlling not just one Master Chief but possibly hundreds.

Designed specifically for the Xbox 360 (it's not actually available on the PC), the game's developers, Ensemble Studios, are the same team behind the Age of Empire games and therefore the hope is that they know what they are doing.

As you might imagine you get to play either the Covenant (aliens) or UNSC (marines) with the goal of destroying everyone else on the playing field. To do so you have to build bases, manage your troops and of course attack the other players on the map.

Once you've got those bases up and running you have the usual array of choices to make any RTS fans right at home. Whether it's building troops, vehicles or aircraft, you have to manage resources in the same way as usual, and the multiplayer elements will see you either working as a team against competing foes or all out against each other.

To save you getting bogged down with harvesting, Ensemble has streamlined the process. You simply have to build a supplies depot within your base and the cash will start rolling in. Alternatively you might be lucky and find some lying around, but the days of laying siege and taking out harvesters one by one are long gone.

Of course there is the usual path of upgrades to be made available by building certain buildings and managing what to build next is half the fun of the game.

To make it a little more interesting, troop levels are limited to a set number and this means you've got to use your men and machines count wisely rather than building them for 20 minutes before completing a full out charge with enough troops to cover the screen. As you would expect machines take up more troop count than men.

As for action, there is plenty of it, however in our First Look play (around a couple of hours), it's clear that Halo Wars can and does fall into the same traps as every other RTS.

Either you get entrenched and fight a long drawn-out battle like World War I or you act swiftly and mobilise your troops into combat catching the enemy off guard.

The second is normally dependent on you building big, almost impossible to stop, machines rather than relying on a bunch of GIs to do all the hard work, but they are useful sometimes. Every unit in the game has a purpose and as you might expect some are better at dealing with certain types of enemy more effectively.

When dealing with an RTS on a console, control is much more significant than a PC where you have plenty of options. What is it like to control your battlefield troops without a keyboard? Here it is good, but there is plenty of scrolling to be done.

Ensemble Studios has clearly worked hard to make sure controlling everything is easy and for the most part it is. Holding down a key allows you to actively select multiple troops for example and there are shortcuts for scrolling through your troops, selecting all available on-screen, or all available on the map and while the shortcuts are lacking (you haven't got 105 keys) you should be able to get by. At least you have the knowledge that the other guy is going to be struggling too.

Verdict

Our time was brief, but it's clear that Halo Wars doesn't look to be a game-changing RTS that will make you sit up and think: "Damn I need to own it when it comes out". That said it is a well-polished game that will keep RTS fans happy and most likely appeal to the Halo set looking for more action.

There are some nice features in the game, it is actually easy to play on the 360 and overall the graphics are very, well, Halo.

Whether on closer inspection the levels will have enough variety and the single player modes a decent enough storyline to keep you coming back for more is yet to be seen. If those parts deliver it could take this from an average RTS game to a great one.

We will find out when the game launches on 27 February.