Since the conclusion of the original Halo Wars seven years ago, we’ve followed the Master Chief on his numerous adventures, relived the harrowing tale of Noble Team, witnessed the rise of the Prometheans and watched Cortana take on a new mantle. All the while the UNSC Spirit of Fire and her crew remained both literally and figuratively in stasis.
Now, after years of planning, development and community support, we’ll soon rejoin that fabled crew on their next adventure in Halo Wars 2. To learn more about the game’s journey from concept to near-release, we spoke with members of the team at 343 Industries and Creative Assembly about the new villain Atriox, the innovative Blitz game mode and how honest (and critical) feedback has helped keep the team on target.
Do it Right
“There were a number of factors involved with the time it took us to get to Halo Wars 2,” explains Dan Ayoub, Studio Head of Strategy Games Development at 343 Industries. “Some of it was a capacity question at 343; we were focusing on building out the studio and wanted to get to it, but only when we had the ability to do it right.”
“Doing it right” was at the core of bringing Halo Wars 2 to life, and part of that was finding a great partner to help with 343’s creative vision. In addition, the Halo community itself was a driving force to remind the team that significant interest remained to see a sequel, helping to move the needle and green light development of the game.
“Ultimately, it’s this fan investment that made the game happen,” explains Ayoub. “With the decision made to move forward, we had to find the right partner. My mind immediately went to Creative Assembly as I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time, and their games are just great.”
Creative Assembly have for years been creating not only some amazing and critically-acclaimed strategy games as part of their Total War series, most-recently Total War: Warhammer, but also injecting new life into the survival horror genre with the well-received Alien: Isolation in 2014.
“When we all sat down together, it was clear very quickly that there was a chemistry between the teams and a shared desire to not only make a great Halo RTS, but to innovate in how we could make RTS more accessible while still having a ‘real’ RTS,” says Ayoub.
343 and Creative Assembly didn’t want to just create another strategy game, but wanted to build one that would capture the excitement, fun, and competitiveness of Halo through the RTS genre. It was agreed that the Halo franchise would help as a jumping on point for a lot of gamers, like those who have loved the adventures of the Master Chief. “What we want them to do is also love RTS,” explains David Nicholson, Executive Producer on Halo Wars 2 for Creative Assembly.
“So, there was a shared passion to say that, okay, we know how to build RTS games and we know what’s at the core of the enjoyment of RTS, and we make RTS games for people who love RTS games,” continues Nicholson. “Let’s take on the challenge together of building RTS games for people who may not know yet they love RTS games.”
One way that 343 and Creative Assembly have tackled that challenge is through the multiplayer modes that will launch with Halo Wars 2, all designed to service not only the hardcore RTS players, but those coming in fresh to the genre.
“And that’s what we’ve tried to do, to deconstruct that in the different modes that we’ve got,” explains Nicholson. “Deathmatch (mode) is the classic traditional RTS player who wants to worry about the economy, worry about the build queue, build a base, go out and venture across the battlefields… all the way through to Blitz, where you don’t have to worry about that (resources) but you’re deploying units and you’re learning about how to counter attack.”
The creation of Blitz, a hybrid card-collecting game mixed with RTS play, is one of the most-original ideas to appear in the RTS space in years. The mode itself has the potential to introduce a new element of competitive multiplayer for not only Halo Wars 2, but other strategy games as well.
“We had this crazy ambition that the teams believed passionately in,” says Ayoub. “Get people who might be intimidated by RTS to play, while making the mode challenging enough that core RTS players would embrace it as well. That’s a hard thing to do, and it was by no means a straight line for us.”
Throughout the refining process for Blitz, the team remained committed to scoping out how Blitz could work for all types of gamers, and remained self-critical of their work to ensure it was always coming back to answering three key questions.
“We had a number of failures and false starts before we settled on how it is today,” continues Ayoub. “In every iteration we all sat down and asked ourselves, ‘Is this accomplishing the goal?’ ‘Is it fun enough?’ ‘Can we do better?’ When we got to what we have today, we all just looked at each other and knew this was it.”
A Fantastic Mix of Old and New
Beyond the Blitz game mode, a number of familiar and returning unit types will be available to play throughout the campaign as well as multiplayer. Spartans, Warthogs and Scorpion tanks as well as new units who are part of Atriox’s Banished will be playable allowing players to “express their strategy, creativity, and imagination on an epic battlefield,” says Alistair Hope, Creative Director for Creative Assembly.
“One of the challenges of design is to take the countless number of ideas and run with those which work best towards the game’s goals,” explains Hope. “So for us on Halo Wars 2, the team has worked hard to arrive at a fantastic mix of old and new.”
Part of that “old” will be the many returning characters from the first game, not to mention the existing framework and familiarity of the Halo franchise itself, helping Halo Wars 2 hit the ground running with an established identity. There’s that intrinsic familiarity in seeing Warthogs bounce across sand dunes and the sound of a marine’s assault rifle; all staples of the next great Halo RTS are here, thanks in large part to the original game establishing itself as a leader in console RTS.
“I think Halo Wars did the best job yet of taking those RTS controls and making them feel great on a controller,” explains Ayoub. “With that, we started from there and built upon it, taking into account how RTS has changed and doing things to make core RTS actions (like grouping) easy to do. We had a solid base to work from, and I feel like we improved them considerably.”
Beyond simply being able to control your units, it’s the feeling of being in battle — a Halo battle — where Halo Wars 2 hopes to establish its own identify in today’s crowded real-time strategy space.
“I think the biggest thing we did to elevate the genre is to make the genre faster, more explosive, and more accessible,” explains Ayoub. “I say (a lot) we wanted to build an Action RTS, and that means huge explosions, great audio and graphics, and really making you feel like you’re controlling these futuristic armies with incredible power.”
A Story to Tell
While the innovations in multiplayer and honoring a legacy of a great RTS game are great to have in a sequel of this magnitude, it’s the introduction of Atriox as the principle villain in Halo Wars 2 where the game looks to make its mark with gamers and within the ever-growing Halo lore.
“One of the things I’m personally most excited about with the game is the story we are telling, and Atriox is a big part of that,” says Ayoub. “Atriox is entirely new, and was conceived by the Halo Wars 2 team specifically for the game. I was excited to create a villain with depth, and I think we nailed it with Atriox. He isn’t a classic villain. He has a story and depth, and believes he is doing the right thing. Combine this with his sheer power and his cunning, and it makes him a terribly dangerous adversary for the Spirit of Fire, and the galaxy as a whole.”
Not only will Halo Wars 2 usher in the arrival of a new and compelling threat to the Halo universe, along with its mix of explosive real-time strategy play and epic campaign storyline, but it will also be the first Halo game to simultaneously ship for Xbox One and Windows 10, where a single purchase provides you the game on both platforms.
“I’m really excited to be an Xbox Play Anywhere title,” says Ayoub. “It’s great for gamers — you get both console and PC for a single purchase. Your progress actually moves between platforms with you as well, so it’s a great way to keep your Halo Wars 2 progress going regardless of where you are!”
As 343 Industries and Creative Assembly complete development of Halo Wars 2 in these final months, it’s clear the team has had a singular focus and goal they’re hoping to achieve and we can’t wait to rejoin the crew of the Spirit of Fire on this next great adventure in the Halo universe. To stay up to date on the latest news about Halo Wars 2 and all things Xbox, stay tuned to Xbox Wire.