Halo Wars made heads turn in 2007 when fans discovered the longtime FPS genre suddenly pivoted to the RTS environment, with Ensemble Studios working on the game. Original Halo creators Bungie were not directly involved with the development of Halo Wars, and instead would only provide design advice on the project. Ensemble Studios were previously known for creating the Age of Empires series, a beloved and classic RTS series on the PC, and as a Microsoft owned studio, it seemed like a perfect fit that the Age of Empires developers would have a shot making a Halo strategy game. And the design of the game they presented to gamers is still widely considered the ultimate design for a console RTS. Halo Wars beautifully managed to make base building, combat, and using a gamepad for an RTS a breeze on the Xbox 360. How did Ensemble manage to make a perfect console RTS design for Halo Wars?
Thinking Outside the Keyboard
While a RTS game may seem like a diversion from Halo’s roots, the original concept for Combat Evolved actually began as a real time strategy game. Once Bungie was acquired by Microsoft, Combat Evolved shifted to the first person shooter we all know and love. Later, in 2004, Ensemble Studios began work on a console RTS, which would become Halo Wars. While it may seem like a mistake in 2009, looking back now in 2020, keeping Halo Wars an Xbox 360 exclusive is what made it so great.
See, Halo Wars was locked to a platform with only a controller as an input device. With this restriction in mind, the team was forced to make a fluid, fast, and effective control scheme that was both useful and minimalist in design. Looking at the controller scheme for Halo Wars, we see every button has a use, and an important one.
We saw from the E3 2007 demo of Halo Wars that there would be three ways to select units. One tap of the “A” Button on a single unit would select only that unit. A double tap of “A” on a single unit would select all of that type of unit. And finally, holding down “A” would bring up a paint brush, selecting everything that paint brush touches. This design allowed any combination of unit selection for the player. On top of a powerful unit selection tool, Ensemble allowed players to select all units globally with a single button, as well with a similar button to select local units – units that are only visible currently on screen. Ensemble’s control scheme design choices gave players an easy and effective way to command units on a console RTS. Halo Wars 2 even copied the Ensemble control scheme almost identically, which goes to showcase how great of a design Ensemble created.
It should be fair to point out that this control design was great, but not perfect. The control design of Halo Wars did lack a few basic controls that other PC RTS games did have, such as the ability to set a custom group of units. Also, the ability to force units to hold position on a single location was also absent in Halo Wars. Fortunately, Creative Assembly did add both of these control options in Halo Wars 2.
Securing a Base Location
During E3 2007, gamers were shown that base building would involve players manually placing structures on the map. While Ensemble didn’t go into great detail of base building, they did imply that Halo Wars would use a free base building design, something similar to the implementations of Command and Conquer and Age of Empires. However, the final release of the game did not have such a design, and instead, players would build all economy and production buildings from locked slots.
This change of design sets the dynamics of strategy in Halo Wars. These locked locations for base building vastly simplifies how players should design their base. With a maximum of 7 slots per base, players had to carefully decide which structures to build. Build too many supply pads, and risk not having a powerful army when an opponent attacks. Constructing too many production buildings may risk a weak economy to support a war effort.
Since players are aware of all the base locations of a multiplayer match, they must carefully decide when and how to attack an opponent. These predetermined base locations also impacted how maps were designed in Halo Wars. Having a base location restriction, Ensemble was able to create some incredible and memorable maps, including Terminal Moraine, The Docks, and Frozen Valley. Each of these maps had their own unique twists that made playing on a map a different experience than another. For example, players could create a last stand on the edges of Terminal Moraine, protected on all sides with only one way to attack from the ground. The Docks had a single choke point in the center, leading to massive battles over control of the center of the map. These fantastic maps were greatly affected by the locked base location design. Without locked base locations, we may not have seen such epic battles take place on these maps.
The Love of Halo Wars
It’s easy to tell the love Ensemble Studios gave Halo Wars, ensuring they could make the best console RTS game ever. In many fans’ minds, they succeeded. It’s a shame Halo Wars was their last game, but their love of RTS lives on in Halo Wars 2, which plays it safe in many of the design choices previously set by Ensemble. Halo Wars also was remastered and brought to PC along with Halo Wars 2. Fortunately, these PC entries also work well on mouse and keyboard while retaining the great choices laid out for console. RTS on console is possible; developers just need to carefully craft an experience for that platform, which includes building management, unit management, and input design. Hopefully we’ve not seen the last of Halo Wars. RTS games on console can work well, and Halo Wars is a great example of a flawless RTS experience on console.
-Andrew from TeamRespawn