Halo plus real-time strategy plus gamepad controls may sound like a recipe for a franchise misfire, but Ensemble Studios has polished Halo Wars to the point of an immediately playable console title. While some may argue that, like first person shooters, RTS games should only be played on a mouse and keyboard, Ensemble has done an admirable job of nailing the controls. We got a chance to go hands-on with the game at E3 and came away surprisingly pleased.
You'll move around the map with the left analog stick, zooming in and out with the right stick. Unit selection is done with the A button — hold A to select groups via a circle — but you can select all units on screen or every unit in your army with the right or left bumpers, respectively.
Your units will fire on enemy units with X, with an alternate firing mode tied to the Y button.
Unit special abilities and building options can be chosen from a pop up radial menu, giving you quick access to things like air strikes or expansion building choices. The control experience is relatively easy to wrap one's head around, thanks to a clean, quickly loading interface.
Building management is similarly straightforward stuff. We started out with a pre-built base, one with a series of "slots" that additions like barracks and vehicle factories can be built upon. You'll also have access to defense towers, but Halo Wars won't devolve into a turret defense mishmash. Base support feels like less of a focus than team-to-team field combat.
On combat, you'll have more than just Warthogs, Scorpions and Vultures to inflict damage on the UNSC side, a Spirit of Fire colony ship orbited overhead, allowing for called-in airstrikes via MAC cannons. Things get hairy? Call in some giant laser fire.
Halo Wars has some impressive visual pop to it, more colorful than when we last saw it. The game's visual effects, in motion, look spectacular. It may not have the immediate visual sex appeal of something like Halo 3, with it's micro-sized units and overhead perspective, but it looks good.
Keep your eye on Halo Wars, even if you're not a fan of the franchise or traditionally an RTS fan. It looks and feels like a console strategy game should. When we get our hands on the Covenant next time, we'll have a better understanding of how well it stacks up.