The last time we saw the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire in Halo Wars, they were settling in for a long cryosleep on their way home, knowing that with a little luck, they’d make it back to civilized space in one piece. Nearly 30 years later, they’re awakened to a new threat to the Halo universe and find themselves as the one thing standing between hope and annihilation. Halo Wars 2 will take us back to the Ark, introduce new heroes and villains, and deliver a new multiplayer mode that has the potential to push the real-time strategy genre forward.
“Due to the Ark’s tremendous size, we basically have an infinite canvas to paint our war spaces on,” explains Jeremy Cook, Art Director for Halo Wars 2. “That has been both a challenge and allows us to take the handcuffs off.”
The Ark, which was used to create the iconic Halo Rings, will be the primary setting for Halo Wars 2. Keen readers may know that this is the very same installation the Master Chief destroyed in Halo 3. Well, it turns out he only damaged it. Now, enough time has passed that this magnificent Forerunner installation has begun repairing itself. The last time we had a chance to run around this world, it was in the first-person, so it’s exciting that Halo Wars 2 will afford us a new angle from which to do battle.
“What’s most exciting for us is we get to appreciate Halo from a completely different perspective,” says Cook. “RTS is, more or less, staring at the ground, so there’s a challenge in how you convey epic spaces and vast horizons which are typically from a first-person perspective. Between the diversity of the terrain styles, and the fact that it’s a Forerunner construct, allows for some crazy stuff within the play space.”
Beyond the terrain and the world in which Halo Wars 2 takes place, its compliment of heroes and villains will help broaden a world we’re very excited to explore more. And because the UNSC Spirit of Fire and its crew are essentially in a place out of time, having been asleep for 28 years, they’ve missed all of the recent events that the Master Chief was a part of. This creates a unique setting for new players to the series, as they will be learning about the state of the universe alongside the crew of the Fire.
New and Old Heroes
In addition to the return of the crew, including Captain Cutter and Professor Anders, one of the most compelling new characters being introduced is Isabel, the AI helping them get up to speed. She works both as a bridge for new players by helping introduce the Halo universe as well as the crew of the Spirit of Fire; after all, they have three decades’ worth of conflict and new technology to absorb. It also opens some new ways to explore storytelling in how AIs work in the larger Halo universe.
“A chance to get deeper on how AIs work in our galaxy, the kind of roles they can play, how Isabel is or isn’t related to Cortana, these are all interesting questions,” explains Kevin Grace, Narrative Design Director for 343. “The hardcore fans will pick up and enjoy, but the new players don’t have to get right away. Hopefully they get curious, but they don’t have to get it right away.”
Isabel isn’t like what we’ve seen before in previous Halo games. She seems more grounded, more human, and not the omnipotent threat that Cortana has evolved into.
“We wanted to create her as a unique character. She’s a person in a universe. She’s got some rough edges. She’s got some flaws. She’s got some strengths that she comes to in course of the story,” says Grace. “She stands right alongside of Cutters, Anders, and everyone else coming back from the first game. She’s a little more like the blue-collar worker. She’s more like a ‘I’m kinda in there with you.'”
She also comes with her own bag of tricks. Namely, she’s a more recent AI construct of the current Halo universe, and she’s capable of helping Spirit of Fire get up to fighting speed by mixing the schematics from the present to the past. This assures the crew of the Fire will have some big guns to bring to the oncoming fight. And they’ll need ’em if they have any hope of defeating the Banished.
Atriox and the Banished
The key, we’re told, to understanding the Banished is to understand the Brutes, hulking fur-covered aliens who have come to be known more for their brawn than their brains. To this point, they have been treated as the Covenant’s “dumb muscle.” Understanding their approach to warfare and power helps to understand where the Banished come from. When the Covenant fell apart, this small group of Brutes were ready to step into that power vacuum.
“You take out an established state and sometimes even worse people come in and make a bigger mess afterwards,” says Grace. “That’s part of the inspiration behind the Banished: what would happen if some even meaner people, some Brutes, moved in and picked up where the Covenant left off?”
The Banished units are what you’d expect when you mix space pirates, Brutes, and other outcasts of the Covenant. They’re a little bit of something familiar mixed with something new, taking to the battlefield in heavily modified vehicles that have layered armor, shaped notches, and claws. Lots of claws. All very distinctive elements that help give every unit its own “Brute Aesthetic” in Halo Wars 2. And leading these Brutes to battle is an enemy unlike we’ve ever seen before in the Halo Universe: Atriox.
“He can completely take you in hand to hand combat, but he doesn’t need to because he’s smarter than you, and he’s outthought you, and chances are you’re probably dead already,” explains Grace as he introduces us to this captivating new villain. “If one of them (Brutes) can elevate above just that physical threat, what could he do in this galaxy? What could he do with these tools of war?”
The inspiration for the creation of Atriox comes from borrowing ideas from many folklore legends, including that of Excalibur, and the “underling rising to power” narrative, to help establish him as a rather complex villain. This seems to be a far cry from the larger universal calamities that we have grown accustomed to in the Halo games.
“We’ve got plans for Atriox. He’s going to be around for a while. We wanted to introduce him in a way that people could understand,” continues Grace. “Maybe even relate to a little bit about how he got to where he is right now. A good villain, a good enemy, is one you can empathize with.”
Creating a New RTS for Everyone
Beyond the extensive campaign, Halo Wars 2 will feature many multiplayer modes, like Deathmatch and Dominion, along with eight unique maps to battle over. But the most compelling new mode of play will be Blitz, a hybrid card-collecting and real-time strategy game.
In this mode, players will create decks of 12 from card packs earned by playing through the Halo Wars 2 campaign, as well as daily challenges. Every leader will have access to this shared pool of cards that complement their specific playstyle. Each leader can have up to three different decks, and each card features a unit that you can deploy on the battlefield in real-time throughout the course of the match. All units carry an energy cost: the more powerful the unit, the more expensive they will be to deploy on the field.
Energy can be earned during a match by collecting energy canisters that are dropped during the action, or by defeating enemies. Then it’s just a matter of strategically deploying a unit that is randomly selected from your pre-made deck. Do you spend your energy on smaller units to build up your forces, or do you elect to save your energy to drop a bunch of Wraiths on the battlefield? Maybe you’d prefer to deploy a fleet of Warthogs to speed around the map and cause havoc? Those are the kinds of choices you’ll have to make when playing Blitz.
“What we wanted to do is make this a non-intimidating mode. It was important that if a player wanted just one deck to pick their favorite units, that should be a viable strategy,” explains Oli Smith, Project Lead on Blitz at Creative Assembly. “We didn’t want to start where, ‘For this map I’ll need this deck, and for this mode I’ll have to have this one.’ A lot of the depth comes into the deck building, so we didn’t want to overwhelm people by having too many other variables.”
There will be two variations of the Blitz mode available to players: Firefight and PvP. Firefight will be a wave-based PVE mode, that can be played solo or with up to two friends, against ever-increasingly difficult enemies with the core objective to survive as long as you can and obtain the highest score possible. PvP will have custom ranked and unranked matches that will be 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 support.
These epic battles will all take place on the tactically balanced map, Providing Grounds, and the overall objective is to fill your team’s meter before time runs out. You do this by capturing the three points of conflict placed strategically on the map. The more zones your team controls, the faster the meter will fill. This also presents a series of unique strategic decisions when it comes to capturing and defending these zones, as you’ll need to decide on which unit cards to burn to help achieve victory.
As the matches progress, the more it became clear that the Halo Wars 2 team has crafted something unique in the RTS space. Could this be the next MOBA?
“We hope people appreciate that Blitz is something we’re really trying to do something new with RTS and bring that forward and really think about,” says Max Szlagor, Design Lead for Blitz on Halo Wars 2. “MOBA’s were an evolution of RTS, but they’ve been around for a while and now it’s time to start thinking what are other really cool things you can do in the RTS space? That’s really the space where Blitz mode fits in.”
Be sure to keep it locked to Xbox Wire as we’ll be sharing more news about Halo Wars 2 in the near feature.