Can Halo Wars 2 revitalize real-time strategy?
Questions like that seemingly always pop up when discussing the formerly vibrant genre. Fans will argue hotly that the narrative around their preferred genre is inaccurate, but it's hard to ignore the fact that DOTA 2 and League of Legends are filling stadiums while StarCraft 2 and its ilk are quietly falling away.
Even Halo Wars 2 executive producer David Nicholson admits that the genre's heyday was "a number of years ago," though he also points out that games like Total War are still doing just fine. "Things go in phases, don't they? Fashions and cycles. There were some very strong games out there, and maybe they went too hardcore. Maybe they were servicing the fans who loved them, and they wanted more complexity and they went too niche."
In such an environment, it's unfair to expect any one game to "save" a genre, but Halo Wars 2, which comes out on Xbox One and PC on February 21, nevertheless represents an interesting opportunity. Given the relative security of having a built-in fanbase, Creative Assembly is using Halo Wars to throw as many takes on RTS at the wall as possible to see what sticks.
In that way, Halo Wars 2 is something of a testbed for the future of the genre. Rather than trying to impose a particular vision on their game, like trying to turn it into an eSport, they are treating it as more of an experiment. The result might not "save" real-time strategy, but it could point the way forward for an otherwise declining genre.
Another New Take on Base-Building
Every real-time strategy developer has a way to fix base-building. It's the issue du jour for the genre. Even StarCraft II took a crack at it by dramatically speeding things up with Legacy of the Void.
"I think there still are people who like it because it's the foundation of your strategic choice, but I think it's also not as dynamic as it could be," Nicholson told me when I asked why base building is so controversial. "What we're seeing more and more is that people want to get into the action, they want to have the units fighting each other. The base is something I have to look after, but the action is where the units are. It's more about instaneous response to your actions. You don't necessarily get that with a base."
At the moment, conventional wisdom holds that base building and resource gathering are too slow and tedious. But it hasn't been easy to simply cut out, as the core of the strategy often revolves around base construction. Winning a match in StarCraft, for example, is as much about expanding at the right moment as it is properly micromanaging your forces.
Knowing this, Creative Assembly has tried to split the difference by streamlining the base-building in some cases, and cutting it out entirely in others. The most radical example of this approach is Blitz, which swaps traditional bases for cards that grant you a certain number of units. Energy is earned by killing certain enemies, which can in turn be spent on additional card draws. Constructing an effective army requires you to effectively balance which cards you draw while also managing your units on the field.
Deathmatch, for it part, is real-time strategy as we've always known it, featuring building, expansion, and combat phases. The resource gathering is fairly passive, but knowing when to expand and when to upgrade your units is critical. Somewhere in the middle of these two modes sits Strongholds, which lets you build an unlimited number of units up to a certain population cap.
Nicholson seems particularly fond of Strongholds, "The idea behind Strongholds is that the complexity behind RTS is that you're spinning multiple plates. Let's take some of those plates away so you don't have to worry about them, and we thought that would instantly make it easier, more accessible. And while we didn't want to dumb it down, we thought it would be a good way to introduce people to the game. But what we found was that if you don't know what you're doing in Strongholds and you're matched up against someone who does, then they can absolutely roll you over. So there is that depth-you see two very talented RTS players matched up in Strongholds and it comes down to the last few seconds with two or three points changing hands so quickly. And I would love to see where that goes when people get really good at it."
If Strongholds or Blitz end up catching on in any significant way, it will say a lot about where real-time strategy will end up going in the future. Strongholds in particular is promising because it still has an element of unit-building to it-army composition is a big part of the mode's strategy-but also moves incredibly quickly. Most Strongholds matches are finished in fewer than 15 minutes.
On the flipside, there's a danger to trying to be too MOBA- like. Real-time strategy has its own identity, and plenty of fans like base-building just fine. The trick is presenting it in a way that feels fresh and modern. The game that manages to do so is apt to have a lot to say about how the genre looks going forward.
The Key Word is Accessibility
Like the fighting game genre, real-time strategy has come to be known as hardcore. High-level StarCraft players are like gods, their APM scores are seen as almost magical. Games are fun to watch, but they carry with them the sense that the skill required to enjoy them is beyond that of the average player.
Halo Wars 2 is different, though. As one of the only successful RTS games on console, it has a reputation for being more accessible than most. It also brings with it a built-in base of existing Halo fans, most of whom play on the Xbox.
Mostly, Nicholson says, that means putting a lot of emphasis on the source material. "We need to service [Halo fans] with a fantastic story, really interesting characters, a broad range of units, and beautiful environments. But we also need to appeal to people who might not spend a lot of time in the Halo universe, but are fans of RTS, and introduce them to Halo."
The net effect is that the key word for Halo Wars 2 is accessibility. The danger of that is Halo Wars 2 will end up being too shallow and thus not having any staying power. But the flipside is that Halo Wars 2 has the potential to be a Hearthstone-like crossover game that manages to appeal to everyone.
All of this goes back to which modes end up working for Halo Wars 2, if any. But in any case, Halo Wars 2 is in the unique position to overcome real-time strategy's hardcore reputation-something that even StarCraft II has struggled to do of late. It could certainly be a breath of fresh air for a genre at pains to remain relevant.
Halo Wars 2 has already gone through multiple betas, and the buzz around it has generally been fairly strong, if a tad muted. Its ultimate longevity will depend greatly on whether it can match its accessibility with depth, and whether the PC version can match the performance of the console version. If it does those things, and earns positive word-of-mouth, it will have a high ceiling among competitive gamers. It may even gain a modest eSports following.
With Halo Wars 2 being out on February 21, we'll know more soon; but regardless of how well it does, it does speak to a genre at a crossroads. In any case, Jaz has been playing Halo Wars 2 for review, so make sure to check out his review-in-progress, and we'll have more coverage for you next week.