October 9, 2008 - The Halo franchise has never been a big hit in Japan, so Microsoft's distinctly Halo-themed keynote address at this year's Tokyo Game Show caught some here by surprise. In addition to the much-anticipated Halo 3: Recon campaign expansion, the company also brought Ensemble Studios developer Graeme Devine on stage to give the audience its first look at the campaign of Halo Wars, the real-time strategy game currently in development at Microsoft Game Studios.

But Devine's mere appearance on the TGS stage wasn't the only surprise in store. Those who have been following our Halo Wars coverage are aware that the campaign takes place 20 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, and that you play as UNSC forces fighting the Covenant horde. But the Halo faithful couldn't help but wonder if a certain other enemy force would rear its ugly head in Halo Wars, and Ensemble finally confirmed it -- the Flood are back.

The enemies you love to hate will make an appearance in Halo Wars, although we're not sure when they'll show up or how they will play. We do know that the campaign is only playable as the UNSC forces, which is fine with us. The idea of slipping into the Flood's disgusting shoes sort of creeps us out.

Although we didn't get a chance to play the campaign ourselves, the Ensemble crew gave us a quick demo of the game's main mode. If you're unfamiliar with what Halo Wars is and how it's set up, make sure to check out our previous coverage of the title to get all the details on how the controls operate and how unit production works. But the basics are the same as any console RTS: Get your battle instructions, drop into the scenario and use your superior strategic skills to defeat the enemy force.

The demo mission opens with the "Field Trip to Harvest" trailer that Ensemble released before TGS. An expeditionary force has found something buried on the ice on the world of Harvest, and a group is sent down to investigate. But the Covenant have beat the UNSC troops there, and a Sgt. Forge watches a group of enemy troops outside a large facility. At the end of the sequence, we see an Arbiter directing a group of grunts carrying charges around the building. Your job as a commander is to head them off before they can detonate the explosives, destroying the structure and the relic within.

As we've noted in previous Halo Wars coverage, the animations are great and authentically Halo-like. The Warthogs turn and bounce realistically and the vehicle and character movements in general are top-notch. Two of the new vehicles to the Halo universe -- Vultures and Cobras -- also looked like they fit in to the overall Halo aesthetic. Once your rigs are on the ground, it's time to start building. As you train UNSC Marines and pump out vehicles, you're constantly getting intelligence from your compatriots in space above the planet, alerting you about troop movements and changes on the battlefield. It's useful tactically but also helps keep you immersed in the story between cutscenes.

In fact, Ensemble told us they've worked hard to make sure the story is integral to the Halo Wars experience and that, if you choose to just watch the cutscenes, you'll be missing much of the storyline. According to Halo Wars campaign producer Bill Jackson, "story" was the first thing the Ensemble team wrote in the game's design document. Serious stuff.

Speaking of story, astute Halo fans will surely be scratching their heads over the Flood's appearance in Halo Wars, which takes place before the Flood were encountered in Halo: Combat Evolved for ostensibly the first time. But Ensemble insists the story is canonical, which means something mysterious is afoot. Was there a cover-up? Were all the humans who encountered the Flood wiped out before they could spread the word? Well, we wish we could help answer those questions, but Ensemble didn't show any of the Flood in the short demo we saw at TGS. Hopefully as the game gets closer to its release (scheduled for early 2009), we'll know more about how they fit in.

You can expect the Halo Wars campaign to last about 8-12 hours or more, depending on your skill level. The traditional Halo difficulty levels -- easy, normal, heroic and legendary -- will be available, and achievements will likely be tied to those. There are also some surprises to be found in Halo Wars that will be achievement-related. We asked Ensemble if that meant we can expect to be searching for skulls in Halo Wars, but the devs would only confirm that there will be hidden secrets.

The demo we watched was very brief, so there's not much new to report in terms of gameplay or unit types. It's safe to say that our demoers quickly vanquished the Covenant forces and prevented the Arbiter and his goons from blowing things to kingdom come. We hope to get our hands on the Halo Wars campaign soon enough, and we'll report back when we do.