Watch the first gameplay footage by scrolling to the bottom of this page. For our E3 preview of Halo 3,head here (opens in new tab).
* Where does Halo Wars fit into the fiction? Right at the start. The game's story is set 20 years before the events of the first Halo, soon after the UNSC's first encounter and battle with the Covenant. When the player enters, they'll take command of the Spirit of Fire troops just as they've taken control of the planet Harvest.
* Although a good number of beloved Halo characters were alive during this time frame, we were told explicitly that none of them would cross over here. That doesn't mean you won't recognize a few personalities. Your female AI guide Serina sounds an awful lot like Cortana, for example.
* The rest of the game's world will look very familiar to fans as well. The E3 demo included Marines, Spartans, Covenant Grunts, Hawks, Pelicans, Warthogs, Banshees, Wolverines, Ghosts, Scorpions and Scarabs. All in one mission. The developer, Ensemble Studios, is working hard to recreate miniaturized versions of every aspect of the Halo universe. They've managed to capture small details that make a big difference - the Warthog fishtails as it drives and the Banshee swishes gracefully in loops, leaving purple trails in its wake. Vehicles even take real-time damage, gathering mud, scratches and dents as they fight.
* Other details bring the map to life. Warthogs leap out of the factory when they're built and you can see tiny mechanics repairing them at the back of the building. An air traffic controller stands on the Pelicans' runway, waving them in for landing. A group of marines is forced to do pushups by a drill sergeant near the barracks.
* Some maps include strategic features like crevasses that can only be crossed by an airborne unit or a leaping Warthog, which can miss the gap and explode.
* We got a glimpse at how the units match up against each other. In one climactic battle, the UNSC's soldiers were being slaughtered by Banshees from above... until the developer called in a few Wolverines with their anti-air weaponry. The enemy brought in Ghosts, so the UNSC brought in Scorpions. When the Covenant unleashed a towering insect-like Scarab with its ground-scorching laser eye, the good guys' response was an orbital bombardment from the sky.
* In any RTS, especially one on consoles, the control scheme is crucial. Knowing this, the developers spent their first six months working entirely on that aspect. They believe they've achieved something simpler and more user friendly than recent competitors like Battle for Middle-earth. A selects units and X moves them. Double tapping A will select all units of a certain type. Holding A enables you to draw a box around the group of units you want to choose, regardless of type. The d-pad can whisk you straight to your base or straight to an ongoing battle. Y will bring up powers like the orbital bombardment.
* More complex RTS features like rally points and unit upgrades will be available. No word on how those will be accomplished without complicating the controls too much.
* You won't be able to build a base anywhere, only in designated spots. Within that spot, the makeup of the base is entirely up to you.
* The UNSC is the only playable faction planned for Halo Wars at this time. This could be the case for the single player campaign, but we'd be very surprised if you couldn't choose the Covenant in multiplayer. After all, why would the UNSC be waging war against itself?
* Within the UNSC, however, you will have a selection of "leaders" for each mission. You won't actually control these characters like the "heroes" of Battle for Middle-earth, but your decision will affect what powers are available to you.
* Ensemble Studios reiterated to us that Halo Wars is being designed for Xbox 360 and Xbox 360 only. They don't want to "water it down" by trying to build a PC version at the same time.
* Halo Wars is set to release in 2008.
* For the first ever gameplay footage, play the video below.