Late last week I was given a demonstration of "Halo Wars," the real-time strategy game that will be the first of at least two "Halo" games coming out in 2009.
As it was at E3, "Halo Wars" appears to be light on resource-management and high on multi-unit action. Controls were simple and the potential for coop campaigning over Xbox Live was intriguing.
With lead "Halo Wars" writer Graeme Devine at my side while I played a pair of the game's missions, I picked up a number of facts and clarifications about this March 2009 addition to the Xbox 360's biggest franchise:
-No Playable Flood -- While it has been revealed that the infectious Flood species will appear in the "Halo Wars" campaign, they will not be playable. Only the United Nations Space Command forces of Master Chief fame and the enemy Covenant are playable in the game's campaign and/or skirmish modes. Devine said the team struggled to find a good way to make the Flood playable. Whatever they thought of, Devine said, "felt to much like the ['StarCraft'] Zerg." So they left them out.
-No 'ODST' Or 'Fable' Connections In The Works -- Players will be able to make their own Orbital Drop Shock Trooper units, but "Halo Wars" will not have any gameplay or direct story connections to 2009's later "Halo" project, the "Halo 3" spin-off "Halo 3: ODST." I asked Devine if there might be a "Fable II" connection, given that a version of Master Chief's armor is accessible in the Lionhead role-playing game. I was joking, even as I egged Devine on that players should be able to arm their "Halo Wars" squad with a really smart "Fable" dog. Devine, seriously, told me that the game's development team had considered a "Fable" cross-over of some sort but decided to leave it out.
-"Halo Wars" Does Not Violate "Halo: Combat Evolved Fiction" -- The original "Halo" depicted the Flood as a surprise discovery for both the UNSC and the Covenant. But the Flood are in "Halo Wars," which is a prequel to that first "Halo" game. So how could the UNSC and Covenant really not known about them in "Halo: Combat Evolved"? Devine is aware of this seeming contradiction and said that the "Halo Wars" story will explain it away.
-The Covenant Are More Powerful Than The UNSC -- The Covenant is playable in skirmish mode, which stands apart from the story-driven campaign. I tried this mode, wanting to control the Covenant for the first time since "Halo 2." I fortified a Covenant base with a Warehouse that automatically generated resources, a Hall to build and train infantry and a Temple to generate a hero character, the Prophet of Regret. Devine pointed out that, with enough resources, I could build one of the Covenant's massive Scarab tanks, the most powerful vehicle in the game. He said the Covenant units are, generally, more devastating than the UNSC forces. My Prophet could activate a Cleansing laser, a drill of light descended from the heavens which I could direct with the analog stick on a resource-draining path of destruction. Devine said this shouldn't pose a balance issue during multiplayer skirmishes because, while they may have great offense, the Covenant has an inferior defense.
-There's A Woman In This Game -- The most prominent female characters in "Halo" games tend to be feminine virtual reality programs like Cortana or "Halo Wars"' Serina. But what of an actual flesh-and-blood woman? Devine said that one of the hero units available in the UNSC campaign will be a female Spartan named Alice.
-There Should Be "Halo Wars" Content Beyond "Halo Wars" Disc -- While "Halo Wars" development team Ensemble Studios is shutting down after the completion of this new game, Devine said that the company forming in its wake has a contract to provide downloadable content for the game. He would not specify what kind of content will be offered, but that leaves open the option for new maps, units or other add-ons.
Microsoft's "Halo Wars" will be available in the U.S. on March 3. Copies will hit Asia and Europe about a week earlier in late February. The game will be the first major release from Microsoft Game Studios in 2009.