THE FUTURE OF HALO
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.
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.
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).
“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.)