Halo is back, sans Master Chief. We can finally return to the realm of Captain Cutter and The Spirit of Fire in the long-awaited Halo Wars sequel.

The Halo Wars real-time strategy series is a welcome departure from the first-person shooter genre the Halo franchise is best known for. Halo Wars – a game still regularly played by fans – launched way back in 2009, and since then demand for a sequel has grown.

With the help of distinguished Total War luminaries Creative Assembly, 343 Industries has finally given the people what they wanted – Halo Wars 2.

Set 28 years after the first, and just after events of Halo 5: Guardians, Captain Cutter returns with his crew aboard The Spirit of Fire, unaware of how the human/Covenant war has progressed.

His ship has lost its slipspace drives and yet has remarkably found itself above The Ark, or Installation 00 – the creator of the Halo rings, and one of the most dangerous objects in the known universe. Investigating a UNSC distress call from the Ark’s surface, Cutter discovers there is now much more than just the Covenant to worry about.

Enter The Banished. An entirely new enemy faction in the Halo universe, this ragtag group of exiles is led by the fearsome Atriox. Comprised entirely of a rebel legion of Covenant and Brute forces alike, The Banished aim to rid the galaxy of humans and claim it for themselves.

Having worked with Ensemble and Robot Entertainment on Halo Wars, it was essentially a dream come true for the passionate 343 team to be able to work with someone as prolific in the RTS industry as Creative Assembly.

“It was ultimately a perfect match,” says Clay Jensen, design director at 343. “CA has an interesting combination of skills; they can do historical strategy really well, as you’ve seen in their Total War series, but they can also do a really immersive horror-survival game really well (Alien: Isolation), and that was one of the big tipping points for us.

“Another big thing was that it felt grounded in the Halo universe, that it was ultimately a Halo game and not just a separate, standalone Halo Wars entry. CA really applied the same rigour they would to creating a Roman Legion as they did to crafting The Banished.”
The conception of this new faction in the Halo universe is one that will undoubtedly affect the core series of games – once they have wrought their havoc against Cutter and co., of course.

“The Banished is something we’ve been waiting to do for a long time,” says Jensen through a grin. “We have a new viable villain in Atriox, their leader, someone the fans can really get invested in. Even thinking about The Spirit of Fire and Captain Cutter, the two groups aren’t so different; they’re both breakaways trying to get as much control as they can. They’re both fighting over one of the most dangerous things in the universe, in that it can keep popping out Halo Rings whenever it pleases. In the hands of Atriox, it could undeniably be very dangerous, but the thing with him is that his motivations are ultimately something you can understand. He’s up against the wall just like the UNSC is – granted, he’s taken a slightly different approach, but he’s relatable.

“Now that the story line follows events in Halo 5: Guardians, the two stories are happening in parallel. We can’t go into too much detail about what might happen in the future, but I can definitely say [Atriox is] being embraced, and any future Halo titles will have the advantage of this new faction as a part of their story.”

With CA coming in on a universe that was already so well established, Jensen notes the benefits in having a creative collaborator on such an expansive campaign.

Halo Wars 2’s story developed organically early on. We pretty much sat down right at the beginning and said ‘Right, what are we gonna do?’ Everyone’s been waiting for this game forever! We didn’t really have a predetermined notion of what we wanted to do, but obviously there was a lot of talk back and forth about where we wanted the story to go. A lot of it was influenced by things we wanted to do gameplay-wise; we’d come up with a random mode or something you needed to do in the campaign that we needed to work backwards from, and we just went from there. Everything grew out of necessity.”

Building on the already fertile foundation of the popular first title, both development teams were careful not to fix what wasn’t broken. HW2 takes the best parts of the original and builds on them.

“There’s a lot more of what we had in the first one. New units, leader powers, game modes – everything’s been improved upon.” Jensen notes that the most significant addition in Halo Wars 2 is the amount of extra player choice. “If you want to focus on story, there’s the campaign mode, if you want the really epic multiplayer experience, there’s that, and then Blitz is this whole other experience.”

We found out about the new Blitz mode (a card-based endeavour) first-hand in a short hands-on event in Sydney last month. We spent a few hours on the prologue and first two campaign levels and a bit of multiplayer, coming away with the impression that Halo Wars 2 really is an RTS for those not necessarily familiar with the genre. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the Halo series, RTS games, or you’re just here for Creative Assembly, it’s a hugely accessible title that takes no time to learn and is genuinely a Warthog full of fun – especially the multiplayer.

One can only imagine what a fully-fledged Deathmatch could look like on the esports level – something 343 have definitely pondered.

“Esports was considered right from the start. It’s something that right now we don’t have specific ideas on where we want to go, which was a very conscious decision because ultimately esports has to be organic, and come from the fans themselves. We definitely hope people want to play Halo Wars 2 competitively – Blitz mode especially was something that was conceived from an esports perspective. It’s every bit as fun to watch as it is to play. We are ready to embrace esports and we have definitely been thinking about it in terms of design, but it’s ultimately now in the hands of the gamers.”

If all that isn’t enough to satisfy you, 343 also have a ton of post-launch content planned, with Jensen promising “six-plus months” of content on the way for the game.

“There are new leaders, new units, new Blitz cards, lots of stuff. It adds a lot more depth and a lot more variety, especially when you’re adding things like leader powers, it just enhances those dimensions even more. We can’t wait to see the players’ responses.”