Halo Wars 2 is the first major Xbox One exclusive of 2017, one that is hoping to kick-start a year Microsoft needs to have a lot in store for if it's to overcome the disappointment of Scalebound's recent cancellation.
It's certainly a good place to start. Nobody saw a sequel to 2009's real-time strategy (RTS) Halo spin-off coming when it was announced in 2015, but with Creative Assembly at the helm it has a lot of potential and certainly offers something different in the console space.
At a preview event in London, at which IBTimes UK also went hands-on with the new game, we sat down with Creative Assembly's Creative Director Alistair Hope to discuss how the sequel came about, working with lead Halo studio 343 Industries and Halo Wars 2's new card-based Blitz mode.
IBTimes UK: Halo Wars 2 is a sequel nobody expected, so how did it come about?
Alistair Hope: A sequel to Halo Wars was the number one requested title from fans to 343. I think they'd just been waiting for the right partner, and I guess they found it in Creative Assembly. We have a long history in making RTS games and we're big fans of the Halo universe, especially of the first [Halo Wars] game, which we thought was fantastic and did so many things right. For us, it was a great opportunity, a very exciting opportunity to reboot a beloved series.
What's the story set-up for Halo Wars 2?
Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of the first game. It picks up the story of Captain Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire. They come out of cryo-sleep to discover they're above this strange alien installation called The Ark. When they go down onto The Ark, they discover this group called The Banished – a new faction led by Atriox. Through the course of the game, they learn what The Banished are doing there and why they're there.
I think one of the cool things about the story, the narrative in Halo Wars 2, is if you're new to Halo, if you're not familiar with Halo, then it's really cool how Cutter, who has been obviously asleep and frozen, doesn't know about the events that have happened in the other Halo games, so you get to learn alongside him about the Halo world and Halo universe. Likewise, if you're a fan of Halo, then you're going to see a lot of things that are really familiar and super-cool additions to the Halo universe, so I think it works for both audiences.
With Halo creators Bungie gone and 343 now in charge, that makes Halo Wars 2 343's first game in the series as well as yours. What was their role in the development? Were they just overseeing things from a lore perspective or...
It's been a really fantastic collaboration from day one. As guardians of the lore they've been super helpful. One of the things we wanted was to really expand upon the universe. In Halo Wars 2 we've got a new faction led by Atriox, who's a brand new character I think is quite different to characters that appeared in the Halo universe before. He's not so black and white as I think characters have been previously. We've introduced a whole range of new units to the universe and 343 have been really supportive. When we come to create a new unit it's been this great collaboration from us prototyping it to visualising it with 343 helping us with reference material to increase our understanding of the universe. So, yeah, it's been a natural, really positive collaboration.
Blitz is a big new mode for you guys. Can you first run through exactly what it is?
Blitz is a new approach to RTS. It's a whole new experience. It combines real-time strategy with card-collecting, whereby the player chooses a leader – leaders have specific cards and abilities – and each leader leans into a certain play style. As a player, you build a deck of 12 cards. Each card represents a unit or an ability. Then you go onto the battlefield and are presented with a hand of 4 cards and at any given point you can play a card into the battleground. It's just this really short, five- or six-minute experience that is really dynamic, really exciting, really spectacular to look at.
But also, it kind of replaces the base-building and the tech tree with the cards, so it's really streamlining the experience. At the same time, as you gain experience, you start to see that, actually, you can make some really deep, strategical choices depending on the deck make-up. That just extends even further when you're playing as a team, because you can make decks that are great combinations. You can have a player who builds a deck which is just all very cheap to play units, so they can be really churning out units quickly, whereas their teammate can be the more endgame units, which are more expensive and they can wait for the other player to harvest all the power and then they both can unleash their full force. There are some really interesting combinations and opportunities there.
What inspired the new mode?
It goes back to that desire to make a RTS game for everyone, to provide modes for different types of experiences. We've got Strongholds, which is not about resource management, but about finding your favourite Halo elements and units and just having a big, arcade-style battle, through to Deathmatch, which is the true test of RTS skill. It's about resource management, base-building, long-term strategy, moment-to-moment micromanagement of units and understanding what your opponent's doing and countering that.
Blitz came out of that, as a desire to streamline an RTS experience, to try and shortcut some of the ways that RTS is played and to also take some of the pressure off RTS by building your army offline, prior to going into battle. It was absolutely coming out of that, that same desire.
Halo Wars 2 will release on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs on 21 February. An online beta for Blitz mode begins on 20 January.