The making of Halo Wars 2 with 343 and Creative Assembly


343 Industries and Creative Assembly reveal how they are reinventing the RTS

Halo Wars was always regarded as a bit of an oddity; a curious attempt to bring about the resurgence of the RTS, on a platform that had always struggled to manage the minutiae of the genre. Microsoft had, after all, become a slave to the 14-buttons bound to the chassis of an Xbox controller; some degree of friction was to be expected in its endeavour to make the game a success.

It’s the state of affairs surrounding input control that inevitably produces a gap in competency and complexity with strategy games. A gap, in fact, that’s perhaps even wider than the one encountered perpetually by those that wield a controller over a mouse in first-person shooters. The transition of the RTS to console has had a tendency to end about as successfully as an altercation between a pack of Grunts and a Scorpion Tank – valiantly, sure, but it’s a battle that shall forever conclude in a maelstrom of good intentions versus chaotic execution.

But of all the Xbox exclusive titles that Microsoft could find itself harangued into making by a coterie of passionate fans in 2016, perhaps it was inevitable that it would be Halo Wars, as unlikely as that might seem to some of you. The Halo spin-off was only moderately received by critics (for the record, games™ awarded it seven out of ten), though it sold an estimated 2.6 million copies. That’s a pretty solid figure when you consider that, not only was it an Xbox 360 exclusive, but EA’s own Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 failed to break a million on consoles. So what makes Halo Wars worthy of a return? Is it just its association with one of gaming’s most respected and beloved shooters or something else entirely?

The pieces are set

“As an IP, Halo Wars is incredibly exciting to me personally,” 343 Industries’ head of strategy games development, Dan Ayoub, tells us. “I have always loved the RTS genre, but have never been able to make one before. Beyond that, I think Halo Wars is similar to Halo in that people love the characters, the story and the universe. We’re trying to create an IP that is accessible to everyone, and has the potential to reach new audiences. Halo Wars 2 is the first Halo title to ship on both console and PC [simultaneously] and that is really powerful – that we can bring Halo to the world in a way we haven’t been able to before.”

It seems curious to think that an RTS would provide a better bridge between console and PC gamers than an FPS. But Halo is so intrinsically linked to console gaming, so tied to the feel of the controller in your hand, that the franchise has gradually found itself out of touch with the PC audience. But with Microsoft’s commitment to the Play Anywhere premise – of its games launching and linking up across PC and Xbox One seamlessly – Halo Wars 2 feels like a good starting point for bringing the Chief’s universe back to desktops, and in a way that could succeed where other experiments like twin-stick disappointments Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike have previously failed.

And who better to handle that brave new step than one of the most celebrated strategy game developers in the world, Creative Assembly? The studio obviously arrives with a vast history in the genre through its work on Total War and, most recently, Total War: Warhammer (similarly a licensed title), not to mention demonstrating a penchant for delivering quality console experiences in Alien: Isolation.

Creative Assembly’s one credited venture into console real-time strategy, as some of you might recall, was not terribly successful. It seemed only right that we see how the team now feels about it now – whether Stormrise is a dark omen or simply a black cloud on an otherwise clear horizon.

Stormrise was created by our Australian sister studio a long time ago,” creative director Alistair Hope explains. Seven years on and we get the impression that the spectre of this creative endeavour still haunts the company, fuelling it to do better now the opportunity has presented itself. “At the UK studio we had been thinking about making a new RTS game for both console and PC for a long time and, as big fans of the original [Halo Wars], the possibility of creating a new title was the perfect opportunity to combine our love of strategy games and the Halo universe with our most recent development expertise on Xbox One and PC.”

So, perhaps nothing to be concerned about from that one blip in what has otherwise been a fairly flawless resume. And let’s not forget that Alien: Isolation was a stunning experience, harnessing the full power of our current generation of consoles a good while before some other developers managed to catch up. While action games like Spartan: Total Warrior and Viking: Battle For Asgard showed great competency in console development across the last two generations, Alien was something much more potent – thrilling even.

It brought some of that amazing attention to detail that has made the Total War games so compelling into the realms of a licensed release, forging an experience that became far richer as a result. The idea that the studio might bring a similar level of commitment and fan-service to a Halo game is a mouth-watering prospect and one that we’re already beginning to see emerge in Halo Wars 2.

“I believe truly understanding and getting deep inside the source material we’re working with is part of Creative Assembly’s DNA,” continues Hope. “Two pillars of the studio are authenticity and attention to detail. Whether we’re working with our own IP and the historical reality of Total War, or licensed IP we take the same approach. We’re in the fortunate position that we only work on games we’re passionate about, and I like to think that can be seen in everything we do. With Halo Wars 2, it’s been really exciting to collaborate with the equally passionate team at 343 to take this amazingly rich source material to create something new and fresh, while staying true to the essence and spirit of the IP.”

Passion seems to be an apt description here, as it clearly flows through Halo Wars 2. The partnership between the two studios has already produced impressive results, with the game demonstrating a strong commitment and capacity to further expanding Halo’s wide-spanning universe. But it’s clearly been painstaking too, especially for Creative Assembly, which has been left to shepherd the essence and spirit of the IP without the direction of the original stewards. And so the questions remain: does Creative Assembly have the understanding of the IP to reconstruct it from scratch and can it forge the type of strategy experience that happens to fall within the remit but just outside of its key area of expertise?

Looking back to move forward

“I think the first Halo Wars nailed a couple of things,” Ayoub is quick to suggest, citing proficiency in control on console and expansion of Halo’s lore outside of Chief’s core adventures. What he won’t tell you, however (and for obvious reasons), is that Halo Wars also “nailed” one other thing fairly competently: the final nail into the coffin of original development studio Ensemble. After building a reputation in the genre off of the back of the Age Of Empires franchise, the studio was shut down shortly after completion of the project in 2009.

While that’s a decision that still frustrates strategy fans to this day, ultimately the studio left a fantastic foundation that’s ripe for expansion. Halo Wars is designed for those that miss the fast-paced and immediate battles of Command & Conquer, and to those that lament the apparent death of StarCraft II as it further fades from relevance in an eSports scene belittled by controversy. Halo Wars 2 is a different kind of strategy game to Total War and that, after a somewhat contentious beta, has left some concerned. Though, as we said, Creative Assembly has one hell of a base to expand out from, and it’s rare that the toughest battles are ever won in the opening moments of play.     

“We used [Halo Wars] as a foundation from which [we were able] to evolve and improve, while taking into account how games had changed since the release,” says Ayoub, adding, “the first game absolutely served as a foundation that we built from, but we’ve iterated based on our experience and, more importantly, feedback from the community.”

Going into Halo Wars 2, it’s easy to expect two things: excellence in strategy design, courtesy of Creative Assembly, and a solid expansion of the Halo universe thanks to the close partnership with current franchise proponent, 343 Industries. Though one is naturally easier to achieve than the other.

Halo Wars established that the Halo Universe is vast enough for there to be multiple stories and multiple great characters,” says Ayoub, noting that the crew of the Spirit of Fire will be returning, albeit a little out of their depth. Halo Wars 2 is set some 28 years after the original game, with Captain James Cutler and the rest of his crew awaking from cryo-sleep to find themselves embroiled in a battle versus a rogue Covenant outfit – dubbed The Banished – for control of Installation 00, The Ark itself. If you don’t give a damn about the Halo story, this has probably just washed straight over your head, but understand that there’s a solid contingent of lore-heads that let out a little squeal upon hearing this news (and we, unequivocally, are among them).

Delivering excellence in real-time strategy design – fostering frantic engagements that test the reflexes, like Halo does so effortlessly, as quickly as they do the intricacies of considered combat, like in any RTS worth talking about – is a little tougher. Releasing on two platforms simultaneously, building two tailored control schemes, and with two groups of players to appease – each with wildly different expectations – Halo Wars 2 seems like an almost impossible task. But then, Creative Assembly has a reputation for doing the impossible; be honest, did you ever think the Alien franchise could be salvaged after Colonial Marines?

The biggest challenge for all involved is creating an experience that can service both sides of the player divide. An accessible action-RPG for console players that must also simultaneously have enough depth to keep the PC community engaged. And this is shining through in a number of noticeable, if not entirely unique ways.

Bringing RTS back to console

“The biggest design goal was to create an accessible action-RTS,” says Ayoub of the game that has been in development since 2014. “RTS is such a fun, amazing type of game, and we wanted to bring more people in while evolving it for people that love them already. So we’ve focused on making a visually beautiful game that tells an amazing story, but also reduces the friction to play.”

The foundations for play are centred around accessibility, reducing friction and delivering on the scale Halo is so revered for in the FPS scene. This is fostered through very basic design tenets in campaign and traditional multiplayer. The maps are modestly sized, designed to quickly funnel players into engagements and towards resources. Combat is focused around a simple and easy to remember rock/paper/scissors counter-attack design, further fine-tuned from the version that existed in both the original Halo Wars and the recent summer beta. Multiple empty bases are scattered around the areas, encouraging considered expansion and rapid convergence. Map control is still king. 

Combat is immediate and it’s often easy enough to figure out which units are best for any given situation. If you notice an enemy player is heavily focused on a particular unit type, the response is often obvious enough. Finding a balance between a mixed army and the flexibility to quickly counter with emergency builds is still the core of what makes a standard game of Halo Wars tick.

To be clear, Halo Wars 2 doesn’t have the complexity of, say, something like a Total War, or even Command & Conquer. While a degree of specialisation and scouting is required, the game simply doesn’t have the capacity for huge populations, nor does it place heavy economy restrictions on play to ever truly challenge your tactical execution.

You’ll often find yourself battling the unit cap itself before riding into combat, with the desire to build huge armies mitigated by the somewhat small maximum population size. This can be expanded by taking over other bases, incentivising quick plays for map control, though you’ll never feel like you’re in the middle of a truly giant war. The balance of population and economy is what has always made games such as C&C and StarCraft feel exhilarating but, as Ayoub says, Halo Wars 2 is about reducing friction and increasing accessibility.

But in doing so, Creative Assembly is delivering a game that has a habit of feeling more like a ‘My First RTS’ experience than an attempt to reinvent the wheel, as it were.
It’s a halfway house between the scale of Lord Of The Rings: Battle For Middle Earth II and the speed of Command & Conqueror, with the considerable levels of ‘micro’ found in the high-level StarCraft II contests clearly unable to co-exist within the simplicity of the design.

By its very nature, Halo Wars 2 has had to make interesting adjustments to the standardised RTS formula. Instead of focusing on formation and army variation, it often feels as if the game is happy to let you select all of your units and order them into an area, letting you sit back to witness the spectacle of battle without worrying about the nitty gritty – Halo Wars 2 sure is a pretty-looking game, after all.

Although, perhaps this was always going to be the case – the controller just isn’t retrofitted to allow for the type of intricate play that RTS games thrive on. PC players will find that Creative Assembly has given those with a mouse and keyboard a few extra tools, though that doesn’t change the fact that simplicity is still at the heart of this experience. To 343 Industries’ credit, it doesn’t see designing the game for two platforms as much of a problem.

“We approached it simply by making each platform feel unique. For example, you have a lot more controls to work with when you play on a PC, and we’ve taken advantage of that,” Ayoub tells us. “We’ve made sure that it feels and plays like you would expect from an RTS on PC. On console, we worked to simplify the actions players would want to take, and you’ll see similarities with the PC; for example, on console you can set four groups, while on PC you can set up to ten.”

Essentially, gamepad and keyboard users will still find they are able to use one-click shortcuts to perform simple tasks, such as select every unit on the screen or even across the entire battlefield, and you’ll even be able to cycle through units of a particular type (though this is, admittedly, still cumbersome). But keyboard users will find that the additional function keys and the addition of granular control will enhance the moment-to-moment strategy of high-level PvP play; we have a feeling Microsoft may struggle to establish Halo Wars 2 as a competitive multiplayer game on Xbox One.

The Biggest RTS innovation since the MOBA?

Struggles with competitive play, sure. But Halo Wars 2 is going to thrive when it comes to battling away with your friends. Input control restrictions are forcing Creative Assembly to get innovative, because beyond the exciting and extensive campaign, beyond the multiplayer modes such as Deathmatch and Dominion, the studio is introducing an all-new mode of play that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before in an RTS: Blitz.

“Ultimately, like any sequel we looked at what worked and how to evolve those areas, and we looked to innovate, with Blitz as a great example of that,” says Ayoub. “We now have a mode where you don’t build bases or collect resources – you instead build a deck of cards and field units that way. It’s a fun, fast, and accessible way to play RTS.”

This is a hybrid card-collecting and real-time strategy variant that feels purposefully designed to offer console players a new and engaging way to play whilst the PC lot are off setting macros and command shortcuts. Ayoub describes it as an accessible mode that “turns the RTS on its head”, although we feel more inclined to call it what it is: the biggest shake-up to the traditional RTS formula since the dawn of the MOBA.

“We looked at the aspects of a traditional RTS mode – building a base, harvesting resources, managing evolution trees, etc – and looked to streamline by getting players straight to the action in a simple and fun way,” he says, adding, “I’m excited for the potential of Blitz – an entirely new way to play RTS, something that seasoned and new players alike can enjoy… I’m really pleased with the response to Blitz.”

In Blitz, players find themselves in a symmetrical combat arena called ‘The Proving Ground’ which features three capture points – if a friendly unit occupies the point, you control it. The aim of the game is to maintain control and fill a capture meter before your opponent can do the same; think of it like a top-down variant of Halo’s King Of The Hill.

Here’s the stick though – there is no resource management, expansion or unit building in this game mode, instead the pace is dictated by cards. Four of these cards appear at the bottom of the screen at all times, each of which can be used to generate new units, attacks and boosts. For the most part these appear as standard units, letting you call upon Spartans, Warthogs and Pelicans to help maintain control over key areas. Various other cards let you utilise powerful leader attacks or gain temporary buffs in the form of shields and stat boosts.

If it sounds like a free for all, it isn’t! Your ability to bring cards into the game is dictated by energy, gained over time or collected via pickups on the map. The more powerful the card, the more energy it requires to bring into play. Blitz isn’t your traditional RTS game mode, but it makes sense in the context of Halo Wars 2’s struggle to feel at home on console. It’s a fast and furious game mode, taking design cues from the likes of Halo 5’s own REQ card system and even Blizzard’s Hearthstone. It cuts down on the fuss, boiling intimate games down to ten minute slugfests; not what you’d really expect from a mode focused around cards, of course, but 343 maintains that it was the best way to bring the mode into reality.

“We ended up with cards, because it’s such a universal concept. Deck building not only provides a great visual metaphor, but it also brings a new kind of strategy layer where you build a deck that suits your particular playing style,” says Ayoub. “It also creates some amazing opportunities for team mechanics as when you play with others, you’ll want to match your decks with theirs to build the most powerful combined force possible. At the end of the day, it adds simplicity and speed, while creating an all new way to play RTS.”

Blitz is purpose built for controller-based play, pushing reactive gameplay that forces you to think and act tactically every step of the way. The controller might not manage the micro levels of real-time strategy play, but it is perfectly designed for this lightning-fast style of decision making. The random nature of the cards in your hand – you can build a deck ahead of games, but the order in which units are shuffled out to you is completely random – means you always need to be ready to adapt and to figure out the best foot forward while facing heavy resistance. 

It’s a mode such as this that turns traditional RTS play on its head, mitigating some of the concerns we have within regular PvP play. Halo Wars 2 has a lot to prove when it launches for PC and Xbox One in February 2017, but it’s innovative new modes such as Blitz that show Creative Assembly is able to bring its flair to a lighter and faster strategy experience.

Halo Wars 2 is staying true to the heart of the IP while trying to expand the scope of play. It’s an accessible and fun action-RTS that isn’t interested in the dizzying depth that can make many of its genre stablemates seem impenetrable. Whether it’ll do enough to appease the PC purists is anybody’s guess, but we have a feeling Halo Wars 2 will stand to show console gamers that strategy and gamepads can indeed walk hand-in-hand across the battlefield.

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