Hands-on preview: Halo Wars!

First hands-on gameplay

GamePro got the world's first hands-on gameplay with Halo Wars, as well as unprecedented access to its esteemed developer, Ensemble Studios.

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"If Halo Wars is successful, it won't only be viewed as a great Halo game," Ensemble Studios executive producer Harter Ryan explains. "We're looking for a bigger success — to establish the strategy genre on the Xbox 360. We want to make a beacon for other developers."

Developers could use the help. Real-time strategy (RTS) games have suffered a dismal track record on home consoles over the years, scoring vanishingly few successes amidst countless failures. The problem is elementary. The very elements that make PC games such as Starcraft so addictive — micromanaging resources, juggling multiple battles at once — bog down the console experience to a near standstill.

But that isn't stopping Ensemble Studios, the masterminds behind the trend-setting PC strategy series Age of Empires. With Halo Wars, Ensemble is aiming to pull off the impossible: craft a simple, intuitive, highly playable strategy game based around the strengths and limitations of the Xbox 360 controller. And you know what? These console first-timers just might pull it off.

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Witness one of the first screenshots of Halo. Bungie's original plan was to create a sci-fi strategy game, an approach being re-visited by Halo Wars.

Full Circle

"Bungie has been quite modest about letting us making Halo Wars," Ensemble Studios producer Chris Rippy says, "because, believe me, those guys are quite capable of making their own Halo RTS game." Other aspirations aside, Halo Wars is already something of an oddity because it's the first Halo game that won't be developed by Bungie Studios, the creators of the Halo series. But Bungie is leaving its mark on Halo Wars in other ways. When Ensemble Studios started work on Halo Wars, Bungie opened up its Halo vault to share rare reference material and storyline secrets from the near-mythical Halo Bible that the Halo creator keeps locked up in its Kirkland, WA offices.

In transforming the Halo universe into a strategy game, Ensemble Studios is ironically bringing the series back to its roots. Before its release as the Xbox first-person shooter loved my millions worldwide, Halo was planned to be a PC strategy game. A series of design tweaks culminated in Halo's eventual rebirth as a white-knuckle console shooter. But Halo's strategy DNA lived on in the series anyway, evident in the game's distinctive vehicles and rock-paper-scissors gameplay philosophy. Ensemble's job is to distill those traits and forge a radically different creation: a fun, easy to play, console-based Halo RTS. It turns out that this is easier said than done.

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