Gaming & Technology

Microsoft grows another 'halo'

The game franchise that arguably has come to define online shooting games and propelled Microsoft into a viable video game company will attempt to branch out Tuesday.

Halo Wars will continue the story that unfolded throughout the original trilogy, but it will trade its sniper rifles and such for the ability to control vast armies in what's commonly called a "real-time strategy game."

Popularized by the series Command & Conquer and Age of Empires, this gaming genre gives players control over an army's supplies, defense, attack strategy and just about anything else you can imagine. In Halo's case, the game will pit the United Nations Space Command and its marines against the alien race known as the Covenant, which feuded with the humans throughout the first-person-shooter trilogy.

The series so far

The Halo series launched with Microsoft's first Xbox gaming system in November 2001. Offering a great multiplayer fighting system, the game became an instant hit, as fans fought each other in death match-style fights or took part in team games such as capture the flag. Halo 2 came to the Xbox three years later, and the third installment was released for the Xbox successor, the Xbox 360, in September 2007.

The story so far

Halo Wars is a prequel to the trilogy, taking place 20 years before the events of the first game and telling the story of the war between the humans and the Covenant.

As is revealed in the original three games, humanity has long been on the losing end of the war against the brutal alien race. Their conflicts in the original trilogy centered on the Halos themselves, which are devices that orbit planets and were created by a mysterious and now extinct race called the Forerunners. When activated, the Halos destroy all life in nearby areas.

The changes

Halo Wars is a vastly different gaming experience than the original series. You don't fight as an individual player, but as an army. You'll decide what defense installations should be built or what upgrades should be bought rather than which specific enemy to kill.

The impact

Halo Wars will prove to be a test of how successfully the series can translate to various video game genres. There was talk more than a year ago that Microsoft might also try to push Halo into short episodic games that would tell far more of a story and have fewer playable scenes.

The future

Coming this fall is Halo 3: ODST, which is essentially an expansion pack for Halo 3. Rather than play as trilogy protagonist Master Chief, gamers will take on the mantle of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, or ODST, in the time before Halo 3.

Ensemble's end

Although it is a beginning in almost all sorts, Halo Wars also marks an end. It's the last game made by Microsoft-owned Ensemble Studios, which also developed the Age of Empires series. Microsoft shuttered the studio for financial reasons in the second half of last year. Former employees have created two new studios, one of which will continue to provide support for Halo Wars.

The swag

Like any successful video-game franchise, Halo has spawned its share of product tie-ins, and Halo Wars will be no exception.

Among the potentially coolest are the Halo construction play sets, ranging from 65 pieces to more than 350, that Mega Bloks plans to release by fall.

Also, a Halo Wars version of the classic board game Risk will be released in late spring or early summer. McFarlane Toys, which has made Halo action figures previously, will release a new line focused on Halo Wars.

The game itself will come in a special edition, which includes a graphic novel, a patch, cards and in-game exclusives, plus early access to a multiplayer map pack. The special edition will cost an estimated $79.99 compared to the $59.99 regular edition.