Being the best selling console RTS is a bit like being the best slugger in a recreational softball league. The landmark games in the Real Time Strategy genre have always been exclusive to the PC because it’s easier to micromanage troops with a mouse and keyboard than a controller.
Halo Wars 2 is looking to shed those qualifiers. The original Halo Wars was an Xbox 360 exclusive, and while it was a hit – it remains the most successful console RTS of all time – developer 343 Industries has bigger ambitions for the sequel. Halo Wars 2 will debut for both the Xbox One and the PC, and 343 has partnered with Creative Assembly, the creators of the Total War franchise, to ensure that the game will perform on both platforms. Halo Wars 2 is not supposed to be ‘good for a console RTS.’ 343 wants to make a game that can rival the best the genre has to offer, with tight mechanics, a robust campaign, and enough multiplayer features to attract players across the RTS spectrum.
Whether or not the game lives up to that promise remains to be seen. However, I have no reason to doubt the studio’s commitment to the genre after speaking with Dan Ayoub, the Studio Head at 343 Industries, during Microsoft’s recent X16 media event in Toronto.
“The Total War: Warhammer game had this special edition box. We’re working with Creative Assembly, so they sent one over to me,” said Ayoub, when asked about his Dork Shelf. “It has this awesome Viking drinking horn and this embossed box that opens up, and I proudly have that up right now.”
While the drinking horn sounds cool, the takeaway is that Ayoub is better versed in the genre than I am, which is appropriate. Though I tried the Halo Wars 2 demo at X16, I’ve never been able to hold my own in competitive RTS matches. My troops were slaughtered while I was stumbling through the basics so I can’t speak to the game’s more intricate mechanics.
Having said that, I liked almost everything I saw during the demo and the brief presentation that followed. The game is easy enough to play (my struggles were due to lack of familiarity), and I appreciate the fact that the game’s multiplayer modes can be played against AI opponents, which means I’d be able to enjoy the game without having to subject myself to the humiliation of online multiplayer.
“Going online and playing against others is intimidating regardless of the genre,” agreed Ayoub, adding that Halo Wars 2 also allows for co-op play. “No one’s going to give you a hard time. No one’s going to stomp you. It’s just fun to play with friends.”
The campaign, meanwhile, offers plenty of intrigue for fans of the Halo franchise. Halo Wars 2 is set shortly after the events of Halo 5 and 28 years after the first Halo Wars. The catch is that Halo Wars concluded with the Spirit of Fire entering cryosleep, which means that the crew of the ship slept through three decades of plot development.
“When they come out of cryosleep, the crew is not able to contact the UNSC, so they’re in a bit of a vacuum,” said Ayoub, referencing the United Nations Space Command, the standing army of the Halo universe. “They have no idea that the Covenant is not even a thing at this point. They have no clue what happened in the rest of the war.”
That presented unique challenges for the game’s writers. The characters in Halo Wars 2 –including Captain James Cutter, the ostensible protagonist – are less informed than the game’s fans. That could make for an anti-climatic narrative if the Spirit of Fire had to fight the Covenant (again). 343 needed to come up with a story that would offer meaningful stakes to the characters without forcing fans to suffer through lot of tedious exposition.
Halo Wars 2 accomplishes that goal with the introduction of a new threat that requires immediate attention. The game kicks off when the Spirit of Fire awakens near the Ark, a massive installation with the power to level civilizations. After responding to a distress signal, the crew discovers that the Ark is in the hands of the Banished, a rogue faction under the command of an exiled Brute named Atriox that necessitates Cutter’s intervention.
“The Spartans have always been able to handle everything,” said Ayoub. “This isn’t the kind of enemy that Spartans will take care of because we’ve got our supermen. It’s going to take a more cunning hero. In no world would Cutter have a chance in a physical confrontation against Atriox. If you’ve got a guy who can outfight three Spartans, you need to change your game up.”
Ayoub went on to explain that Atriox was designed to reflect the specific needs of an RTS. His status as a leader implies a high degree of intelligence, and since the villain’s physical strength is so well established, it tells the player that victory will require a coordinated effort more in line with the mechanics of real time strategy. You have to outthink Atriox because you can’t outfight him, and Ayoub believes that the genre – which usually has a more relaxed pace – opens up more nuanced storytelling possibilities.
“If you’ve got a villain in a shooter, eventually you’ve got to fight him, which means you probably need to kill him and then he’s gone. With an RTS you’re fighting Atriox’s armies, so we have a longer runway with which to develop that character,” said Ayoub. “We didn’t want to create a cartoony super villain. The scariest villains are the ones with some substance who believe they’re doing the right thing for their own reasons. That’s Atriox.”
Ayoub also believes that the new villain makes Halo Wars 2 a more accessible entry point for people new to the franchise. That may sound paradoxical given the muddy chronology of the series – Halo Wars 2 is a sequel to a prequel – but Atriox is a reset button, an organic way to bring new players up to speed without slowing the narrative progression for longtime fans.
“It turns into a great onboarding if you’re new to the franchise because these guys probably know about as much as you do,” said Ayoub.
“Halo’s bigger than one story. So much of our time has been focused on Master Chief, but it’s a massive universe. There are plenty of other heroes.”
Halo Wars 2 adds depth to the Halo universe because it shows that Spartans coexist with regular human beings who are equally capable of handling a crisis. The strong world building makes Halo a little more relatable and engaging, and that will be to the game’s benefit when Halo Wars 2 debuts on February 21.