Exclusive interview with the Lead Designer of Halo Wars

GR: Which unit is the best on the UNSC side? Which units complain about the snow the most? Do you have any favorites?

DP: The great thing about a strategy game is that there is no “best” unit. Well, there isn’t assuming we’ve done our job well and the game is properly balanced. There are “best” units for certain situations, but no unit should rule the game unchecked. Knowing which unit to bring into a fight is a critical part of playing effectively.

We have a rock-paper-scissors relationship between our three main types of units: Infantry beats Aircraft, Aircraft beats Vehicles, and Vehicles beats Infantry. Each side has three units that fill those “mainline” roles. Then we have the so-called counter-units. These units excel against a single type of unit but royally stink against everything else (e.g. the UNSC Flamethrower is fan-damn-tastic at killing enemy infantry but die quickly against everything else). The UNSC and Covenant sides also have units that fill these roles, but there are quite a few differences in how the various units do that. Beyond those six or seven units, we have a whole cadre of spice units. These are units that round out the flavor of each side and each skirmish leader. The Covenant has a little “mini Scarab” called the Locust which excels at killing buildings, but it’s also really good at long-range combat against anything. It’s a great support unit; the UNSC don’t have anything like it.

In addition to giving each unit a unique combat role, we’ve also spent a lot of time on the flavor and identity of each unit. The visuals for each unit are distinct; we have to make sure players can instantly tell all of the units apart on a TV screen. That’s not easy. Another big axis of differentiation is the sound set for each unit. We’ve worked hard to differentiate all of the weapon sounds while staying true to the Halo source.

And then there’s the battle chatter. There are some 5,000 lines of battle chatter, if I recall correctly. These lines are tossed out to help give some life to the game and they are one of the single biggest ways we’ve made the game feel like Halo. Everyone remembers how much the guys around you talk in Halo, it’s one of the identifying elements of the game for many fans. Halo Wars takes those expectations and does them one better. We’ve got that flavor. For example, the Flamethrowers predictably hate being in the snow, so they’re always bitching about that when you play on Harvest. But, the chatter system also helps with gameplay. If you’re playing as the Covenant and a Spartan gets nearby, the Grunts go crazy with the funny lines about running away from the Spartan, etc.

If I had to pick a favorite unit in Halo Wars, I’d probably cheat and pick out a couple. I’m really happy with the Covenant Vampire that we added to the canon. It’s a really elegant unit, in my opinion. Its name, weaponry, function and upgrades all make a lot of sense. You explain it once to someone and they can instantly recall it from that point forward. I love it when we can pull that off in a strategy game. Plus, when you get the Stasis Drain upgrade for the Vampires they can siphon health from the aircraft they’ve snared, and that’s just badass. And, of course, I love the Spartans. We worked for a long time making the Spartan vehicle jack special ability something that everyone would remember. I’m very proud of how cool we’ve been able to make that. And, since we get to let you have multiple Spartans, you can have a lot of fun jacking lots of enemy vehicles.

GR: Wouldn’t it be nice if the Covenant and the UNSC decided there’s plenty of room in the universe for both of them and quit killing each other? Why don’t they do that?

DP: Well, that might be nice for you if you were living in the 26th Century. But honestly, it wouldn’t be so good for us game developers. People love a good fight and expect each release of Halo to up the ante in that respect. If everyone “just got along,” I guess we could go make Halo Sims or something, but I’m not sure the world is ready for that crossover game just yet…

Feb 6, 2009