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Feature Article

Will Halo Wars 2 Please RTS Fans?

Strategic layers.

The first Halo Wars is an exercise in accessibility. Developer Ensemble Studios set out to make a real-time strategy game for Halo fans, complete with the universe's iconic worlds and a streamlined console control scheme. In that respect, the developer succeeded. But Halo Wars wasn't the deepest title from a strategy standpoint. Its basic rock-paper-scissor structure emphasized spectacle and basic tactics over flanking maneuvers or unit positioning. With Halo Wars 2, though, developer Creative Assembly is trying to expand the franchise's reach.

"This time, we want to make an RTS for everybody," creative lead Alistair Hope said after a demo at E3 2016. "It's absolutely for Halo fans. But if you're into great RTS games, this is for you as well. Wherever you're coming from, there's something here for you."

One of the first notable things about Halo Wars 2 is its presence on PC--its predecessor only ever graced Xbox 360. And after 15 minutes with the sequel on each platform, I can say the addition of PC is welcome. Using a mouse to navigate the game world and a keyboard to form groups between your disparate units is an RTS staple that doesn't make a fluid transition to controllers. Simply having the option is a welcome change to the Halo Wars formula.

Even on Xbox One, though, Halo Wars 2 displays a certain flow. For the purposes of my demo, Creative Assembly gave us infinite resources and unlocked every unit from the outset. While this didn't give me an overarching idea of how the economy will work, or the process it takes to unlock new structures and units, it did show me how Halo Wars 2's armies function at their best: hero units in Mjolnir armor firing Spartan lasers at airborn Covenant Banshees; heavily outfitted Pelicans launching missiles into the alien ranks; and Kodiac tanks pummelling enemy Wraiths from afar.

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The aforementioned vehicles are indicative of the depth Creative Assembly is aiming to bring to the Halo Wars formula. Kodiacs function as mobile artillery batteries--weapons that, up close, have fewer options available should they come under fire. This forces you to plan ahead, finding the best positions atop cliffsides or embankments that give the Kodiacs longer sightlines and fields of view. By using the Kodiac's special ability, you plant them in the ground and prepare them for long-range firing.

Creative Assembly is not only implementing vehicles that change the ebb and flow of skirmishes, but game modes that do the same.

"The joy of an RTS is that decision-making," Hope said. "Finding that style that suits you, the one you take into a game and that you're comfortable with. But there's also the joy of being pulled out of those habits. Being forced to adapt to the map or the situation."

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For the purposes of the demo, Creative Assembly showed Strongholds, a game mode that encourages constant movement and adjustments as you capture, defend, and attack various outposts across the map. As a person who traditionally turtles, Strongholds forced me to build my army quickly, keep it mobile, and not be afraid to attacking the interest of map domination. When the timer runs out, the team with more outposts wins. There's no room for hesitant play.

It remains to be seen how Halo Wars 2 will fare in the long run: how its economy will feed into combat, how the combat will change throughout game modes, and how the game modes will unfold on different maps. But as of now, Halo Wars 2 displays design tweaks that suggest it may be a deeper RTS than its predecessor. Halo Wars is an RTS designed for Halo fans--Halo Wars 2 shows signs of being a nuanced RTS in itself. For more news coming out of E3 2016, stay tuned to this page.

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Mike Mahardy

Editor. Ex-New Yorker. Enthusiast of gin, cilantro, and rock and roll.
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