Of all the announcements Microsoft could have made at Gamescom earlier this week, few would have expected a sequel to Halo Wars - the enjoyable but ultimately forgettable real-time strategy game that served as Ensemble's final testament.
The newly-announced sequel, which is being developed by Total War's Creative Assembly in conjunction with Halo caretaker 343 Industries, is arriving in a period in which real-time strategy is decidedly on the wane. Once the darling of PC gaming, it has been largely replaced by MOBAs like League of Legends. Its eSports precence has declined precipitously, though Blizzard is still making noises about changing that with Legacy of the Void, and the games themselves are mostly bereft of new ideas. While real-time strategy still has its fans - I'm one of them - it would be hard to argue that it's still relevant.
Contrast that to 2009, when the original Halo Wars was released. StarCraft still largely owned eSports; and with PC gaming seemingly on the decline - this was a period when the "PC gaming is dying" narrative was still fairly prevalent - getting the genre to work on console was considered an attractive proposition. The fall of 2008 had seen Tom Clancy's Endwar and Command & Conquer Red Alert 3 make major pushes on console, and a port of World of Conflict was expected as well before being killed in early 2009.
With its distinct factions and its pedigree as a console franchise, Halo was a natural fit for the real-time strategy genre. Ensemble Studios, a veteran studio with a catalog that included Age of Empires and Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, was charged with making it happen. With their customarily understated but steady approach, that's just what they did.
Halo Wars was released in 2009 to good reviews and quickly topped a million sales. In their review, Eurogamer's Kieron Gillen wrote, "It lacks a little flair at times, but Ensemble has always excelled with this kind of small-c conservative design. If you look at the recent trend of RTS on consoles - taking in everything from the forthcoming Stormrise by Creative Assembly to Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's EndWar - Ensemble's game is most like the traditional RTS. Tweaks for the format are small, but meaningful, and they mostly work. Anyone who's played PC RTS has had a tendency to look on console incarnations as though it's sex with a couple of condoms on, but Ensemble's got it down to one extra-thick Durex: awkward, but still fun."
Despite being comparatively well-received, Ensemble's fate was sealed even before the release of Halo Wars. The studio was disbanded immediately afterward, their usefulness to Microsoft at an end. Halo Wars, for its part, became a footnote in the history of the series.
In the ensuing years, StarCraft II finally arrived, Command & Conquer died an agonizing death, and MOBAs exploded into relevance. Amid the rise of League of Legends and DotA 2, the conventional wisdom became that real-time strategy was a dinosaur. It was too specialized, too hard to pick up, and too slow-paced (funny given that the average StarCraft match takes about half as long to complete as one in League of Legends). The genre's problems were compounded by the criticism leveled against StarCraft II by top players, many of whom drifted away to play League of Legends (or in many instances, high stakes poker).
Into this drastically reconfigured landscape comes Halo Wars 2, the sequel few people expected or really even seemed to want. If the goal of Halo Wars was to expand the franchise and make real-time strategy viable on console, the goal of Halo Wars 2 is to offer Windows 10 another selling point for gamers. It will also be available on Xbox One - and it will certainly be pumped up by Microsoft's marketing muscle - but this time Halo Wars will be more of a PC game than a console game.
It enters on a reasonably solid footing. Ensemble didn't bring any particularly new and interesting ideas to Halo Wars - the base building and resource gathering mechanics were firmly entrenched in real-time strategy's golden era - but they did a competent job of translating the UNSC and the Convenant to the top-down strategy perspective. They were also able to craft a decent interface for console, pairing radial menus with a host of shortcuts. Where it suffered was in its comparative lack of depth and its paltry campaign, which focused on the UNSC to the exclusion of the Covenant (the Convenant campaign was reportedly cut). Without a particularly strong multiplayer mode to fall back upon, Halo Wars soon fell by the wayside. Nevertheless, the foundation is strong enough that Creative Assembly and 343 Industries will have something to work with for their sequel.
Even in that light, though, it's still pretty weird to see a sequel to Halo Wars after all these years. Six years isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, but in the context of games today, it might as well be ancient history. Nevertheless, the natural law of franchises dictates that any mildly profitable idea must be recycled into oblivion, even if it was conceived and executed in what was basically a different era for gaming.
Ultimately, it's hard to imagine Halo Wars 2 getting the same amount of attention as the original, which was developed by a historically great RTS studio at a time when both Halo and real-time strategy were much more popular. But for better or worse, it exists. We'll just have to see how it goes.