Back in 2009, about a year before Bungie departed the Halo franchise, the series returned to its early development roots in the form of Halo Wars. Bungie created a game called Myth: The Fallen Lords, which was a real-time strategy game that gathered quite a following back in 1997. Initially, Bungie’s plan was to model Halo on this RTS format, eventually changing its mind in 2001 to create the trailblazing first person shooter we know and love.
Fast-forward eight years and a successful trilogy later, Microsoft and Ensemble Studios released Halo Wars. It was, in fact, the last game made by the Age of Empires developer and a lot of work went in to researching how to create RTS games for console. “We actually spent a whole year just trying to reconstruct how the controls would work on an RTS game,” said Ensemble’s CEO Tony Goodman on a 2008 job listing.
Fast forward another eight years and Halo’s new guardians, 343 Industries, along with strategy giants Creative Assembly, announce Halo Wars 2. Unlike the now defunct Ensemble Studios, Creative Assembly has enjoyed a good amount of success developing games for consoles, such as Alien Isolation, and has vast experience in creating real time strategy games. Creative Assembly have made many additions to the Halo Wars formula to make the sequel its own, but the controls from Ensemble’s work have barely been touched. They remain the best control method for the Halo Wars series.
“There’s elements within Halo Wars that are kind of signature to what it is perceived to be and we wanted to stay true to some of those things.
But also evolve it,” says Alistair Hope, creative director on the game. “If you’re familiar with Halo Wars then it’s great because it’s similar, but different. We’ve expanded upon it and brought new features to the game, but whichever platform you’re playing on, our intention was that the core experience was identical.
“We’ve taken Halo Wars around the world to shows and we have players of all kinds of background and experience levels who seem to pick it up and have a good time. Our intention with Halo Wars 2 was to make an RTS for everybody and we’ve done a lot of work to support that.”
Balance within an RTS is extraordinarily important
Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly
SPARTAN IN THE DECK
Differences to Ensemble’s original vision come in the form of various new game modes being introduced by Creative Assembly. A large part of the developer’s ‘making an RTS for everyone’ mantra, according to Hope.
The new Blitz mode was developed in an attempt to reach this goal. It sees users build a deck of units from card packs earned during game levelling and in-game transactions. With these cards you can build an army to summon within the level, at the cost of valuable resources, which varies depending on the unit’s strength.
“Blitz came about by trying to create something that could appeal to a new audience,” says Hope, “to be super accessible but also really, really deep. I think it’s exciting that we’ve found some new ideas. I think we’d like to make games that really promote players’ creativity and imagination and reward that. With Blitz, that’s a good example of that because it’s quite straightforward.
“How you comprise that deck through the cards and really influence the play style of the options you have, seeing people create some really unique imaginative decks and then combine that with a teammate. You can get some really interesting contrasting and complimentary scenarios, where decks are really working together to support each other in unexpected ways.
“That’s absolutely one of the strengths of strategy games – giving the player the tools with which to be creative and imaginative.”
Balancing that kind of gameplay is always tricky, but it’s something that Creative Assembly hopes helps Halo Wars 2 move apart from its predecessor. The intuitive controls of Halo Wars were great, but at times the game felt like a resource-based race to the prize. In Halo Wars 2, especially with its new game modes, Creative Assembly is keen to make the games balanced and fun.
“We have these co-operative and competitive modes in multiplayer,” says Hope. “Something like Stronghold is a really super successful mode. Kind of arcade, instant fun. Decide your favourite units and go and have a battle. Then we have Domination and Deathmatch, which are kind of the truer test of RTS skills. All the breaks are off, long term strategy, understanding what your opponent is doing.
“Balance within an RTS is extraordinarily important and is something we continue to work on. It’s a game about systems and we’d like to think Creative Assembly have some experience in creating those systems. So yes it’s a vital part component of the games.”