Halo Wars is an unusual entry in the Microsoft portfolio. It's been Microsoft's attempt to expand the Halo games from the core shooter franchise, while simultaneously introducing console players to the real-time strategy genre.
After the first game launched on Xbox 360, it received some praise for seeming to solve the "how do you replicate RTS controls on console," problem, but only met with limited financial success. (The game was developed by Microsoft subsidiary Ensemble Studios, creator of Age of Empires. Ensemble was disbanded the same year that Halo Wars was released.)
Creative Assembly, creator of the Total War franchise, is now working on a sequel with 343 Industries, the Microsoft subsidiary that's developing the core Halo shooter titles. Halo Wars 2 pits the human characters of the first game against a new faction of alien units led by a powerful Brute named Atriox.
Microsoft has announced a simultaneous release with Windows 10, where the series can return to the RTS genre's keyboard-and-mouse roots. But while the game will be released simultaneously on RTS-friendly PCs as well as Xbox One consoles, 343 and Creative Assembly say that their central goal is still very much about introducing new players to the strategy genre, regardless of platform. They believe that their multiplayer modes may be the way to meet that challenge.
Creative Assembly's Alistair Hope, creative director on Halo Wars 2, is a big fan of Ensemble's controller scheme for the first Halo Wars. They intend to maintain it in the sequel. "'Real time strategy' on console is a little unusual, but I think the original control scheme did a really good job," he says. "I think what we're trying to do is just enhance that, build on top of it, and make it as intuitive as possible."
If that control scheme was so strong, why do strategy games on console still have a poor reputation? Hope carefully identifies the problem as a perception issue "because RTS on console has had a bit of a rocky path in the past, where developers tried to mimic that kind of point and drag interface of mouse and keyboard."
So for the Halo Wars team, that means their biggest challenge to releasing the game is essentially introducing a whole new audience of players to the game, while still promising a complex strategy experience for veteran players.
343 and Creative Assembly have different takes on how they will approach this. In a later demo with 343's head of strategy games Dan Ayoub, he explained that the free open beta launched during E3 was deliberately designed with different multiplayer gameplay modes that will help introduce console players to real-time strategy game mechanics. "When we look at all the gameplay modes, we think of them as a continuum," says Ayoub.
"We've got everything from your hardcore real-time strategy mode, which is what you can expect if you've been playing real-time strategy games for years, all the way over to the other extreme with a mode called ‘Blitz,'" he says.
That ace remains up his sleeve for the moment--a PR rep jumped in before Ayoub could go on with his description of Blitz. But further conversation with Ayoub revealed a possible hint. He says they've absolutely been paying attention to MOBA game designs, which have long eschewed ]resource management in favor of focusing on individual unit combat. "I think they've done a great job of making strategy games really approachable," he says. "We absolutely were very highly influenced by MOBAs as we were creating these new modes."
Within gameplay itself, Hope says one of the ways Creative Assembly is trying to ease Halo Wars 2's onboarding process is to expand the functionality of the two armies' leaders. In the first Halo Wars, different leader units had a range of different abilities for the 2 factions that could drive a player's overall strategy. Hope says Creative Assembly's goal is to utilize these leaders again for this new purpose. "These figureheads represent a certain playstyle; I think that divides up the skill level for the player."
"They can choose a leader, learn and understand how to effectively use that leader, and feel they have a role they can play on a 3v3 team."
343 and Creative Assembly's claim that this series was one "that the fans really wanted us to bring back," but the continued focus on introducing new players suggests that they hope to make a Halo RTS as much of a mass market phenomenon as its shooter brethren.