Halo Wars is a strategy game based on the legendary Halo universe. Players will command armies of familiar and new UNSC units in its initial encounters against the Covenant, an alien coalition threatening to obliterate mankind. Halo Wars will immerse gamers in an early period of the storied “Halo” universe, allowing them to experience events leading up to the first Halo title for Xbox.
With the guidance of Serina, a spirited artificial intelligence (AI) persona, gamers will direct legions of UNSC soldiers, Warthogs and Scorpions against Covenant Grunts, Elites, Ghosts and Scarabs, each group having its own strengths and uses in battle. Strategic-minded players who react well under pressure will emerge victorious.
WP: In the first couple of levels of the campaign, we saw our first hero unit. Are there multiple hero units in the game? Do you evolve them and their skills? How do you treat the hero units besides just being a story character?
GD: We wanted the story characters to be on the ground as well. One of the things about the cinematics is that they're absolutely awesome, but if you don't continue that into the actual campaign, if you don't continue that onto the events on the ground, then you're not going to feel very attached to those units. Actually, most of the story writing is on the ground, when you're in the gameplay rather than in the cinematics.
But the hero units, making them feel valuable, making them feel extremely integral to actually winning that level is very important. You get to play with more than Sergeant Forge, who has his exceptional Gauss cannon. By himself, he's probably the most powerful person you played with today in the first few scenarios. I don't know if you got to Scenario III, when Anders is on the ground as well. All of a sudden, she's not as powerful in terms of her combat ability, but in terms of her repair ability, she can repair your tanks you have in that scenario. She's integral to be able to win that scenario, so you have to protect her with one hero unit, at the same time as you have to use her to repair the actual vehicles on the ground in order to win the level. It's kind of a yin and yang feeling that you try and get with the actual characters so that they feel like characters in the story and you actually use them that way in the game.
DP: From a skirmish standpoint, we have a slightly different take on the hero system. In the campaign, you end up with getting to know the Spartans very individually, which very naturally belong to the Halo universe too. From a skirmish standpoint, the Spartans are a little more nameless, kind of like a group of Spartans that you get to have as the UNSC.
The Covenant, on the other hand — we can finally talk about this — have some of the coolest units in the game, with their three leaders. We can talk about two of them today, the Arbiter and the Prophet of Regret. When you play as the Covenant in skirmish, those guys are actually on the ground. The Covenant leaders are the individual best units from a combat standpoint. The Covenant civilization is sort of this charismatic, religious zealot leading these slightly inferior, more peon units. Pound for pound, the Covenant units are generally worse than the UNSC, but then they have this überleader on top, so the Arbiter can be on the ground, and he rips through guys like nobody's business and it takes two or three Spartans to kind of counter him.
He has this really good leader ability called Rage, which zooms the camera in and you flick the sticks around and he jumps around the screen doing cool fatality moves in kind of bullet time. It's not something I think people have seen in a strategy game before and is actually a lot of fun.
WP: What are some of the differences between campaign and skirmish? Along those lines, how do you handle base-building in skirmish mode? I noticed in campaign mode, you seem to be restricted to specific spots to build your base. Is skirmish a little more open-ended?
DP: A lot of the skirmish gameplay — probably the closest game it relates to, for readers, is Age of Mythology — we have fixed base locations in that game, and we do in this game too. What we didn't want in a console strategy game was a lot of scrolling around, so we have a really great base hotkey. You press left on the d-pad, and it cycles you between all your bases. We wanted that base experience to be pretty concentrated, and the idea of scrolling around to find the last building that the enemy had built just wasn't what we wanted that experience to be. We wanted that experience to be an epic moment where you have the last base and you've got all your production there, and then they take out the center building and the entire structure blows up. That's a great way to end the game. Hunting down the last three villagers or the last barracks, that's not what we wanted in a console game. We wanted to build to a crescendo and have that great pace, and we thought that the fixed base locations, in addition to making the map a little bit easier to navigate, helps with that little role-play structure. Plus it defines controls and all the other strategy game mechanics that are important there.
From a skirmish standpoint, probably the biggest difference between the skirmish game and the campaign game is that in the campaign, you play as UNSC. Graeme has written a great story for that, and we wanted to focus all the effort on telling a great UNSC, save-the-galaxy story. You know, what Halo fans would expect.
In skirmish, the UNSC and the Covenant are very equally matched. They are very different in how they play. We talked about Spartans versus Covenant leaders. The leader power system is different for the USNC in skirmish. Each leader has five to six individual powers that they can use, and they bring one special one. Captain Cutter has Map Blast, Sergeant Forge has Carpet Bomb, Professor Anders has the Cryo-bomb.
Then the Covenant have probably the three strongest leader powers in the game, but then that's the only power they have. They have a different way they tech up, they have a different way that they build out their units and things like that in a cool, kind of hotdog mechanic — if you want to get really detailed, then we can talk about it.
The skirmish gameplay is much more PvP-focused, and we definitely have a lot of balance granted there. The campaign structure — we play fast and loose with the rules — we kind of take the three UNSC skirmish leaders and blend them into one experience so there will be some places where you have map blast and carpet bomb in the campaign. That doesn't happen in a skirmish game because we need something that's a little bit more strategic, and one of the best things about strategy games that we wanted to bring to the console —
If we played Halo 3 deathmatch and you beat me, we'd play again and I have to do better. I have to be faster, I have to know the level a little bit better. In a strategy game, though, if I lose, I have a lot of different, interesting choices, kind of those "water cooler" moments that we always talk about. We can meet up and talk about it afterwards and say, "I would have beat you if I had just build the supply pad just 10 seconds earlier," and there's that aspect of gaming that we think is really exciting to bring to consoles. The skirmish is really built around that. It's built around a lot of, as Graeme mentioned, the yin and yang and kind of the standard strategy game rock-paper-scissors relationships. The Covenant leader powers are the strongest thing in the game, but the USNC has counters to that. It's built around that kind of back-and-forth gameplay.
WP: Given that 20 years isn't a whole lot of time and there were some older characters in the original Halo, do we see any crossover? Are there any younger versions of known characters who make cameos in Halo Wars?
GD: No, there's no crossover at all with characters from the first-person shooters. You'll hear the odd name or so in the campaign and little bits of, "Ooh, maybe!" but one of the differences between the Halo shooters and the Halo strategy game is that the shooters are all about Master Chief, and Master Chief is a single character that you play throughout that game, and he's a super army.
With Halo Wars, because it's a different view, a different perspective on the Halo universe from about 40 feet up in the air, you get to play with more than groups of armies. We wanted it to be about a group of characters, so the crew members aboard the Spirit of Fire are our central characters. That's the story that we wanted to tell.
WP: Gears of War recently did linked Achievements if you had the original game. Is there anything similar to that for people who've gone through Halo 3 to unlock anything special in Halo Wars?
DP: We looked at that. That was a casualty of the development schedule, so we didn't quite get there. It's a little bit difficult to talk about what the future of Halo Wars is, given what's going on with Ensemble, but we've left a few plans in there for Halo Wars 2.
WP: You've touched on the final question. Given what's been announced with Ensemble, what is the future for the team and you guys specifically? After Halo Wars, are you planning to do your own thing? Are you going to pop over to Microsoft?
DP: Microsoft made a decision, and I personally maybe wouldn't have made that one. After they told us that they were going to close the studio, we looked at lots of ways that we could try to keep as many people together as a group as we could, and there is at least one studio that's formed from a lot of the people from Ensemble. That studio will certainly be supporting Halo Wars. We do have a contract with Microsoft to support that. We didn't want to leave Halo Wars in a lurch. We've worked long and hard on this game, and we love it. After the closure was announced, almost the entire studio — and I think this is pretty unheard-of in the game industry — has stuck around to finish the game. I think we've had three people out of about 105 leave. That's probably the best thing w can say about the dedication and love we have for this game. It's been rougher, no doubt, to ask people to crunch their ass off and put their heart and soul into this game, knowing that as soon as we're done, we don't have a job. To everybody's individual credit, they busted ass and have really done something that they're going to be proud of. We wanted to make Halo Wars really great, and if we show Microsoft that they shouldn't have closed Ensemble, then so be it.
We do have, as I said, at least one studio that was formed out of the ashes of Ensemble. Ensemble has done a lot of great stuff. I think anybody who has worked at Ensemble has a great resume and, as far as I know, no one has had a hard time getting interviews. Microsoft is good, the severance packages are great. We've negotiated a great package for the group at Ensemble, and they're helping out with outplacement and things that like. It's a sad time. I've been at Ensemble for almost 13 years, and we've got just a lot of memories and love built up there that kind of got taken away.
It's bittersweet to finish the game, but we're excited that Halo Wars is going to be great. It's turned out really well, and the new company will carry support forward. As for Halo Wars 2, we're still — well, Microsoft has to figure that out. The best thing is — unsurprising to me, loving Ensemble as much as I do — that so many people have stuck around to finish the game. It says great things about the game but also greater things about how important Ensemble has been in people's lives and how much they care about finishing on a strong note.
WP: Is there anything about the game or Ensemble that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
GD: No, I think you got it all, so we're good!
“Halo Wars, rated “T” for Teen, will be available in Japan and Asia Pacific on Feb. 26, 2009, EMEA on Feb. 27, 2009, and Americas (US, Canada, Mexico and South America) on March 3, 2009
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