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."