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Halo Wars

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: March 3, 2009 (US), Feb. 27, 2009 (EU)


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'Halo Wars' (X360) Developer Interview Part 1

by Adam Pavlacka on Feb. 22, 2009 @ 6:45 a.m. PST

Halo Wars is a new strategy title that expands on the universe that has made the Halo franchise so beloved and provide gamers with an unparalleled strategy experience.

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: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!

I'm Graeme Devine, and I'm the lead storywriter for Halo Wars. I'm Dave Pottinger, and I'm the lead designer.

WP: Let's start out with the genesis of Halo Wars. Was it something that Ensemble had been talking to Microsoft about? Did Microsoft come to you guys? They have a fairly decent strategy track record, but how did you first get in touch with the Halo universe?

GD: Well actually, we wanted to make a console real-time strategy game, and we spent the first 12 to 18 months of the project just working on getting the controls right, and we actually used the Age of Mythology engine for that. We realized that without controls, there was going to be no game whatsoever, so a lot of the actual control ideas from that — things like the circle menu, things like building — came from that. And the finish line we set for that was when the real hardcore RTS players felt like the game wasn't more difficult to play with the controller than it was with a mouse and keyboard. At that point, we showed it to Microsoft, and that's when Microsoft started talking about Halo, and we went to Bungie and showed them where we were, and things went from there.

WP: In your mind, what makes a console RTS? There have been many attempts, from the original StarCraft 64 to when EA did Aliens vs. Predators: Extinction, and all have tried to replicate the mouse and keyboard experience, some better than others. However, none to date have really mastered the effect. What makes you think that Halo Wars will be the first console RTS game that will be just as good as or better than the RTS experience on a PC?

DP: I think the idea that replicating the mouse and keyboard is not the right way to go. We built this game from the ground up to be a great console game, and we love strategy games. We've been doing them forever; Age of Empires is huge. Our goals were to bring that type of experience to the console, which doesn't necessarily imply bringing over the interface. I don't want to task individual peons to gather trees and things like that on a console game. That's just not what I want to do. I want to go blow stuff up and have fun.

We've streamlined the game to bring it over to the console, and we've shortened the overall game time a little bit, but the elements of strategy are still there: the epic decisions, guns versus butter — it's kind of how we talk about the military versus the economy — the reinvestment in economy if you want a boom. If you're a hardcore strategy gamer, you know what that means. Those things are still there. We want you to blow stuff up. We want you to be doing combat most of the time. If you don't manage your army in combat, you're going to lose or get a bad grade in the campaign.

We wanted something that was simple but still had the hallmarks of a great strategy game, and I think rethinking everything about how strategy games work as we brought it over to the console is what makes Halo Wars the first great strategy game on the console. At the high level, our goals have always been to create the strategy genre on the console. As you pointed out, there have been some other attempts to do that, and to be honest, we don't think that they've always been as successful as they should have been. We looked at Halo Wars as our chance to prove that strategy games work on a console.

WP: What have you brought to the game from the Halo universe? We looked at the first couple of levels, and obviously you have the story, but what have you brought from the Halo universe so that it's not just an RTS with a Halo skin on it? What makes it a Halo RTS?

GD: You have to remember that Halo started out as an RTS game, so it was very filled out already and both sides are very Halo-like. Very early on, in our focus group testing with some real Halo fans, who are really into Halo, we had them play an early build of the game, and we watched them from behind that silver mirror, and it's always fun to do that. (laughs) As a result of that, one of the big things that came out of it was that they said, "It's great, but where are the grenades?" At that point, infantry was just shooting, so something that we added to the game that we felt was a very Halo-esque thing is all the secondary abilities of the units. For the infantry, that was the ability to throw grenades; in the case of the Warthogs, it was their ability to run over units; and in the case of the Spartans, it was their ability to take over and use enemy vehicles, all of which are extremely Halo-like. That was one of the things that we added based on feedback just from Halo fans.

WP: Let's talk about the Spartans a little bit. In Halo and Halo 2, Master Chief was essentially a "super" Spartan, the best of the best. Looking at one of the cinemas, the design of the armor here looks like a decidedly older and earlier version. You see the Spartans, but you don't see them in detail unless you're in the cut scenes. How did you go about creating that, and how much time did you put into character design when it's not a huge part of play but it's still a very important part?

DP: I think the Spartans are a huge part of the game. It is Halo, after all. We started out just accepting and embracing the fact that the Spartans have to be the coolest unit in the game. If they're not, it's not going to meet the Halo fans' expectations. We don't have Master Chief; we left him in the shooter. Our Spartans are the real Spartans, they're not the supersoldier. The cool thing about Halo Wars is we get a chance, 20 years before Halo 1, to have multiple Spartans in the mix. It's the first chance that people have gotten to play with multiple Spartans.

Design-wise, we left the coolest unit ability for the Spartan. He can jack enemy vehicles. That's one of the big money shots of the game. You select a Spartan, you see a Wraith coming in, and he's strafing the crap out of your troops. You press the Y button on top of the Wraith, and the Spartan will run out. If he comes in from behind, he'll do a backflip and land on top of the Wraith and it'll kind of crater into the ground. Then he'll beat on the hatch and rip the hatch off, yank out the Elite, jump inside and now the Wraith is yours.

There are a lot of really subtle game design implications with you taking from your enemy, and adding the Spartan's combat value to the Wraith to sort of make it a super unit on the battlefield. The Spartan becomes a kingmaker in the sense that from a design standpoint, he is the most important unit in the UNSC arsenal. He also has the coolest ability.

We want people to enjoy using the Spartan. Every UNSC game that people play in skirmish, we want them to have Spartans on the battlefield — not if you're going to get a Spartan out there, but when. Are you going to use his great combat abilities? Are you going to have him get inside your Scorpion and make your Scorpion better? Take an enemy Wraith and steal that and go that route. We want Spartans to be an integral part of the game experience.

Graeme could probably talk about how they roll on in the game. There's a pretty awesome reveal moment there.

GD: To address your question about the character design of the Spartans, we felt because it was 20 years earlier, these are much younger Spartans. They aren't quite as experienced as Master Chief, and we looked a lot at combat infantry going into actual wars, and typically at the beginning of a war, especially the Vietnam War, if you look at the infantry, they're all loaded up. They have all the backpacks on, they have all the belts on, every single bit of armor is there, and they're carrying around lots of armor. At the end of the war, they've lost it all and just carry what they need. This is all they have.

So if you look at our Spartans, they have more pieces of armor on going into the war. They have more markings on there, more pieces of armor. They've still got the belts on, they're still carrying around everything. That kind of change in the actual design changes in the actual cinematics too. As Dave said, the Spartans have to be the coolest unit in the game, but the other thing is, being 20 years earlier, there's more than one Spartan alive, so you're going to have lots of Spartans. I think Halo fans have been looking to play with lots of Spartans in the story environment for quite a long time, so they're going to be able to have that.

DP: Just want to add to it. One of the chances that we have with this game is to let people experience Halo in a different way. As Graeme mentioned, Halo did originally start out with Bungie as an RTS and morphed into a shooter. We've kind of gone back home in a weird way to the RTS, but it's cool to be able to take something that everybody loves and be a prequel, which, as we all know, is always the best part of any superhero story (laughs), and to get people to command a whole army of units. That's something you haven't been able to do in Halo before, and that's a real fun part of the game from a fan perspective, to see Halo in a different way.

WP: Let's talk a bit about the combat. With RTS games in general, there are those that focus heavily on micromanagement of units and resources, and there are those that pull back a bit and focus more on general strategy. Have you guys taken the micromanagement approach with combat, or are you looking more for the general strategy with your army by moving your squad into play and letting the specifics be handled by the AI?

DP: I think we're somewhere in the middle. It's a console game so we don't want lots of really fine-grained micromanagement. It isn't the type of gameplay experience that we think maps well to the Halo world. I want to see explosions and blow stuff up if I'm a Halo player. That's why managing the units in combat does matter. The abilities are probably the place where that manifests the most. Marines can do a lot of area of effect damage with their grenades, and they can blow up structures quickly with those, so you need to match and use those at the right times.

If you use them to kill this unit and then another pair of Hunters comes along, the if Hunters are going to devastate your Scorpions that are in the back, you'd better have some grenades or some Flame Marines ready to take out those Hunters. You can use the simple sub-selection system we've got with the right trigger. If you have Flame Marines in the battle, just cycle over to the Flame Marines and click them on the Hunters. Then go back to the Scorpions and pull them back out of combat to kind of lure the Hunters into your Flame Marine line of fire.

That level of management, yeah, I guess you'd call that micromanagement, we do expect you to do that, and that's really a lot of the fun of Halo Wars. Just the fun of Halo is that tactical combat, but it's not exactly a confined super placement. We have a cover system that's very straightforward for a console. You click guys on an object, they get inside that cover object. It's not managing them behind certain different heights of things. I think it's a little bit simplified, but we do still expect you to manage combat.

“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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