Halo Wars 2 – Story Impressions

Another E3 has come and gone, and, as I predicted, it’s a Halo-lite year – as tends to be the case in the year following a major release (I’m sure many of you will recall the Great Lore Drought of 2013). Microsoft has other IPs to give the spotlight to, the one I’m most excited about being ReCore – I can’t wait to see what Joe Staten has cooked up for us and everything I’ve been seeing of and hearing about the game has me rocking back-and-forth in counting down the months until release.

However, we were given a taste of the upcoming Halo Wars 2, set to release this coming February – just like the original, if you, like me, live in the UK (for everyone else it was March 3rd, which I felt very smug about at the time). I didn’t think, especially after finishing the Halo 5 postmortem, that I’d have the drive, energy, or interest to write anything about this game. I didn’t think we’d actually be shown or told much worth writing about.

But, for approximately the third time in the recorded history of Living Time, I was wrong.atriox2Let me just start by talking briefly about the original Halo Wars and how it seems that history is circling back upon us…

See, I’ve not really talked about it much on here, mostly because I try to keep a lot of negativity off this blog in-favour of more positive analysis (though recent events have resulted in a temporary waiver in that department), but I did not like Halo 3’s story. In fact, Halo 3’s story largely left me in a pretty similar place to where Halo 5 has me right now – feeling jaded and cynical about a franchise which I feel is missing its mark and failing to live up to its established standard of quality, let alone the lofty promises we were told pre-release. Like Halo 5, Halo 3 boasted an overall well-designed campaign that was just wrapped in a story which left me largely unsatisfied – all the actual interesting stuff to me was stuck in the ancillary material in the campaign (the Terminals), and as somebody who ardently followed the Iris ARG over the summer of 2007 this really saddened me.

But there was another Halo game on the horizon which caught my interest, being made, no less, by Ensemble Studios, who were responsible for one of my favourite childhood games – Age of Mythology. I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that they were making a Halo game, an RTS no less, that Stephen Rippy was doing the music, that the story was focusing on an era from the books, that we’d be going back to a dual-narrative with both a UNSC and Covenant perspective… The more we were told about Halo Wars, right up to when I got the collector’s edition which is still sitting on my bookcase, still lovingly tended to whenever the urge to play some online skirmish strikes me, the more excited I got about Halo again after my feelings of being let down by Halo 3.

And, y’know what? Halo Wars delivered for me. I will vehemently argue in its defence. Its story was basically that of marrying the narrative structure and tone of The Fall of Reach and The Flood (the novelisation of Halo CE – which I refer to here because of the added Covenant perspective). I might do some sort of ruination on Halo Wars in the future…

But anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that I am in the ‘hope phase’ that this process will repeat again. Halo 5’s story let me down, I would be as bold to say that it let most people down, but what I saw at E3, what I have played in the beta, what I have heard in interviews… I think we’re getting back on the right track.

Oh, and if you’ll allow me a self-indulgent moment to toot my own horn… guess who was right about the Ark Theory? Not entirely right in ever detail, but the general gist of it… yeah, this guy!warst1First thing to talk about here is that trailer

Gosh, it was fantastic, wasn’t it? It’s wonderful to have Blur back, and they gave us some incredible cinematography here.

This is really where they had to set the tone for the game, and the vibe I got from this was very much a mixture of the god-tier Gears of War cinematic trailers we get with each instalment and Halo 3’s Believe diorama.

I think the best way to describe the promise this makes is the return to a grittier Halo story, which is made clear from the outset as we see this shot of boots in the mud, Marines caked in dirt taking cover in a battlefield that can only be described as a No Man’s Land, Jiralhanae smashing through the walls with their hammers – just absolute chaos going on between these two warring factions.

If it wasn’t clear then, then the moment it definitely did become clear is when the Warthog just ran over that Jiralhanae soldier, crushing him under the wheels.warst7That really sort of struck me as very unexpected, even though we do this so often in the games – indeed, the Warthog’s special ability in Wars is to ram enemies. But seeing it in this cinematic format really drives home (heh!) the grittier nature of this kind of story.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings on the matter, to be honest. What I like about Halo in a broad sense is its capacity to adapt to a wide variety of tones and themes, people tend to criticise the shift in tone between Halo 3 and 4, but go back and replay Halo CE and 2 and it’s the exact same case there as well – on practically every level they look, feel, sound, and play completely differently.

This is part of why Halo’s narrative – its setting, its characters, its universe – has endured for the last fifteen years now.

Halo has a strong tendency to tonally and atmospherically adapt to these different ways in which it articulates different themes, and every now and then they decide to pull it back a bit and return to a more basic formula. That works, for the most part it even works well, and it’s why the fans of Halo’s story have such a variety of things they like – I’m an absolute nut for the Forerunner era, others are more enamoured with the Insurrection, or a period of the Covenant’s history, or the Human-Covenant war, or some aspect of the post-war conflicts, and so on.

So back to the idea of this being a grittier story, I think that it’s time to go back to that. In terms of the games, we’ve not had a ‘gritty’ story since Reach, which was six years ago now, and we’ve undergone a studio transition and a new era of games and other media since then which has brought some of Halo’s more esoteric aspects of the universe into the spotlight.

This kind of conflict is what there’s been a certain desire for among some in the community, so whether or not it’ll be done well is up in the air but the idea itself, the principle, is a pretty solid one.warst6Anyway, back to the trailer, we see our first look at what I am going to stubbornly refer to as the IsoCutter.

Because he doesn’t look or sound a thing like the Ur-Cutter from the original Halo Wars, to the point where I did not even recognise him when I watched this trailer for the first time. Had I not seen ‘CUTTER’ on his uniform, I would have just assumed that this was a new character, and, to be cynical, it bloody well might as well be.

I tend not to mind certain character redesigns, so long as they are still recognisably that character and add to them. But he just looks like an aged Sergeant Forge wearing Cutter’s clothes now…

Now, I have nothing against Gideon Emery, in fact I adore his voice and many of the roles he’s played over the years (Fenris in Dragon Age II comes to mind), but I do not think he was the right choice for this character. But 343’s actual explanation for this, which they provided in the latest update, kind of grates on me.

Q: Um, why do Anders and Cutter look different?

A: Because they are different – for both casting and technical reasons. The first Halo Wars game, for all its glitteringly wondrous CG, contained characters that Blur essentially “made up.” They were effectively “hand drawn” amalgams of character, rigging and aesthetics. Those characters were created in 2008, using 2007 tech and they looked fantastic at the time. But since then, the industry has made geometric leaps forward in technique and technology and the trend, rightfully, has been towards proper facial and performance capture. The end result is much better immersion in the story and far more believable “people” because they are people – recordings of the performance rather than a simulation or cartoon of it.

The response here comes as a pretty barbed retort against the (completely valid) criticism of this complete character redesign, and it suddenly occurs to me that there’s more of a defence for this than there is for Halo 5’s story… heh!

They’ve had Jen Taylor, who looks nothing like Cortana or Halsey, voice both characters while having a variety of other models and mo-cap actresses for her – Paisha Coffey and Mackenzie Mason come to mind. And then with Locke they had Mike Colter do the mo-cap performance while Ike Amadi did the voice. And what about all the Covenant characters in H2A as well?

Now, these are main characters in the franchise, but if 343 were to make that argument then that effectively says that Cutter just “isn’t worth it”. The game he was in came out 7 years ago, the general fanbase has probably forgotten about him, so it’s easier to skimp on putting the additional effort into aligning him more with how he was in the original.

Consistency is important, not just to me but in any universe where you aim to have any kind of authenticity in the setting, with the characters, in the narrative, etc. Cutter not only looks different, but sounds different as well, and, as I said, I have nothing against Emery myself but I do not think that he was the right choice for this character. If they were recasting Sergeant Forge, then I could see it, because that’s what the IsoCutter’s model looks like – an aged Forge wearing Cutter’s uniform.

They say “we’ve very literally captured his exquisitely sculptured features, but grayed and aged him to match the game chronology and further, show the impact of war and time on his face”, but there’s literally barely a line on his face? They’ve given him a white beard… that’s about it. The Ur-Cutter gives this impression a great deal more.hw19I’m sure that 343 is familiar with Andy Serkis, who is renowned for the likes of Gollum, Supreme Leader Snoke, and a slew of CG characters that vary in terms of how recognisably human they are (he’s played a literal APE). Yet his performance with that layer of CG ‘alienness’ over him is constantly regarded as the most emotional and sympathetic part of the films he’s in, so I’m not sure what exactly the problem with a human being portraying a different-looking human being would be for 343?

I’m not too keen on the quotations used in the response either, it does make the statement come across in a bit of a derogatory fashion towards creators who don’t make characters using “real people” and sculpt them the way the Ur-Cutter was sculpted. The response says that the medium has “rightfully” moved towards “proper facial and performance capture”, which seems to denounce the incredibly hard work that animators put into these characters they’ve sculpted from scratch.

The contrast in use of words like “cartoon” regarding sculpted models and “believable” for real actors just doesn’t sit well with me…

Immersion in a story is something that is different for everyone, and for me it’s not defined by the extent to which you can capture uncanny realism. I don’t understand why they couldn’t have done mo-cap and then applied that performance onto a digitally sculpted face of the Ur-Cutter, I’m willing to put money down on saying that people would not be able to tell the difference.

So, yeah… not at all keen on IsoCutter or the “reasoning” behind this redesign. Anders looks fine, and they’ve openly said that Kim Mai Guest was unable to return, though do note in the article that they don’t say the same about Gregg Berger.cutter demsMy other major grievance comes from having played the beta itself and seeing an error which probably nobody but me really cares about…

They’ve used completely the wrong style of Forerunner architecture.

This is actually kind of funny on some level because the original Halo Wars actually established the Warrior-Servant style of architecture, which the Reclaimer Saga has since visually expanded on. A lot of those design principles are notably present in that first game, with the more geometric shapes and disconnected floating pieces, along with more circular rather than triangular design patterns. I’ve talked about the lore behind this at-length here, and there’s certainly more to be said on the matter because the Artificial Antiques entry of Canon Fodder effectively confirmed these observations:

One might imagine several of these spires scattered across the surface of Installation 05, such as the ones seen in both Relic and Remnant, perhaps with various styles and construction methods to represent different wars, different sacrifices, different ages. Keen-eyed fans will certainly begin to pick out cool little details scattered across the artificial island once the UNSC designers and engineers have finished up their checklists and flipped the switch for inclusion in the War Games simulations. I imagine we’ll have plenty of regular readers that will be looking to play equal parts Spartan and xenoarcheologist once that happens.

The simple fact of the matter is this: The Ark is a Builder construct.

In fact, we know of a grand total of two Warrior-Servants who visited the Lesser Ark – that was Bornstellar (the IsoDidact) and his aide, at the very end of the war where he went to fire the Halos.

343 created this dichotomy in the first place back when they were actually doing meaningful and well thought-out worldbuilding.

The Halos – created at the ass-end of Forerunner history, Builders were in-control of the Ecumene, the other rates were largely subjugated and had had their cultures and traditions stripped from them. Architectural design was largely reflective of that circumstance.

Requiem – literally the oldest Forerunner installation we’ve been to, constructed before the Human-Forerunner war, an entirely different era in Forerunner history made for a different purpose and a different rate of their society. Soldiers and contractors are inevitably going to have pretty different design philosophies.

This was great stuff, but since then 343 has basically been making the Warrior-Servant style uniform…warst21I tend to argue in defence of Halo 5 here because the overall design of the structures is a lot more triangular and fin-like compared to 4, there seems to have been some active effort there to preserve Builder designs because Genesis was specifically a Builder world.

But they’ve just… lost that discipline here, in an RTS, where it’s arguably a lot easier to make these structures because you don’t have to spend nearly as much time texturing them and creating dozens of unique meshes as you do in an FPS where you’re seeing them up-close all the time.

343 has worked with plenty of partners (Certain Affinity, Blur, Axis, Sequence, Saber Interactive, Spartan Games, Vanguard Games, etc) and had no problem in maintaining the standard of adhering to established aesthetic values with them in projects like the Anniversary editions, the Terminals, the CG cinematics, and so on. It’s clearly no different with Creative Assembly because they’ve gone out of their way to go back to the classic UNSC designs from the original trilogy and the original Halo Wars with this game when they could have just as easily updated the Spirit of Fire’s assets with the new aesthetic.

So it becomes even more of an arbitrary difference: why is the thought, effort, and detail put into being loyal to the established UNSC aesthetic of the time, but the main setting of the game is completely redesigned in a way that makes no sense?

A friend of mine commented on this and summed this argument up perfectly in a single sentence:

When your job, when your company’s job, is to build and deliver games built upon a massive on-going story and built upon each other, it’s your duty and responsibility to make choices that adhere to the rules and lore you set up within that universe.

I just do not understand what exactly stood in the way of just going to the artists and saying to them: “Remember how that stuff looked in Halo CE-3? Just do that again”.warst11Those are my two main grievances, in fact right now they’re pretty much my only grievances…

Let’s get back to the positive stuff and talk about the Banished.

I’ve preemptively decided that I really like the Banished.

The second it was mentioned in an interview that they have been indirectly referenced before in both the games and the books, I was thrown off.

In the original Halo Wars, Regret says to Ripa that they need “a great deal more machines than we can currently muster” to destroy humanity “quickly, and with ease”. Ripa declares that he will take all the Covenant has, to which Regret angrily responds “and leave use defenceless?!”


Defenceless against whom?

At the time, the Covenant were ridiculously more powerful than humanity, the UNSC had to outnumber the Covenant 3-to-1 in order to generally win naval engagements (unless you happened to be an astronavigational genius like Jacob Keyes). Why would the Covenant be in such a hurry to crush a foe with such a limited capacity to effectively fight back?

Because they were fighting a war on two fronts, or they were anticipating the strategic need to have a stronger military against a particular foe, Regret’s actions and the entire story of Halo Wars 1 has a new layer added to it. This is good storytelling, this is adding in something new which is actually based on established fiction. There are other such hints towards the Covenant fighting another foe in Ghosts of Onyx and The Cole Protocol as well.warst10The defeat of the Covenant has marked their opportunity to return, and they’ve been building themselves up as a military power in the time they’ve been away. So hopefully this will be indicative of what I said the game should focus on, which is the continued disintegration of the Covenant from the setting.  In fact, Kevin Grace said in an interview about Halo Wars 2, in no uncertain terms, “the Covenant are dead”.

Obviously we know from Escalation that this isn’t truly the case, what with Sali ‘Nyon being slipped out the back door with some of Jul’s ships and all his artefacts from Requiem to be used at a later date, but it’s bloody good to know that we won’t be seeing that nobody-of-a-character in Halo Wars 2 – that Grace is adhering to the actual narrative of the Covenant’s total disintegration as of Halo 5. I should probably mention right now that I have a really good feeling about Kevin Grace being in charge of this story, he basically single-handedly wrote Combat Evolved Anniversary’s Terminals, as well as the short story The Return in Halo: Evolutions. I absolutely adore these stories and his actual writing, so I am willing to somewhat preemptively put some measure of faith into his ability to do what the original Halo Wars did for me in bringing back my enthusiasm for the story of this series.

The Banished are representative of exactly what 343 should have done with the Created in bringing them into the setting. But, looking at all this, it just makes me wish that Halo 5 had been about introducing the Banished, with HW2 building on them.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more interesting Halo 5 would have been if it had been about the Banished coming into the setting. They quite credibly fit into the cycle of established conflicts that I spoke about in the Halo 5 postmortem, they’re a threat on a scale that’s big enough to devote a particular focus to, but not large enough that they dwarf all the other conflicts going on in the setting. Unlike the Created…

I mean, I’ll literally do anything to see that we never hear ‘the Created’ ever again, but the fact of the matter is that the Banished represent something that has come from in-universe logic. We’ve not properly seen the Jiralhanae for a good while, having them make a big comeback is something that has effectively been building up in the background. They could work very well as an antagonistic force with their own unique designs and aesthetics and lore to effectively differentiate them from ‘the Covenant’.

Credit to 343 here, this is an excellent idea. I can only hope that the execution of it is done just as well.warst14Anyway, Kevin Grace and Dan Ayoub have given Atriox particular attention in interviews, saying that they want to tell a “deep story” with him through the game’s cinematics.

I really, truly hope that they manage to deliver on this. Grace himself wonderfully sums up why this is important:

“I’ve always enjoyed that part of the Halo universe, and the Brutes, and [to] see what could happen if one of the Brutes… They’ve always been presented as pretty much ‘muscle’. And usually ‘dumb muscle’. And just the question of ‘what would a terrifyingly smart Brute, what would that do? What would he do?’ And so we get a chance to show you.”

The second I saw him in the trailer, I really liked that Atriox had this calm, pensive, thoughtful expression which was the first thing to characterise him.

I am interested in his character, especially since one of his warpaint patterns is called ‘Didact Hunter’ in this character concept sheet:atriox3This leads me to my (only semi-facetious) prediction to round this post off:

Atriox is going to be loved. He’s going to be a fan-favourite character. He’s going to get at least two books exploring his perspective and history…

And then he’s going to be unceremoniously killed off in the first mission of Halo 6.

Actually, my final final note is that if something isn’t done with Mendicant Bias after what has now been three trips to the Lesser Ark across almost nine god damn years, I am going to be very upset.

In the meantime, I’ll be playing more Halo Wars 2 and stewing in cautious optimism. In case any of you come across me, I absolutely suck as Atriox but I will wreck you as IsoCutter.

19 thoughts on “Halo Wars 2 – Story Impressions

  1. IsoCutter is OP and Atriox is super weak with ineffective units and few upgrades.

  2. Please don’t kill any of Red Team. And also don’t give them thruster packs and new armour. I loved seeing badass classic S-2’s running at inhuman speeds into battle and would not like to see them get any upgrades this game.

  3. I agree with you on Captain IsoCutter. 343I’s explanation is BS, insulting to the original designers and I think 343’s really pathetic attempt at justification to them wanting to “make Halo theirs”. I agree about the Forerunner architecture aswell. I noticed the differences as you did. I don’t want to see Halo 4/5 architecture on the Lesser Ark as there’s literally no justification you can make for it art-wise or canon-wise. I don’t want wanna see the Citadel look completely different in later media. I think they might try get around this by not going to places we went to in Halo 3 although one of the screenshots for HW2 did look alot like a section of the level “The Ark” from Halo 3 where you find the skull on a grenade-jump ledge or when you open a door in tanks before a scarab section on your way to the Cartographer. Still don’t know bout Anders but is it just me or does she look distinctly less Asian in this. I’m liking the Banished so far and I just hope to high heaven the Created stay the f*ck outta this game.

  4. Eey dude Ive been following you for years now and I just wanted to let you know I absolutely love your work. Rock on.

  5. Unless if the Spirit of Fire magically entered some interstellar portal, I don’t see how they could have arrived at the Ark in 28 years, as its wiki page claims. How can they get out of the Milky Way? Because the story requires them to? And wasn’t there a Flood infection form on the ship? Surely they wouldn’t have at least had a few casualties from it before it was destroyed? And how to survive 28 years on a ship that may have limited supplies, food, and water? In addition: Why the Ark? Why is 343i pulling it into every story and making everyone and their mother visit it? This all just comes off a cheesy to me, as we already saw an/the Ark in Halo 3.

      1. Which we will only find out once HW2 comes out, right? Seems kind of pathetic to not give an explanation right off the bat. To me, it feels like an excuse to get the Ark back into the games. They could have traveled anywhere else. And will their main crew members still be alive even though there was a report of a Flood infection form on board? Maybe not, due to plot armor.

    1. It’s possible they DID finally return to Earth(which, according to time, the Created are already in control of), at which point Cortana possibly sent the ship through the portal to the Ark for some reason. Perhaps as a simple means of getting rid of what she (rightfully) thought would still be a very warfare-focused ship.

      Anyway, I’m curious what they’re going to do about Serina. Was she decommissioned, or did she got rampant?

  6. Well, Regret’s comment about leaving themselves defenseless, I always took that to mean that as powerful as the Covenant were, they were but a dominant but contested galactic power, sharing borders with several equally powerful and aggressive alien empires. Other alien civilizations were hinted at in the Halo CE terminals and Halo:Broken Circle, and I was so hoping for Halo 5 to introduce a completely new, and hostile alien race, one which would force the UNSC and Covenant remnants to unite against.
    Instead, we get the Created.
    As for the Forerunner aesthetics, this is all just from a demo, right? So, maybe by the time the finished game comes out, they’ll have the proper environments (fingers crossed).
    Atriox seems like he’ll be a cool character, and I so hope that Mendicant Bias will make his big game debut in Halo Wars 2; it is just about time that he becomes involved in the modern halo Universe.

  7. Glad to hear you’re liking what you’re seeing so far. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here.

    Anyway, there’s one thing I noticed in this trailer that has me a bit curious. The Spirit of Fire’s forces were approaching from the right side of the screen. Why does this matter? In visual storytelling, it’s very common to have the antagonistic force coming from the right side of the screen, because for some reason it instills a negative feeling on the audience. (An example is in the prequel StarWars movies, and the Clone Wars TV series; in battle, the Clone Army always approached from the right of the screen, indicating they would later become the ‘evil’ Empire.)

    Now, it’s possible that Blur doesn’t follow this type of cinematography. But in Halo Wars’ intro cinematic they had the Covenant approach from the right side of the screen as they slaughtered marines. So this has me wondering if they intentionally framed it this way? Maybe there’s SOMETHING about the conflict in Halo Wars 2 that indicates the Spirit of Fire is in the wrong here. Maybe they STARTED the fight with the Banished in the first place?

  8. Alex,

    I’m curious about your mentioning of how the Banished and/or another foe were possibly alluded to in The Cole Protocol and The Ghosts of Onyx. I never picked up on that when reading them. Would you mind filling me in?

    1. I’d have to dig out my copies from the attic to find specific quotes, but it’s mentioned by Koida in The Cole Protocol that Thel has spent many of his years fighting the Covenant’s own “lesser species”. And in Ghosts of Onyx, Halsey speculates that the Covenant have been focusing on another enemy other than humanity.

    1. It really can’t. Unlike Halo 5, they only have three non-cutscene advertisements(two of which are humorous and not serious).

      So unless they made Blur waste their time making a bunch of nonsense, it is literally impossible for Halo Wars 2 to go down Halo 5’s road.

      If it means anything, a lot of the game has been leaked(avoiding it myself, personally) but my VERY jaded friend who despises everything 343 Industries does admitted it’s the best thing they’ve made so far.

      1. I watched the leaked cutscenes, and they’re very good. I remain cautiously optimisti- aw, forget it. ALL ABOARD THE HYPE TRAIN!!

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