With the release of Halo Wars in 2009, Ensemble Studios managed to do something few had done before: create a real-time strategy game that felt at home on a console. The genre, popularized by titles like StarCraft and Ensemble’s own Age of Empires, had long been a stalwart of the PC gaming space. The fast pace and constant micromanagement inherent to RTS games made them ideal for playing with a mouse and keyboard. Halo Wars, meanwhile, managed to largely replicate the core of an RTS game, while making it playable with a comparatively limited Xbox 360 controller.
Later this month we will see the release of Halo Wars 2, a game with even more hurdles to jump than its predecessor. For one, it’s being helmed by a new team — Ensemble was disbanded not long after the release of the original game — with renowned strategy studio Creative Assembly taking control. On top of that, Halo Wars 2 will be multiplatform, launching as an Xbox “Play Anywhere” title available on both Xbox One and Windows 10. Not only does it have to continue the original’s quest to make RTS titles accessible on a console, it also needs to stand up to the often rigorous standards of PC strategy gamers.
“We wanted the experience to translate [across platforms],” explains Clay Jensen, design director at Microsoft’s Halo-focused studio 343 Industries. “We weren’t just making the PC version and the Xbox version. We were making the game.”
For the team at Creative Assembly, having a solid base to build off of helped ease them into making the sequel. The original Halo Wars introduced a novel control scheme that included features like a radial menu to simplify and speed up common tasks like base-building, as well as a simple double tap to select large groups of units. “[Ensemble] did a fantastic job on things that people didn’t really think were possible,” David Nicholson, executive producer at Creative Assembly, explains. “We’ve built upon it and made some tweaks and improvements.” Among other changes, Halo Wars 2 now gives you more fine-grained control when it comes to selecting units, with the D-pad providing a quick way to choose different groups.
The PC version of Halo Wars 2 naturally offers more customization when it comes to controls, as well as a greater array of choices when it comes to the visuals. But according to the developers, the two versions of the game are largely the same otherwise. “With very few exceptions, everything you can do on the PC you can do on console,” says Jensen. Nicholson adds, “The differences between the PC and the Xbox aren’t so worrying as the initial perception may lead you to believe.”
What is different, though, is the perception of players on each platform. One thing that the original Halo Wars did was introduce a new group of people to RTS games. By nature of releasing on a console and being part of a massive franchise like Halo, the game served as an excellent entry point for the often complex and intimidating world of real-time strategy. That’s not the case on PC, where RTS games have been a platform staple since the 1990s. That being the case, Halo Wars 2 is attempting to reach two very different audiences at the same time.
One of the ways the developers have tried to get around this is by introducing a number of modes aimed at different kinds of players. In addition to a robust, CG-laden single-player campaign, Halo Wars 2 also includes a range of multiplayer modes. There are traditional options like competitive deathmatch, with games that can last two hours at high-level play, as well as the all-new Hearthstone-inspired “blitz” mode, with matches that can be completed in under 10 minutes. “Our PC audience tends to have a different kind of appetite for the depth of strategy that they want,” Jensen explains.
Halo Wars 2 is launching eight years after the original, and strategy games have changed a lot in that time. RTS games are no longer the biggest game in town; instead, millions of players have moved on to competitive team-based titles like Dota 2 and League of Legends. Aside from the enduring StarCraft II, which originally launched back in 2010, the majority of RTS games have become comparatively niche.
Halo Wars 2 includes a number of changes designed to appeal to multiple players on different platforms, and its creators are hoping these adjustments will help restore real-time strategy to its former glory. “The RTS genre has morphed into something different,” says Nicholson. “So what we wanted to do was bring back a Halo Wars, but also make it contemporary and fit in with the way that people are playing games today.”
Halo Wars 2 launches February 21st on Xbox One and PC.