Lead Designer Graeme Devine told us games journalists that we needed to know three things about Halo Wars before we got to playing: the game was about 1) fast, visceral combat, 2) an epic storyline and 3) multiplayer. Unfortunately, because we’re still in the beta phase of the builds, we only got to experience the first element, taste the second, and receive tantalizing hints about the third. The fast, visceral combat is definitely there – but at the expense of some of the more “hardcore” elements of real time strategy games. For example, instead of being able to stay in a zoomed-out view where tiny minions explode quietly as you pump more out of your base, Halo Wars keeps the camera focused pretty far in on the battlefield so the action is in your face. There’s a level of detail to people, aliens and vehicles that makes explosions more vivid; and because your units level up to gain new abilities (instead of, say, unlocking new types of units), you become more attached to them instead of coldly sending units off to die like meat shields. Hit the jump for more.It also seemed to me like the combat was more urgent in Halo Wars than in other RTS games – but that might be me buying into the “epic storyline” that evolved out of Halo lore. I’m a nerd who has read the books because I crave back story and I’m a sucker for a good cut scene; Halo Wars offers up plenty of both. The story takes place about 20 years before the events in Halo, when the United Nations Space Command is trying to take back the planet Harvest from the Covenant. We weren’t given too many details on the storyline – but here’s what I can follow based on the three cut scenes I got to watch between levels: Captain Cutter commands both Sergeant Forge and scientist Professor Anders. Something is going on down on Harvest that has the Covenant very upset: an Arbiter and a Prophet are having it out about some kind of “infection” spreading that might force them to abandon the planet. Meanwhile, Anders cops an attitude with Cutter when he tells her not to go planet-side to investigate the infection (and either they’re related or he’s sleeping with her, because I can’t fathom snapping at a commanding officer like that and still being able to keep your rank). She heads down to the planet anyway where Forge is also telling her not to be and proceeds to get the Marines in all kinds of trouble as she investigates some sort of temple-looking thing. After blowing it up (because that’s what the UNSC does best), Anders and Forge leg it to an extraction point and I was tapped on the shoulder by an Ensemble employee and told to move on to the skirmish mode.

There will be co-op campaign mode on Xbox Live multiplayer – but skirmish mode is where versus happens, so I’m sure that’s where most RTS fans will be getting their fix. Players can either be Covenant or UNSC and the two factions are different enough that you’ll have to change tactics for each, but also similar enough so that you can swap back and forth between them without having to suffer a learning curve. Skirmish mode is where I started to see what Ensemble had done with Halo Wars to make it different than Age of Empires. On PC, RTS games live and die by hotkeys – more hotkeys means more units, more units means more specialization of factions, more specialization means more resources to manage, and that of course mean a more complex system of “rock-paper-scissors” balancing between resources, units and combat. Well, we don’t have hotkeys on the Xbox 360 and Ensemble was not about to try and cram a PC game onto a console – other RTS games have tried and the experience just doesn’t port well. So instead, Halo Wars gets its complexity from map layouts and unit advancement and focuses on the core elements of strategy. For example, you can pump out all the Grunt forces you want, but until you level your ranged fighters up enough to get the right kind of gun, you cannot take out the sniper in the tower that’s preventing you from crossing a choke point on the map. What worries me about Halo Wars is not that it won’t be fun – three hours flew by before I had to be told my appointment was over. What worries me is that RTS fans and Halo fans both will be so turned off by the very idea of a Halo RTS that they won’t even give the game a chance. RTS gamers will complain because of the lack of resource competition: “It’s too easy,” I can hear them whine. Meanwhile, the Halo hardcore fans will cry, “No Master Chief? Wtf?!”

But there is something in Halo Wars for both; the skulls represent that idea. In campaign mode, there are certain optional objectives you can complete to earn a skull (e.g. “Kill 45 Hunters”). The skull will appear at some point on the map that you’ve got to fight to in order to obtain it – adding a whole degree of difficulty to combat. Once you get the skull, you can access it in a menu (either in the campaign or in skirmish mode) and activate it to trigger a special effect. The two that I got my hands on made Grunts burst into confetti when killed (Party Skull) and upped the visual effect of explosions so everything appeared to go up in fiery spouts whenever it blew up (Cowbell Skull). Halo Wars is out on Xbox 360 in February 2009. No word yet on a demo, but rest assured there will be downloadable content.