Master Chief to Settle RTS War on the Xbox 360 ONLY Print E-mail
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Written by Christophor "SuperGuido" Rick   
Tuesday, 05 February 2008

[News] [PC] [X360] [OpEd]

Ensemble Studios has tasked Master Chief with a very serious mission; prove an RTS can be fun on a console. Microsoft recently nixed rumors that the upcoming RTS Halo Wars would be on the Xbox 360 and the PC. They just said No. Here's how I see it all going down.

Given the number of things that are generally required to be finely controlled in a good RTS, it has long been the holy grail of developers to find a way to port the experience to a console accurately. I can only name a few companies that might have the know how to do it. They would be Blizzard (Warcraft, etc), Sierra (Empire Earth) and the last would be Ensemble.

Ensemble made the Age of Empires series and let's face it, it was good. Everyone loved it for a long time. But can they take that game experience and that sacred knowledge they possess and turn it into a console only experience worth paying for? That's what Microsoft is betting on here. Sure there will be some success for the game solely based on the fact that the word Halo exists in the title and that will drive sales. But I'm not talking about sales here, I'm talking about good, fun gaming. The RTS was born and raised on a PC, can it finally be weened from the teat of its mother and moved to a controller dominant structure?

I can see several things that will need to be changed to make it successful.

Mission length - Missions will need to be shorter from a time perspective. PC gamers use equipment that is solely made for the purpose of gaming. They spend thousands on getting their rigs together for the experience. Console gaming takes place in the living room, it utilizes a common space that has a much higher demand in some households and poses a problem with lengthy gaming sessions if everyone is not involved. This needs to be taken into account and there needs to be 'save at any time' included in the game or the missions need to be made into shorter chunks. This could be accomplished with save points based on objectives.

Control Scheme - On the PC you have about a hundred different key combinations if you include all the ALT, SHIFT and CTRL key sequences. This made for having everything readily available in the game at the touch of a button. Additionally, the mouse was used to navigate the HUD and activate units etc. Doing this on the control sticks of a PS3 of X360 controller just doesn't sound all that appealing. Neither does having to attach a keyboard and mouse to the console to play the game. If that is the way they are going to go then it should just be a PC game. But that's not what they want to do. They don't want to port it they want to create an all new user experience they say. So that means they are probably going to be anti-Kb/mouse and try to cram it all onto a controller. This must then result in a more simplified control scheme. Perhaps it will be a hold this button to bring up a four-directional menu that you navigate with a control stick. It limits the amount of options you have but would work.

Resources - Resource management has been a mainstay in the RTS genre since its inception. However, some RTS's lately have pulled away from this or changed the way it is done. Given the fact that Halo Wars sounds like it will focus on battle, there will probably be very little focus on gathering and managing resources. Once you take that out of the control requirements it frees up a good amount of buttons.

So what are we left with. Let's take a standard infantry unit and one of those four-directional control menus I mentioned before. As standard infantry they only need to patrol, defend (stationary), move and move aggressively meaning they attack while moving. If you put the two types of moving together and then split them you have only 3 menu options used.

 passive -  Move - active
 Defend Patrol 

As you see from my diagram above when you select move you could then nudge left or right to get passive or active move.

Hold Pos


 Defend Patrol 




Again in the diagram above you could do the same with Defend. Given this control scheme you would have either four options on the main menu because generally the diagonals are harder to reach accurately. Each of those four options then has two or three other options below them. That then changes the four options into eight or twelve options. Twelve options for a simple infantry unit is more than enough and many people would rarely even use all of these. Many units would have similar commands so you might depress A or X and use the left stick to navigate the menu for combat options while you might then depress B or Square and navigate yet another menu for building or resource gathering. With that structure you then have thirty-two to forty-eight commands per unit. Four buttons, with 8-12 command options per menu. Now we have almost the same amount of command options as on the PC.

So could they now include resource management? Yes, given that each unit could have up to forty-eight command options I believe they could use a console game controller scheme and include many of the options that gamers are used to seeing in an RTS. Will gamers like it? That remains to be seen. If you look at some radical control schemes of late they were not all that well received. Lair was blasted by critics because of the controls, the Wii met with mixed reviews in the beginning but proved phenomenally popular with gamers and non-gamers alike. The PS3 Eye has some very interesting control mechanisms in Tori-Emaki and The Trial of Topoq.

Now couple the word Halo with a new control scheme and you instantly have a more receptive audience. An audience who could be classified as die-hard fans. An audience who will see past the shortcomings or learning curves of a new control scheme. An audience that will buy the game because of the name brand recognition.

We don't know what Ensemble will do with Halo Wars yet but information will begin leaking any day now and when it does the battle lines will be drawn, sides will be chosen and the face of console RTS gaming will be forever changed and that is what makes me excited.


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