They're not messing about. Graeme Devine is in charge of the storyline of this new branch to the Halo franchise, and he's bold as a tin cockerel when he's asked about the Halo Wars mission. "What Halo did for first-person shooters, Halo Wars is going to do for real-time strategy. I absolutely think that. Because we've made it from the ground up for 360, and we didn't have to think about keyboard and mouse, and worry about whether we're going to have to port it to the PC. This game plays better than any PC real-time strategy game with a controller."
Punching the PC in the nuts isn't something you'd expect from a Microsoft presentation (perhaps they're still angry about the Metacritic scores for Halo 2 on PC). But Ensemble is bringing Halo to a new genre, then bringing that genre to a console that's still coming to terms with it (then being heartlessly slaughtered). That's two things the devs need to pull off. Can they find an elegant way to fit a convincing set of military commands onto a 360 controller? And how will the bawdy spirit of Halo's multiplayer translate to a strategy game? Consider the 1993 Chess final between Gary Kasparov and Martin Short. At no point did either player punch the table, and scream in a clipped voice that the other player was a peon. It's a different world.
Devine sets out their stall. "Halo means visceral combat, epic story, and multiplayer," he says, and these are the areas in which Ensemble's planning to impress. The storyline isn't being discussed, beyond the basic premise that this is 20 years before the Halo event, and five years into the war on the in-game planet's surface - although there's an allusion that the discovery of skulls on the surface might imply "something awesome, but I can't say what", so feel free to speculate on that. The multiplayer aspect isn't on parade either, although Brian Lemon, a producer on the project, assures me that the entire single-player campaign can be carried out co-operatively. But if you want to play the Covenant, that's just for competitive play - there's no Covenant campaign. And no, you won't be able to play as the Flood, either. "The Flood shouldn't be something you can just... beat," says Devine.
In the absence of story and multiplayer, we'll focus on that visceral combat. RTS combat can never be as immediate and personal as an FPS - your role as an immortal commander forces you to be some distance away from all the hot gibs. But Ensemble is taking out as many of the distancing factors as it can. Combat is relentless. Selecting your squads is economical, reducing faff-time. Select a squad with a tap of the A button. Double-tap A to select all units of the same type on-screen. Hold down A, and your reticule bloats into a paintbrush, selecting every unit lucky enough to be licked by its bristles. For less precise selection again, a tap of the trigger selects everything on screen. It may be less flexible than classic PC methods, and the scope for hugeness on a Total War scale is limited, but that's definitively not what Ensemble is going for. It wants visceral, constant combat, and there's rarely a moment when the Covenant aren't opening up its skin-bag to paint the floor.
The paintbrush is an excellent tool; a compromise, perhaps, and slightly imprecise, but completely functional when used with the other selection options. The whole lot together are intuitive and engaging. We're only playing the opening levels, which are pretty much designed to make you feel awesome and clever, but still, this is one of the first events where someone hasn't pulled the controller out of my hands, driven to blind fury by my thundering ineptitude.
I'm rescuing my two commanders and their marine squads, who've become pinned down by the Covenant inside a Forerunner relic. It's instinctively easy to send the marines into the cul-de-sac, and defend them with the tanks, then send my commander in to use her special ability to heal the tanks. I'm indoors for this mission - if we were outside, the support vessel Spirit of Fire would have line of sight on us, and I could have used one of its special abilities to heal my troops.
Devine is keen to point out that we're having an easy time of it; the settings are all on Normal here, not Heroic or Legendary. "On the more difficult settings, the order in which you build your troops, and the structure of your base will have a much more serious impact on your success. It'll be a completely different experience."
All units have a range within which they'll auto-attack - this being Halo, there's no "hold your fire" mode, just as there's no "giggle and piss" button - but you can override their AI instincts by telling them to attack something else, or by triggering their secondary attack. Tapping Y causes all selected units to fire off their special moves at the same time. I'm watching another journalist play the game with Brian Lemon. I ask him if the generous selection methods don't sometimes cause you to wastefully fire off all your secondary weapons all at once.
"Oh, I do that all the time," he cheerfully admits. I was expecting him to say "no, not at all - it's a completely flawless system that we're infinitely proud of", so it's pleasant to get an honest reply. He goes on to qualify himself. "But you can use the paintbrush to select a few of the marines, and focus their special fire on one area, while the others carry on." You can also cycle through the unit types in your selection with a tap on the right trigger, giving you more flexibility in the deployment of your limited special weapons. It's still simple, but it's actually more flexible than you'd imagine. It's a good system.
Base-construction and resource-management is handled in the second mission. This is where the circle menu is introduced - and this menu is where Ensemble is claiming to have pulled a ruddy blinder. By limiting the options at any one time to a maximum of eight, it's allowed a system where you build your base simply with the A button, and a flick of the left stick. It's not the invention of this system - but it's a great use of it in the RTS setting.
With an FPS, the emphasis is more naturally on your enemies, because they're who you're constantly trying to get into the centre of the screen. So, Bungie has already done the work on the Covenant units. Ensemble has, however, had to balance out the teams by introducing new units to the UNSC. A lot of what you'll see is familiar canon - the hovering sniper towers from Halo 3 can be garrisoned by troops, giving them a greater field of view and firing range. Other stuff is new: the Cobra - "a rail gun on wheels," according to Lemon - is a great anti-vehicle unit, Flame Marines are anti-personnel flamethrower specialists, and the UNSC have a new uberweapon - a giant flying fortress that can deliver a barrage of missiles. All invented for Halo Wars, and all strictly checked against the Halo Bible for Fan Compliance.
Resource-management is simple. You've got a maximum number of soldiers - defined by your barracks. You've got a tech level, which unlocks better items as it increases, and which you increase by building reactors. And finally, you've got supplies - which are boosted by the number of supply depots you build, or by finding stacks of the stuff left about in the field. Finding these stacks will add them immediately to your total; you won't have to dispatch a squad to carry it home. Later scenarios, Lemon tells me, will require base upgrades (the basic model here has just six expansion slots, and room for four defensive turrets), and multiple bases.
Units gain veterancy as they battle, and acquire new powers. In the case of the marines, advancing a level gives them New Blood, allowing them more members in each selectable squad. The next level gives them RPGs, and the level after that gives them the charming Spanker rockets. Each unit has its own path - the Warthog gains the ability to ram, the Scorpion tank learns to deliver splash damage, and commander units have more specialist abilities, such as repairing machinery - all of which will be available from that Y button secondary attack.
This is before Master Chief's time. He won't appear, Devine promises, no matter how hard you look. But, twenty years pre-Halo event, Spartans were ten a penny. When it comes to expanding the Halo universe, Ensemble is careful. It's already tasted the ire of the dedicated fan elite, having kitted out Spartans initially with Battle Rifles. Devine admits it's "scary, definitely", and that particular episode really caused him to redouble his efforts in translating the UNSC and the Covenant into strategic - but faithful - teams.
What Ensemble demonstrated wasn't enough to get a full idea of the multiplayer - which is a glaring gap in a Halo game - but it was enough to reassure me about the slightly jarring idea of a console-exclusive Halo RTS. Turns out that those fears were mainly rooted in the fact I'm a prejudiced tit, and it's always good to work that out of your system.
Halo Wars is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 next February.