Halo Wars 2 Hands-On Preview: Primed and Ready (with Director Interview)

“One thing that I think often goes unseen is that fans don’t necessarily know if their comments are being listened to, and I can tell you, even when responses aren’t coming directly from the team, they are being listened to. That’s something that we’re quite passionate about, actually, is going back and really getting a lot of feedback from players,” says Clay Jensen, Design Director for 343 Industries.

Before I left the Halo Wars 2 event, I was able to sit down with Jensen and Alistair Hope, Creative Director at Creative Assembly, to talk about their cooperative development effort, and I quickly discovered that “community” is a resounding motif when it comes to their ideologies of game development. Fans and future fans-to-be seem to have a particular influence on the direction Halo Wars 2 is heading. “We saw a huge response after the beta that we did last year,” Jensen continues. We sent out a survey to Waypoint members and got many, many responses back. So there have been substantial adjustments and changes that have gone into the game as a direct result of that feedback. So that’s something, especially with the upcoming Blitz beta this month — I would really encourage players to go register on Waypoint, because we will be gathering feedback after that, as well.”

“We’re just trying to make a really fun game,” Hope says. “A game at which you can play at the depth you want to play — I think we have done some things to make sure that it’s a really entertaining game to watch.” Cheers, screaming, and competitive camaraderie continued to permeate through our conversation, inadvertently lending credence to the comment’s legitimacy. Halo Wars 2 doesn’t solely depend on the attraction of a real time strategy game. The game’s campaign connects to the current timeline of the ongoing Halo universe and coexists with the series’ recent FPS iterations. Multiplayer modes like Deathmatch breeds an intrinsic sense of competition with various tactical elements, unit management, and strategic maneuvers. But how about the new TCG-inspired Blitz mode? Where does that fall into place?

“The thing that I like about Blitz for learning the game is that it’s okay to fail. It sounds like kind of a strange thing to say, but it’s a very quick mode. So you can play around, you can experiment. A lot of experienced players will actually go and play Blitz mode just to try out new unit combinations to try things that they then carry back over to deathmatch,” says Jensen, mentioning its relation to a tactical training ground. “That’s not the goal, obviously, for that mode, but I think it’s an example of how you can actually jump back and forth from different modes and get different things out of it that you can apply back to the other ones.” Halo Wars 2 has personality, and a lot of it. Between blending game genres and the shift in perspective from the intimate first person view to the commanding third person view of war as a whole, the game roots itself as a welcome addition to the Halo universe without being typecasted as supplemental.

Whether it’s by way of audio design, game mechanics, or art direction, Jensen and Hope’s design philosophies are genuine. “As the game’s developed, right from the get go I think that there was really a vision to try and keep the game as personal and intimate, in some ways, as possible,” says Jensen. “The scale of Halo Wars 2 is such that even though you have these masses of units, there’s a lot of things that happen in the game in terms of your ability to use leader powers and things that make you still feel very much part of that action personally, [making] you feel a bit more connected to the units you’re commanding. It’s sort of an intangible part of the experience at some level, but I think that that’s something that actually helps communicate a lot of the personal heroism that shows up in the Halo universe — or even defines the Halo universe.”

Many shifts in perspective reside in the differences between the first and third person viewpoints, and Hope begins to explain his take on it. “You really can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. You really can feel like you’re on the brink of being overwhelmed. And either you or a teammate does one thing that really does turn the tide of battle. And I think that that can occur in a real time strategy game in a way that is really quite tangible for various reasons from that view.” Hope continues, “I think you get to experience [the units] in a different way in a real time strategy game — their function, how they combine. You know, I don’t think you necessarily get some of that view in the first person.”

While the immediate assertion of gratifying stratagems in Halo Wars 2 provides various new perspectives, Jensen and Hope focus on the unique identity that the game embraces in more subtle ways. Even when it’s not in your face, Halo Wars 2 continually pokes and prods you into an experience filled with an intended direction, but grants you the autonomy to create your own memorable moments. Halo’s music has always kept the series’ identity glued together in my mind, and Halo Wars 2 carries the torch with pride.

Hope sheds a little light on the game’s audio direction. “We want Halo Wars 2 to feel like core Halo, but to also have its own identity — to feel like its own experience that is absolutely connected to part of that universe. And I think, you know, music is emotion; and that’s one way we can steer your thinking about what you’re seeing. Halo. War. They have certain tones to it.” Hope continues, “Audio’s a massive part of the experience, and [we’re] bringing that to Halo Wars 2 and trying to give Halo Wars 2 its own identity whilst staying within that big Halo universe. It feels recognizable, but it’s its own thing.”

Jensen chimes in on this one, too. “It also is probably a lot more dynamic than people realize, as well. It’s very much reactive to what the situation is, and even foreshadowing things that may happen. So the more people play it, I think the more they’ll realize the subtleties and how the music is working.”

It won’t be long until everyone gets to hear the drums of war for themselves. February 21st will be here sooner than you think.

Full disclosure: Due to unforeseen technological behaviors, campaign and multiplayer footage above is b-roll. All Blitz footage is my own.

“Making you a better geek, one post at a time!”

Originally published at www.entertainmentbuddha.com on January 19, 2017.