At 343 Industries’ final hands-on event with Halo Wars 2 before the game's launch on February 21, we had our last opportunity to play both the campaign and new multiplayer modes, Strongholds and Blitz. In addition, we had the chance to sit down with Creative Assembly’s Executive Producer, David Nicholson, to discuss player expectations and highlights from its development.
GameSpot: As Halo Wars 2 is quickly approaching its February 21 release date, we’d love to chat about what players can expect from the game. To begin, what separates Halo Wars 2 from other popular RTS games?
David Nicholson: Several things separate it. One of the things that we want to focus on is this is an RTS for everyone, so it needs to appeal to people who've not played RTS in the past. Halo brings a bucket load, fantastic story, fantastic environments, really vivid characters, great units to play with, but it also brings people who are Halo fans who have not played an RTS before. What we've had to focus on is providing the depth for people who love RTS. There's still people playing the original Halo Wars. There are, I can't share any numbers, but there are large, significant hours still played every week, every month on Halo Wars.
There are a bunch of RTS fans who want to play a really cool, solid RTS, but there are also people who played Halo and said, “Hey, I've not played an RTS. They're a bit difficult, aren't they? I've bounced off a couple in the past.” What we wanted to do is say, “No, RTS are actually really good fun. Let's just take you by the hand and guide you through it.”
Deathmatch is for those hardcore RTS fans, “Right. This is what I want to do. I know exactly what I want to do with this game.” Deathmatch is spinning lots and lots of different plates. What happens if we take a couple of those plates away from you, for example you don't need to worry about resources? Don't worry, we've got that covered for you. You'll have enough resources to do what you want to do. Then it becomes about, “Okay, what units am I going to deploy and when am I going to deploy them?” Then take that to its extreme in Blitz, where you're not worrying about base, you're not really worried about resources. You're just worrying about energy. All of the strategic choice of what units and what combinations you can create, we take out of the combative arena. Then you say, “Okay, I'm building this deck, I'm putting my strategy together on my time, and then I'm deploying the tactics in real time.”
I think that's what people can kind of expect. They can expect a variety of different modes. If you're new to RTS, it's going to be really exciting and engaging with you, but if you've been playing RTS for years and years, then you're going to be satisfied with the depth that we've got.
Going off that answer, for new players to the series who will not have access to a PC and only a console, what makes this the standout RTS for console?
I think controls. What we've tried to do, and what we feel Creative Assembly is exceptionally good at and proud of, is understanding what makes an RTS fun. We've tried to boil that down to its core elements and make sure all of that is accessible on a console controller. Ensemble did a fantastic job with the original, arguably the best RTS on a console, and I think a lot of that came from their understanding of RTS and how they implemented the controls. We've maintained and reinforced a lot of those core controls but added things like control groups on the D-pad. The original controls allowed you to do what you wanted to do, but we saw a lot of people selecting “all units”, thus creating a long pinball of death going around the map. Which is good, but more advanced players with maybe slightly higher dexterity could micromanage the units around.
What we wanted to do was make that easily accessible to everybody. It's now fairly intuitive to be able to assign the groups, add units to them, but also say, “Right, okay. I want all my air units going over here,” or, “I want to combine forces here,” or, “Actually, I don't want my, Scorpions and my Hornets in the same group because then the Hornets are slowed down by the Scorpions. I want them in two different groups so the Hornets go out there quickly, and then the Scorpions will come over at their own pace and just devastate when they arrive."
As the developer, what are you most excited for players to experience? Is it a specific feature or specific mode? What is something that you're really excited for the public to get their hands on?
We're really excited about the game as a whole, but also really excited about how it moves the Halo story forward. We're really excited about getting RTS back out there with such a strong franchise. There are loads of parts to the game that we're really pleased with, but I think all of us are really excited about Blitz Mode and its innovation. It's not been done before and it's introducing a way to combine the immediate accessibility and intuition available with RTS. Players can say, “Okay, I've got this unit card, I can save it, or I can deploy it there.” It's fantastic. At events like today’s, you watch people play and you go, “Oh my god, that was fantastic. I've never pictured RTS like that before.” The ability to, as I said, take that strategic element to your own time and then have a tactical element out there on the battlefield is fantastic.
How would you respond to players who fear that the purchasable cards and decks create a pay-to-play environment in Blitz Mode?
We're really excited about the game as a whole, but also really excited about how it moves the Halo story forward.
I don't think it does. We've got the ability for players to earn cards throughout the game. Play through the campaign and we'll reward your progress with card packs. You can complete the daily challenges, we'll give you cards packs. You can complete weekly challenges and we'll give you card packs. By playing the game, you can earn a whole chunk of card packs and you can really satisfy your desires to build compelling decks from that. But some people don't have the time to continue playing that many matches, but they really want to stay competitive, so there is that opportunity to pop over to the store where you can buy some more card packs. We've worked very, very hard on the leveling and the balancing to make sure that you can earn the cards in the game and you'll still remain very competitive in the matches.
As a player yourself, and your team as a whole, what is everybody most excited to play themselves?
We've built a team, quite intentionally, consisting of mixed gamers. I have a bunch of guys on the team who play nothing but Deathmatch. That's proper RTS, “I'm only really good at an RTS if I can beat you at Deathmatch.” And then we've got other people, for instance some of our animators, who make some fantastic animations, but haven’t really played a whole bunch of RTS in the past. They're getting absolutely addicted to Blitz Mode because it's, “Okay, I can understand this and I can get my seven to eight minute fix and then I can come back after thinking about it more.” I think as a team we're just excited about getting a game out, getting Halo onto PC and getting Halo fans into RTS.
What was the most rewarding part of the whole development process for Halo Wars 2?
I think one of the most rewarding, sort of fist pump moments, was when we developed the paper ideas for Blitz. We had played very rapid prototypes by throwing stuff together in our existing code and existing tools to create, what do they call it? “Pre-selected deployment groups”. We would do that, then we'd try a game, and then we'd say, “Okay. The developers have to go here and edit the XML and change this until I can have a deck.” The minute the deck management became reality, so I could play a match and then immediately go back and say, “Right, okay. Drop that, swap that out. Get rid of that Wolverine and bring in some Hellbringers or a Flame Warthog. I can edit that and play again.” That moment was, “Do you know what? Those original paper ideas, we thought it was going to work, but now actually wow, yeah. It really does!” That was a bit of a risk but it was also quite innovative. The beta and the game will tell us whether or not it resonates with players, but we think we're doing it right. And that is how our ideas evolved into what you see now as Blitz.