REDMOND, Washington — Card economies are pretty much everywhere in video games right now, and Microsoft is leading that charge. The company’s first major card stitch was last year Halo 5whose “Warzone” mode is all about cards that can be purchased with in-game currency or real money (and in my opinion, the game suffers for it).
Clearly, the data shows people are using cards, loving them, and possibly even paying for them, as Microsoft is now chasing two major card economy games: the Weapons of war 4and next year’s halo wars 2. We are concerned about halo wars 2 now because Microsoft has invited Ars to its Redmond Halo studio, 343 Industries, to see a reveal of the forthcoming RTS’s new “Blitz” mode.
Cards against humanity, at least when playing as the Banished
Make no mistake: Blitz is all about the cards. But it’s also a sting of the Halo Wars universe (this time with help from the Total war devs at Creative Assembly) to figure out a way to make RTS combat – and multiplayer matches in particular – work in a console universe.
The mode drops players into a static, symmetrical battle arena (dubbed “The Proving Grounds”) with three capture points. Simply running an army unit onto an unoccupied point captures it. Players aim to maintain control of points over time and fill a “capture” meter before opponents can do the same. Players begin the match on a “base” at the edge of the map, which does not involve resource extraction or facility building, and is not intended to be defended, conquered, or upgraded.
Instead, new units, attacks, and boosts are generated entirely by cards. Four cards always appear at the bottom of the HUD on the screen. Most of these are units, made up of characters from the series and vehicles such as Spartans, Brutes, Warthogs, and Ghosts. Others offer one-time attacks and temporary buffs such as shields, stat boosts, or targeted missile attacks.
But you can’t just tap a card to bring one of those cards into battle. You also need to have enough “energy” points, and more powerful cards cost more energy. Each Blitz match begins by giving players a small amount of energy, along with a starter army (always five simple units, based on whichever “Leader” character you choose at the start of a match), to get the ball rolling to get. Energy canisters appear on the battlefield at 90-second intervals, in one of about six known locations. These canisters must be destroyed by an army unit to be claimed. Depending on the mode, the energy will also tap up slowly at all times, which is especially good if you’re faced with a situation where the entire army is destroyed.
So core gameplay is about reacting to enemies and mastering the turf as best you can given the limits and busyness of card-based play. Like in most other RTS games, halo wars 2The units of the team all have a rock-paper-scissors relationship with each other. But the semi-random nature of cards in your hand means you can’t just manually invest in certain junk or tech trees if it seems like a good idea. The game is more reactive, like: do I divide my troops and send faster ones around to get energy? Leaving units in control points to slow down enemies’ ability to take over the point (since control is not transferred until a full control point is cleared)? Or do you cluster units into one giant army?
The other catch is that new card-based units can be generated at your far base at full health, or they can be spawned anywhere in your “line of sight” at 50 percent health. This is the mode’s other strategic wrinkle, as power management doesn’t get any easier burning through half your health, but sometimes you just need a powerful plane to turn the tide at a checkpoint.
Go decked out
Between matches, players can manage the maps they’ve unlocked (which, by the way not spent or withdrawn when used in a match) and making decks. As in most CCGs, you can build a deck full of super-powered units, but you’ll need to build up more in-game energy to activate those cards in battle. So you better make a balanced deck of wimps and titans. Some cards are leader specific and you cannot mix up UNSC and “Banished” characters. (The banished, by the way, are the evolved version of the Covenant that halo wars 2 players will encounter in the campaign.)
Like Hearthstone, players can earn in-game currency and cards just by playing or by completing tasks, including “Daily Challenges.” Halo Wars 2’s campaign mode also unlocks Blitz content. unlike Hearthstonecards can get minor stat upgrades if players unlock enough duplicates of the same card – and this one upgrades do not increase the price of a card.
While enjoying a brief taste of the mode’s 2v2 combat, I also played the “Firefight” variation of Blitz, which is much like the Halo the Firefight mode of the shooter series. Waves of enemies try to take over the three control points, and the mode ends when they’ve taken over enough of the control points to fill the AI’s “control” gauge at 100 percent. Several times my solid progress in this mode was wiped out as certain flying enemy ships got stuck in the map geometry to such an extent that I couldn’t target or kill them. I look forward to testing this otherwise solid single-player mode (which also supports online co-op) once the bugs are fixed.
A small campaign… but no PvP?
Our studio visit also included hands-on time with what appears to be the second mission of halo wars 2campaign mode. Ars gave this a spin on PC, as opposed to Xbox One, and… there’s not much to report, to be honest. Campaign RTS modes typically take players through a variety of play and strategy styles that rarely carry over to live, online RTS play. halo wars 2‘s brief campaign peak was no different.
Thanks to some revelations in the cutscenes, we got a longer look at Atriox, the gorilla-like leader of the game’s “Banished” offshoot of the Covenant. We also spent time with Isobel, another UNSC artificial intelligence assistant à la Cortana. She’s so moody and gloomy in the cutscenes I saw that I couldn’t help but ask, “Why would a military force use this AI?” If you like overlong, dramatic cutscenes full of screaming, fighting and military poses, halo wars 2 will be right up your alley. (As a fan of the ’90s era of long, cheesy cutscenes in RTS games, I’m all for it.)
The most interesting twist we noticed in this tutorial style mission is how units can be progressed. Gamepad and keyboard users can use one-click shortcuts to select any unit on the active screen or any unit on the entire battlefield, along with a quick cycle at that point to all units of a given type. Keyboard users get the added bonus of function keys that can be mapped to specific units for higher level play, but gamepad users don’t get such granular control.
However, in the current state halo wars 2 limits the speed of your selected units based on the slowest participant. So if you’ve got giant tanks and fast Warthogs and you’re eager to get to a checkpoint, you’ll have to click through about three or four times until you select just the Warthogs to send them racing ahead. This was only annoying in campaign mode, but absolutely awful to deal with in Blitz.
That’s the kind of nitpick that I can only hope is dealt with in time for the game’s retail launch, along with a particularly tight camera zoom (which is compounded by how much space each unit takes up on the screen, compared to a denser army crowding in other RTS games). Most disturbing, our overly lengthy studio visit to 343 Industries was filled with lengthy conversations about the game’s audio, story, and art design, along with a walk through the studio’s “Halo Museum” of props and memorabilia. All of this felt like ways to distract us from the total lack of pure RTS PvP play at this event to me. We only have the summer beta period to note at this point, and that didn’t inspire much confidence at the time.
But Flash is doing take a decidedly different course with RTS combat. Whether you’re a genre outsider or someone who wants to get in and out of RTS style combat in about 12 minutes, there’s something here to sink your teeth into. We’re curious to see how the full-card economy system, and its impact on beat-by-beat combat, will work when the game launches in February 2017.
List image by 343 Industries