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Halo Wars 2 is here to re­vive the con­sole RTS, while plot­ting a new nar­ra­tive di­rec­tion for the main se­ries Strat­egy games have al­ways been a bit of a boon­dog­gle on con­soles. Yes, there was a time in those in­trepid days of the fifth gen­er­a­tion when con­soles were in­un­dated with ports of RTS clas­sics like Com­mand & Con­quer, Dune 2000, WarCraft II and the won­der­fully grungy Krush, Kill ‘n’ De­stroy; there was even an N64 ver­sion of StarCraft and an of­fi­cial mouse for PS1 real-time strate­gists. Look­ing back, all th­ese ef­forts look like a strange foot­note in the his­tory of gam­ing – aris­ing at a time be­fore it be­came com­mon knowl­edge that RTS games on con­soles just don’t work.

Halo Wars2 shares much of its DNA with those swarm­ing, speedy ti­tles of yore. How­ever, speak­ing with 343 In­dus­tries’ stu­dio head Dan Ay­oub, it’s clear that while the game owes much to the RTS gi­ants that kick­started the genre, it’s very much de­signed for the mod­ern gamer. Ac­cord­ing to Ay­oub, it has long-term am­bi­tions to usher in a new era of con­sole RTSs, while shap­ing the fu­ture of the Halo se­ries.

Chaos the­ory

One of Ay­oub’s favourite ‘90s strat­egy games is To­tal An­ni­hi­la­tion – an ex­plo­sive, chaotic RTS that also con­tained in­no­va­tions such as build­ings that re­moved the need for re­source-col­lect­ing, and ‘true’ lines of sight that meant you couldn’t see through walls. He wants Halo Wars2 to cap­ture some of that free­wheel­ing, pi­o­neer­ing spirit. “My mem­o­ries of play­ing To­tal An­ni­hi­la­tion were a sense of to­tal chaos – de­struc­tion, ex­plo­sions and huge col­li­sions. Be­neath it all, there’s a lot of tac­ti­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, but what you see on screen is an ex­plo­sive, chaotic free-for-all.”

All of this makes Cre­ative Assem­bly, de­vel­oper of the me­thod­i­cal, macroscale To­tal War se­ries on PC, seem a cu­ri­ous choice to co-cre­ate Halo

Wars2 with 343. Cre­ative Assem­bly has dom­i­nated the PC strat­egy scene for years, but with a type of game that ar­guably side­lined the more tra­di­tional RTS model that Halo Wars har­nesses. Ay­oub ac­knowl­edges the irony: “Their games are a lot more hard­core than Halo Wars was. But that’s why I thought it’d be a per­fect mar­riage – they’re masters of that craft, whereas at 343 we’d fo­cus on ac­tion, sto­ry­telling, things like that.”

This un­likely cou­ple has worked bril­liantly so far. “There was in­stant chem­istry be­tween the teams, which was fan­tas­tic, be­cause I wanted us to feel like one team on two sides of the ocean,” says Ay­oub. “It was two ways of think­ing com­ing to­gether for a com­mon goal: ‘How do we take RTS and make it a lit­tle more ac­ces­si­ble, a lit­tle faster, a lit­tle dif­fer­ent?’”

With Halo Wars2’ s beta done and dusted and launch mere days away,

we now know the an­swer to that is Blitz – a new on­line mode where players build decks of cards in­stead of bases, spawn­ing units as and when they are needed in a bid to con­trol three cap­ture points on the map. It’s an ex­per­i­ment that takes cues from the Rocket League or even Overwatch school of thought – a sporty, ac­ces­si­ble mode with a high skill ceil­ing that con­denses a roller­coaster of emo­tions, re­ver­sals and flashes of im­pro­vi­sa­tional player in­ge­nu­ity into five- to seven-minute matches.

Blitz it

De­spite its for­ward-think­ing and de­cid­edly new-school feel, Blitz too is rooted in tra­di­tion. Col­lectable card game Magic: The Gath­er­ing is a long­stand­ing pas­time at the 343 stu­dio, and the de­vel­op­ers took in­spi­ra­tion from it. Ay­oub says there’s some­thing spe­cial about not only the var­ied, adap­tive strate­gis­ing that a game like Magic re­quires, but also in the art­work: “We have a lot of cool art in the game and the Halo uni­verse that would never have made it in oth­er­wise,” he says. In that sense, Blitz of­fers a charm­ing bit of fan ser­vice, as well as an au­da­cious me­chan­i­cal vari­ant on the real-time strat­egy for­mula.

Be­ing a spin-off, Halo Wars 2 could eas­ily have ex­isted in some nether re­gion of the Halo uni­verse that doesn’t in­ter­sect much with the main se­ries. But 343 saw an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing a lit­tle more in­ter­est­ing, fo­cus­ing in­stead on mak­ing this an en­try point into a canon that Ay­oub ad­mits can be “in­tim­i­dat­ing” for new players, on ac­count of how es­tab­lished and cultish it is. He draws a par­al­lel be­tween the game’s plot and re­al­ity: “Cap­tain Cut­ter and the crew on the Spirit of Fire have been in cryosleep for 25 years and wakes in the mod­ern Halo uni­verse, com­pletely

un­aware of what’s been go­ing on – they’re sort of look­ing at it through the eyes of the new con­sumer.”

Com­mit­ted to a fresh start, Halo Wars 2 does away with long­stand­ing an­tag­o­nists – The Covenant and The Flood – and el­e­vates the pre­vi­ously dis­pos­able Brutes to a self-eman­ci­pated, self-mo­ti­vated species. There’s some­thing in­stantly like­able about the Brute-based Ban­ished fac­tion. When their leader Atriox rises up against his Covenant over­lords, you feel a pang of (mis­di­rected) hap­pi­ness for him de­spite his de­struc­tive in­ten­tions. For all his sav­agery, Atriox is strangely whole­some; he’s a wronged, in­dig­nant be­ing, aware of The Covenant’s au­to­cratic evils and de­ter­mined to carve out a piece of space for his species (which, un­for­tu­nately, hap­pens to be pop­u­lated by hu­mans).

Brute force

“We knew from a story stand­point that we wanted Brutes, but a dif­fer­ent take on them to give them some depth,” says Ay­oub “This is ac­tu­ally the first time in a Halo game that we started build­ing the story around the vil­lain. Be­fore we knew what we’d do with the AI, the Spirit of Fire and the rest of it, we spent most of our time fig­ur­ing Atriox out”.

With so much of the nar­ra­tive re­volv­ing around this com­pelling new an­tag­o­nist, Ay­oub doesn’t hide his de­sire to see Atriox make a return in fu­ture Halo en­tries: “We cre­ated th­ese new char­ac­ters with the hope that fans would love them, and I’d love to see Atriox in one of the main games.” Based on early feed­back from players, he’s op­ti­mistic about this pos­si­bil­ity.

Free from the of­ten over­bear­ing weight of ex­pec­ta­tion at­tached to the main se­ries, Halo Wars 2 has been treated as a mood board for new nar­ra­tive ideas by the 343 team. Ay­oub ad­mits that “you have less nar­ra­tive flex­i­bil­ity on that main line, be­cause peo­ple want Mas­ter Chief, they want Cor­tana, they want that fa­mil­iar­ity”. What fans’ re­sponses to the game prove, how­ever, is that they also “want more sto­ries, and more char­ac­ters in this huge uni­verse”.

On PC, the old-school RTS of re­source har­vest­ing, reg­i­mented base build­ing and chaotic bat­tles is en­joy­ing a bit of a re­nais­sance (that Halo Wars 2 is a part of), but on con­sole it still feels like a genre clang­ing around in the Dark Ages. Halo Wars 2 en­ters the Xbox One fray vir­tu­ally un­con­tested, but Ay­oub doesn’t want the game to be king in a waste­land. “We have long-term plans for the fran­chise, and depend­ing on how well the game is re­ceived, we’d love to con­tinue do­ing that, and con­tinue evolv­ing RTS on con­soles”.

Could Halo Wars 2 do for the con­sole RTS what To­tal An­ni­hi­la­tion and Red Alert did for the genre on PC? “I’d love to see it in­spire more players and de­vel­op­ers to come back and try out real-time strat­egy on con­soles”, replies Ay­oub. “I think it’s a mag­i­cal genre on any plat­form and it de­serves more at­ten­tion”. Halo Wars 2 is out 21 Fe­bru­ary and we’ll have a full re­view next is­sue

“This is the first time in the Halo se­ries that we built the story around a vil­lain”

above Atriox is such a cen­tral fig­ure he’s fea­tured in most pre-re­lease art­work, more so than the game’s he­roes.

Right It sounds like much of what’s re­ceived well in Halo Wars 2 could fea­ture in fu­ture main­line se­ries en­tries.

above 343 In­dus­tries’ stu­dio head, Dan Ay­oub.

above Zoom out and you’ll get a great tac­ti­cal over­view, but zoom in and you can see myr­iad lit­tle de­sign de­tails on each unit.

Be­low Atriox looks scary but we bet he’s a big softie, re­ally. (Please don’t kill us, Mr. Atriox, sir.)

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