With the recent announcement of Halo Wars 2, fans are excited to finally see a sequel to the original 2009’s Halo Wars, which was was built from the ground up for the Xbox 360. The first ever Halo real-time strategy game was praised for its attention to detail and excellent use of the console’s controller-something that was inevitably the pitfall of previous attempts to bring the RTS genre to home consoles.

Halo Wars has sold more than one million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling real-time strategy game on a console to date. However, while many Halo fans touted it for bringing the RTS genre to the Halo universe, the game wasn’t without its problems.

(Didn’t play the original? Here’s the Zero Punctuation review from back in 2009.)

Halo Wars 2 is set to land Autumn 2016. Here are 5 ways the sequel needs to improve over the original.

1. Shifting the Scales

 

How it worked in Halo Wars

Halo Wars

One of the most prominent issues in Halo Wars was how unbalanced it was. Claims were made that the game had a “rock, paper, scissors” system, where, in very stripped down terms, infantry beats air, air beats vehicle, vehicle beats infantry. However, this was disrupted by the fact that humanity’s tank, the Scorpion, almost always beat any other type of unit in casual games, to the point where most online matches were won simply by producing armies of Scorpions and demolishing the other player. Even throwing in a few Cobras, an anti-vehicle unit, didn’t seem to do much when you’re faced with several of your opponent’s Scorpions.

It never really feels like there’s much incentive to use other units, as they’re just so effective against most units, excluding aircraft.

Other massive imbalances come in the form of how units attack. The UNSC’s anti-infantry unit is the Hellbringers (or UNSC Flamethrowers, as the game refers to them), which are a pair of marines equipped with – you guessed it – flamethrowers. The problem, however, is that they need to get up close to their target to start dealing damage, while the Covenant’s anti-infantry unit is a pair of Jackals with carbines, which are able to deliver ranged attacks.

Similar arguments can be made of other units in the game, as well. The Covenant’s anti-air unit is an air unit itself, whereas the UNSC’s is a ground vehicle. Hunters, which are infantry, are anti-vehicle units, thought the UNSC’s equivalent is the Cobra, a vehicle. While I’m on the fence myself in regards to how unit types for each side’s counter units affects the balance, as one could argue these differences make sense from a lore perspective and also add some variation in how people play when taking on each faction, I can’t deny that some units in the original are poorly balanced against each other.

How it should work in Halo Wars 2

This is a hard place to make recommendations, isn’t it? We need to see some major changes in the sequel to ensure no one unit feels overpowered or underpowered. Outside of differences in various numerical values, balancing units could be achieved in a way that profits creative thinking and strategy deeper than what was seen in the first game, such as giving units non-offensive abilities that give them an edge, whether tactical or combative, over others that would traditionally be considered very powerful in comparison.

2. Get Tactical, Marines!

 

How it worked in Halo Wars

For a real-time strategy game, your tactical options in Halo Wars were, sadly, extremely limited. Continuing on from the balancing issues I’ve just mentioned, the game, outside of certain moments in singleplayer, never gave you much incentive to use other types of units in creative ways other than to produce them en masse, moving them like a swarm of killer bees, attacking single targets.

Anyone can create a metric crap tonne of one unit, select them all and execute an attack this target order. There’s no thought or strategy in that. The only real strategy layer Halo Wars offered was the option of garrisoning your infantry units behind wrecked Warthogs and other debris found in the level and on top of Covenant deployable lookout towers-or “snipers towers”, as the game refers to them as, possibly due to it originally not being a Halo-themed RTS-as seen in the main series of Halo first-person shooters. The latter is the only option available during multiplayer, however, though one map has erectible force field barriers that will block off a path when certain ones are occupied by infantry, which is a neat addition.

How it should work in Halo Wars 2

Halo Wars 2 needs to offer far more in the way of tactical options. For instance, being able to hunker infantry units behind stationary vehicles, buildings and other appropriate objects and geometry in the environment, where it perhaps make sense to send a few Warthogs to flank and draw them out of cover. Bringing tactics to the battlefield through the level design would be cool, too, with certain paths or areas of the landscape only being accessible to certain units, such as sending infantry through a tight cavern or using aerial units to cross a gap or get over a wall that is blocking the path for ground teams. Maybe an infantry type, such as a sniper with a stealth suit or similar, could hide in bushes and other foliage, allowing them to scout ahead or otherwise avoid enemy units.

Interestingly, there’s evidence that the game was going to be way better than what it ended up being, before the Microsoft cut the funding, as seen in that demonstration video to the right. The finished product fell woefully short of the polished demo shown here, with Warthogs being used to reach an otherwise inaccessible area of the map.

Oh, well, let’s just hope that the sequel has as much promise as this deceptively epic demo teased.

3. Giving Orders on the Battlefield

 

How it worked in Halo Wars

halo wars 1

Ordering your units around the battlefield worked in Halo Wars as a whole, though there were some areas it needs some improving on. You could select all units, all units on the screen, paint over with a radial mark which units you’d like to select and, finally, could select units types from those already selected, by tabbing through them.

This was fine in most cases and made the best of the restrictions of a controller, which was great. However, there was no way to create squads or teams, or select a specific number of units or unit types. Have 10 marine units and only want to send five to harass your opponent’s base? If they’re close together, you’ll have to separate them, so you can use the radius tool without accidentally selecting too many. What a pain.

This was one of the major issues of the original. You were given a few good means of selecting and moving units on the map, though at times it was a major frustration when trying to select only a small handful amidst an army.

How it should work in Halo Wars 2

The sequel would do good to keep its predecessor’s selection tools, though should add some extra functionality to dispel the frustrations seen previously. It would be great if there were a way to select only a certain number of units or unit types, either through some new control scheme, such as making it so holding down the trigger while pressing a button performs another action than just pressing the button on its own. Voice commands could also be useful, as seen 2008’s Tom Clancy’s EndWar, which would allow you to issue move orders and attack commands with a series of simple elements like, “Unit 1 attack Hostile 6,”, “Unit 5 secure Alpha,” and so on. A similar system could be implemented here, allowing players to issue orders vocally, specifying which units, how many of them and what to attack to where to move to, as well as other tasks, such as base building, unit production and more.

This would, of course, have to work in tandem with the established control scheme, with the voice commands filling in where the limitation of RTSs on consoles is most prevalent.

4. The Devil’s in the Detail

 

How it worked in Halo Wars

Micromanagement is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest and most vital aspects of any real-time strategy game. Unit numbers aside, it can determine who wins and who goes home a sore loser.

And it was kinda of a pain in. In most cases, micromanagement came down to improving the combat effectiveness of your units, instead of just send them to where the enemies were and letting them do their own thing. While ordering certain units to attack different targets-usually those that they counter-was a bit slower than most hardcore RTS players would have liked, things were usually tolerable, if a bit sluggish.

My major gripe about the game, however, is how micromanagement was handled in respect of units’ special abilities. Special abilities in Halo Wars were attacks that did more damage than regular ones, with Warthogs being able to ram or run down infantry units for a big damage bonus, or marines being able to lob grenades for the same effect as far as damage is concerned. These abilities had a cooldown timer after each use and had to be initiated manually by having the unit selected and pressing Y instead of X when over a target, with some having this special attack from the get-go and others gaining it through upgrades.

Unfortunately, effective use of these special abilities was difficult to pull off during combat engagements when you have several or even tens of units, often resulting in the player using too many of the special attacks on one target.

I smaller gripe, which fits in with the theme of AI, is how units will behave when you’re not giving them specific orders. They’ll usually return the favour when attacked by enemies, though you’ll find that, unless the enemy is pretty close, they’ll not budge an inch. This actually happened to me a couple of times, with units in front of my base standing idly by as my opponent’s units attacked its rear.

image

How it should work in Halo Wars 2

I’d really like to see a big change in the way using special abilities is handled. Getting rid of the issue of overkilling one unit, having used more special attacks than was really necessary is a major want for me, personally.

Ideally, I see this issue being solved by implementation of AI. For example, let’s say I have five Scorpions and I want to hit an enemy Wraith with enough special attacks to kill it. Having selected all five Scorpions and ordering them to execute the attack, the AI kicks in and only has two of the Scorpions use up their special ability, as this is all that is needed to kill the enemy unit. This would open up for the remaining two units to be able to use their abilities, without them having been wasted on overkilling a single unit.

This would be a major lifesaver and would help to reduce some of the limitations of playing an RTS on a console, mitigating some of the time consuming or otherwise fatal micromanagement of units, where trying to use them effectively in the original can take so much time that you’re not always feeling the benefit of having spent your hard earned resources on that awesome canister shell upgrade for your Scorpions.

In regards to unit behavior, I’d like my units to have a little initiative, if that’s not too much to ask.

5. Old Dogs, New Tricks

 

How it worked in Halo Wars

hw-gameplay-1

In the original, you could upgrade your units in various ways, as well as upgrade your base’s turrets and purchase upgrades that affect all units, such as increasing the movement speed of infantry or reducing the time it takes to produce units.

This was all well and good, but they were linear and didn’t offer much room for strategy or thoughtful decisions with regards to them. Each subsequent upgrade was always better than the last or generally continued to improve the unit if other upgrades were retained, such as in the case of the Warthog, where the first upgrade adds the turret, the second adds a marine with a grenade launcher, with the last switching the turret out with a gauss cannon.

How it should work in Halo Wars 2

Upgrades, whether for specific units, your base or otherwise, should put you into a position of choosing what is best for your play style or strategic outlook at that moment or on that map. We shouldn’t see just linear progression, but an upgrade tree, akin to those found in other games with RPG elements, that gives you a good reason to choose one upgrade over another. Some upgrades might increase your offensive stats, another might increase your defence, while others play a different role altogether, steering away from combat bonuses.

A marine unit might gain the ability to mount Scorpions or other vehicles-as seen in the mainline games-as both a way of dealing more damage with the increased firepower from their assault rifles and as a means of getting them to from point A to point B faster and safer than they would have been on foot.

While some units in the original do offer upgrades that increase their defense or movement speed over attack damage, these upgrades are unlocked later and can’t simply be chosen prior to getting access to the preceding ones.

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Some Final Thoughts

As an extra point, many fans want to see a Covenant single-player campaign in the upcoming successor. Players got the chance to play as the antagonistic Covenant during the original game’s Skirmish and multiplayer modes, though they weren’t playable in the single-player campaign. It isn’t a major want on my part, but it couldn’t hurt and would be a neat addition.

It’s crazy to think Halo Wars 2 is a little more than a year away, given the ballpark release date. The original Halo Wars was a big leap forward and proved that, given proper insight and forethought, a real-time strategy game can work well on a console, as long as you take into account the inherent limitations of a controller over a mouse and keyboard setup.

It’s unclear how things are going to pan out with the game seeing a release on Windows 10, as well as on Xbox One. Will the PC version be a simple port of the console one? Or will we see big differences across platforms, with Windows 10 having a more traditional RTS control layout and design elements, and the Xbox One getting a controller-friendly equivalent?

These are all things that I’m keen to hear answers to. The possibility of cross-platform play also comes to mind, though this will surely hinge on whether or not each version of the game possesses a completely different approach to design and how it controls.

Halo Wars was a damn fine game. It had its problems, as I’ve outlined here, but it got so much right in terms of being a console RTS, as well as bringing the genre to the Halo universe, with iconic staples of the series, like Scorpions, Warthogs, Spartan supersoldiers and the evil alien races known as the Covenant, just to name a few.

It really brought the real-time strategy genre to those who wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance or inclination to play it; slapping the Halo franchise on top of it helped it immensely. The original Halo: Combat Evolved was initially imagined as an RTS and not a first-person shooter, as it eventually was. And, oddly enough, Halo Wars wasn’t even going to be a Halo game. It was going to be a generic RTS, though Microsoft thought attaching the Halo name to it would help its sales.

With acclaimed RTS developer Creative Assembly at the helm, Halo Wars 2 could be one of the best console releases for the genre. It just needs to bring to the table what the first game did so well, like an engaging story and beautifully crafted CGI cutscenes, and fix or tweak things that it didn’t get right or could have done better.

Daniel Price is a British writer and gamer living in Sunderland, UK. He drinks copious amounts of tea and enjoys first-person shooters, the occasional strategy and survival horror games.

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