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One of the season’s most anticipated games is "Halo Wars," a real-time strategy prequel to the popular "Halo" series.

The switch from first-person shooter to strategy is only one of the changes in the series, which until now has focused on Master Chief, the lone remaining Spartan in the interstellar war against the alien Covenant. Dave Pottinger, lead designer for "Halo Wars," describes what’s up with the game, which is being developed by Ensemble Studios for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console. The game is due to be released on March 3.

Q: What will make "Halo Wars" stand out as a "Halo" game?

A: For me, the single biggest thing that distinguishes "Halo Wars" from the previous "Halo" shooters is the fact that "Halo Wars" is a full-blown strategy game. You’re not just controlling one guy in "Halo Wars"; you’re in charge of the entire army. You decide which units to bring to the fight. You decide when to take control of enemy bases. Hell, you even get to decide which side you want to fight for.

Q: Why did Ensemble decide to go back to the early days of the war between the UNSC and Covenant?

A: We simply wanted to give players a completely new experience. The events of the first three "Halo" games are all experienced through the eyes of Master Chief. For a strategy game, we thought it was best to give a completely different perspective on "Halo." That includes setting our story during a different time period, introducing a new cast of characters and even showing you the action from overhead.

Q: What opportunities and challenges did that present?

The biggest challenges in working with "Halo" involved giving it the respect and love the fans demand. We’re all huge "Halo" fans ourselves, so we don’t want to do something that feels like it doesn’t take "Halo" seriously. We don’t want "Halo Wars" to be the "Episode 1" of the "Halo" universe. Our game is set before the events of the original "Halo" game; that actually worked to our benefit. The new characters help people remember that "Halo Wars" is different than the shooters. Plus, a lot of characters in the story reinforce how much variety is in the gameplay.

Q: Most strategy games that appear on the Xbox 360 start in the PC realm and then get reworked for the console. Since "Halo Wars" will be exclusive to the Xbox 360, what difference did that make in development?

A: Building "Halo Wars" from the ground up as an Xbox 360 game let us strip the game down to the essentials of strategy gaming. We wanted "Halo Wars" to be an adrenaline-packed slugfest where you’re simultaneously trying to out-maneuver your enemy on the battlefield while thinking ahead to how you’ll outwit him strategically. But it had to be simple. We wanted a shorter game than on the PC, too. Those necessities forced us to challenge what we had done with our past games. The result is just as deep as "Age of Empires," but it’s simpler and easier to play. Plus, there’s a LOT more explosions.

Q: What differences will the player notice?

A: I think the biggest single difference between "Halo Wars" and other strategy games is the overall polish and presentation. The game is very easy to pick up and play, but it also does a great job teaching you how to play. By the time you’ve played for 30 minutes, you’re training advanced units, tossing grenades, and calling down strategic air strikes. There’s a lot that you can choose to do, but it all stays very manageable. That’s important because we want people to focus on having fun, not just how to have fun.

Q: What’s the coolest thing about "Halo Wars"?

A: I’ll cheat and answer with two things.

From a story standpoint, it’s just a flat-out blast to go back and tell the "origin story" for "Halo." Those origin stories are always the best parts of any superhero tale. "Halo" is no exception. We all know how Master Chief ‘finished the fight’ in "Halo 3," but "Halo Wars" gets to go back to a time when there were lots of Spartan super-soldiers running around. That’s something every "Halo" fan has been dying to play.

Gameplay-wise, I really love the special unit abilities. Each unit can do something special that changes gameplay. Marines can toss grenades, Scorpion tanks have this cool canister shell ability that decimates Marines, etc. Those are really cool, but my favorite ability is on the Spartan. He can hijack an enemy vehicle and take it over. In addition to creating a virtually unstoppable vehicle, this just looks 100 percent bad ass.

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