Halo Wars

So, Ensemble recently released a trailer demonstrating the gameplay of Halo Wars, their much-anticipated RTS for the 360.

This existence of this game is officially a Big Deal. Ensemble is one of a handful of top-flight real-time strategy developers, and the console RTS nut has yet to be cracked, despite some noble efforts. Presumably, the opportunity to lock up a console RTS from Ensemble was one of the reasons Microsoft acquired Ensemble back in 2001. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Attaching it to the Halo franchise must have been icing on the cake.

I have been following the game’s news (little as there was) since it was first announced, and I had been encouraged by reports that the game would be focusing on very small squads, perhaps suggesting a rethink of RTS for the new platform. Thus, I am a little disappointed by the new video as Halo Wars appears to be another real-time strategy game focused on unit wrangling, which becomes significantly more stressful on a platform lacking a mouse and keyboard.

There are nice touches here, to be sure. The full-screen build menu nicely solves the modal problem so common to console games. The graphical detail is, of course, incredible. However, the firefight near the end of the video looks just like your standard RTS headache. Trying to handle that many units with a joystick in such a high-pressure situation looks like stress, not fun.

At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap – it’s simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot. Sure, it’s a strategy game, but why not? The effect is not unlike the God Powers of Age of Mythology, Ensemble’s PC RTS from 2002. However, this mechanic is a perfect fit for the console. Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions – ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS’s truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers. Ensemble is one of the best developers in the business (Age of Kings was probably my favorite game of the ’90s), so they are more than capable of delivering an awesome title. They just need to unlearn some of what they have spent the last decade learning on the PC.

So, how should an RTS on the console work? I don’t know, of course, but there are a few games out there that hint at possibilities:

Moonbase Commander: The Psychonauts of the strategy genre, this brilliant game got overlooked because, ironically enough, it should have been a console game. The mechanics are hard to describe; the simplest way I can explain it would be as a cross between StarCraft and Tiger Woods. In other words, it’s a land-grab, space-themed strategy game using a golf-swing game mechanic. The remarkable thing about the design was that a) it was a blast in multi-player and b) it would have worked perfectly on consoles, the native platform for most golf games. (Technically, Moonbase Commander is a turn-based game, but it moves fast enough that it “feels” like an RTS. Further, one could tweak the rules easily enough to make it work in real time.)

Rampart: This arcade classic has some similarities to Moonbase Commander in that it is a strategy game that involves firing projectiles at your opponent – a very natural action for a console controller. Rampart also includes a Tetris-style puzzle for repairing your castle. I would love to see a more detailed modern version with co-op play where one teammate focuses on rebuilding while the other focuses on lobbing cannonballs at the enemy.

Defense of the Ancients: The most popular Warcraft III mod by far, DotA is the natural progression of the hero-based RPG gameplay Blizzard introduced in the core game. Instead of controlling an army, the player controls a single hero, on a team with three other human heroes and AI-controlled grunts. The AI units fight the battle using standard RTS rules while the human heroes wander around the battlefield, acquiring levels and loot, while trying to turn the tide of battle in their team’s favor. DotA is still an RTS, but the player’s interaction with the world is confined to a single hero unit, taking away the mental burden of handling large groups of units. Obviously, consoles handle avatar-based games quite well. Judging from the popularity of DotA, a console version of this RPG/RTS hybrid is a hit just waiting to happen.

M.U.L.E.: If you’ve read my writing over the years, you would know this one was coming. You could make a convincing case that M.U.L.E. was the first significant real-time strategy game ever made. You could also make a case that it is one of the greatest games ever made. It’s a game of cutthroat competition where you destroy your opponents not with missile but by controlling the market, driving up prices while reaping huge profits. The auction mechanic was legendary for creating head-to-head conflict. You don’t know triumph until you’ve made your friends pay through the nose for energy. Most importantly, M.U.L.E. was designed for a joystick, meaning that consoles would be a natural fit for the proven gameplay.

I hope this list emphasizes that console RTS’s do not need to play like PC RTS’s. There are always more games out there to make than we can possibly imagine, and I don’t feel like we have scratched the surface yet for strategy games.

18 thoughts on “Halo Wars

  1. MULE may’ve been the first influential RTS, but Dune II in 1992 I would say had the set the standard of how all RTS’s have been since.

    It was the first with the UI we know and accept these days.

    Also interestingly, the original Dune has what I believe the first story which actually made the game awesome. 😉

  2. I’m deeply biased of course, but I fall into the category of people that RTSes will never, ever, ever work as well as turn-based on a console.

    It’s not that they can’t be done well…I think EA did a great job with BFME2 (I haven’t tried C&C3 yet, but I gather it’s more of the same). But in that game it felt like the only reason you couldn’t pause the game and give orders is because EA made some high-level mandate that you couldn’t. The game would have played better if you could.

    Obviously that doesn’t work for multiplayer, but that kind of concession would have helped the single player a lot.

  3. The Halo Wars vid looked just like C&C3 to me. I mean, graphically it looks great of course but it’s just another console RTS trying to do a mouse using the dpad/analog stick. I don’t know, it just looks like a lot of hard work.

    Back in 1996 we did C&C on the Playstation, and the year after we did Red Alert. They did just what I said above – simulated the mouse using the console controller (with some concessions, hot keys and the like). Looking @ C&C3 and this Halo Wars trailer, it does not seem to me like we’re seeing 10 years of evolution from there.

    So, I guess I am basically agreeing what what Soren wrote. We need a new metaphor for RTS on console.

  4. I’m not a big fan of RTS myself. I don’t like the stress. I don’t like stress at all, actually. That might be why I’m seeing something that noone else comments on in this video.

    It seem awfully unbalanced. For each thing those aliens bring forth, there is a better unit built by the humans. It seems like the aliens never had a chance of winning.

    So is the only challenge to move the cursor around fast enough to build everything you need? Like in so many other games like this one…

    Some game developers seems to have forgotten what makes a game FUN! Sure it looks nice, but so does a painting.

  5. I like RTS games in theory, but I detest them in practice. It’s because I’m not very good at them. Partly this is because of the “attention-as-resource” dynamic (which I haven’t quite mastered), but mostly its because interface mastery is such a critical element of RTS gameplay.

    To their credit, the guys at Ensemble recognize that the most important thing is unit selection and have attempted to find some sort of way to make it tolerable. The paintbrush is a nice proxy for the band-select, but I’m wary of the precision needed for individual unit selection. It’s bad enough on the PC with “precision” mouse control, and it seems nightmarish with a joystick. Don’t even get me started on selection problems with air units…

    Many modern RTS games have adopted squad-level control, which also helps reduce the need for pointer precision. Of course, my main problem with hordes of units isn’t just selecting them, it’s finding them on the map. To that end, I was a bit disappointed that the video doesn’t talk more about map navigation. There was a throwaway comment about using the D-pad to cycle between hotspots, and PC RTS games have some ability to browse through the event queue and associated map locations, but as far as I’m concerned it’s an unsolved problem.

    Then there’s the build menu. The menu itself is fine, but can’t we do away with the “select this building” model of unit production? If I want to build some infantry, why do I need to hunt around to find my barracks, and worse, go through the controller gymnastics involved in selecting it? PC RTS gets around this with hotkeys, but it’s still a burden. It gets worse when you introduce multiple factions and have to remember which buildings are associated with certain units.

    That said, there are some things that make me really happy after seeing that video. One is that they seem to appreciate a sense of scale. The vehicles come from a much larger (unseen) underground storage area. To me it always seemed quirky to see endless streams of tanks emerge from a miniature factory-shaped building.

    Another thing I appreciate is the attention to detail. You get things like Warthogs running over Covenant troops. Sure, it’s an RTS, so it has to adhere to balance considerations, but it’s nice to see a game that tries to respect player expectations.

    Speaking of balance between the UNSC and the Covenant, I don’t see a problem (with the video). These things are generally complex versions of rock-paper-scissors. My worry is that, because it’s Ensemble, they’ll use hard-counters. Sure, soft-counters open you up to massed-unit exploits, but combined arms will (or should) still beat massed units of comparable cost.

    So yes, I’m intrigued by Halo Wars, but I’m not sure that it will manage to overcome the shortcomings of the console control system. Joysticks are great for continuous movement, but they’re terrible for precision control, and until RTS games get rid of the “precision” component, I’m probably going to keep going back to turn-based games.

  6. As my boyfriend pointed out; a game doesn’t need to be good or fun to play in order to sell. It just needs to make the customer think it is. Once it is sold to that customer… they got their money and statistics. This is sad, I think.

  7. Have you heard much about Tom Clancy’s EndWar? It sounds like they’re actually trying change the way the game plays rather than designing new ways to control the standard C&C/Warcraft style RTS.

    EndWar is focused on squad control. There isn’t any base building or resource management. According to Michael de Plater, a designer on the project, the game was heavily inspired by sports games like Madden when they were trying to find ways to control units in battle. It will also incorporate voice control that can be used to select and command units.

    1UP has a big preview of the game reprinted from June’s EGM. It’s here: http://www.1up.com/do/previewPage?cId=3160170.

  8. Soren,
    Is M.U.L.E. the classic game you were planning to update when you were with Firaxis? If so you couldn’t have made a better choice. I would love to see your redevelopment of that great game. If not you, maybe one of the casual game companies will do a version. I guess this comment was a little off topic (from console RTS) but the mention of M.U.L.E. really piqued my interest.

  9. The reason why RTSes don’t translate well to the console is because there’s not enough emphasis on strategy to begin with. RTSes are fundamentally about interface. It’s twitch gameplay, but they’re replaced the avatar with the god-like perspective.

    It’s a competition of who can build the first barracks. And that’s a competition that’s best done with a mouse, not a joystick.

    There are a few ways to fix it. Use a mouse, or maybe even the Wii-mote. Or, what Soren said: re-think the genre for the console. (Or maybe even rethink the genre, PERIOD.) If you embrace the twitch game-play as part of the RTS, maybe it’s smart to go with a hybrid action-strategy game like Defense of the Ancients. Or, if you reject the twitch gameplay, the solution is to streamline a lot of the twitch elements (like build order, and jumping between menus), and distill the game down to the major strategic decisions.

  10. When strategy is involved with selection precision, the finest console interface can’t beat a simple mouse. Why to struggle to adapt a genre more suitable to computers into consoles?

    It needs to be rethinked… maybe and as you pointed out, another kind of strategy, more focused on, for example, squads and their components’s skills and, why not, quirks. And yes, the player will take control of one of the individuals. And yes! he will be able to jump from one squad to the other during the gameplay… And… But wait a minute, I’m just descriving Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six!

    I think strategy on consoles it’s a matter of hybridization.

  11. Since you mention DotA – Dynasty Warriors for the PS2 features somewhat similar gameplay; you send squads of Warriors into Battle and take control to beat the heck out of the opposition. That worked quite well, although it’s more of an action game with some tactical elements bolted on.

    Another good example is Full Spectrum Warrior – again, more of a tactics game (you only control eight soldiers in two squads) – but it featured a really good interface and a great ‘I am there’-atmosphere. And this kind of approach really works on a console; however, ‘classic’ RTS like Halo Wars are just crippled by the controler. These games always make me think “How great would it be if I just had a mouse”. And from the look of the video, Halo Wars won’t be an exception to that.

  12. It’s going to be interesting if they make a port of DotA onto a console. There’s not as much micro-managing but it’s still important in the gameplay.

  13. This game looks awesome and I am keeping an up to date blog about it and its release date if you’re interested. Can’t wait to play it when it gets here though!

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