Last time I spoke to Creative Assembly Alistair Hope he was just putting the finishing touches on what was one of the most frightening games I had ever played.
Alien: Isolation was a great game in many ways, but its stand-out achievement had to be its atmosphere. This felt like Alien, from its story, characters, music... right down to the environments and objects, including those glowing green CRT screens and chunky keyboards. It was a vision of the future as told by someone in 1979, and it made for an authentic follow-up to a 35-year-old sci-fi horror movie.
Fast forward three years and Hope is back as the creative director on a completely different sci-fi game in the form of RTS sequel Halo Wars 2. The tone, genre, story and concept may be radically different, but his approach to making it was not.
"When you look at the portfolio of games that [Creative Assembly] make, one of the common themes that is part of our DNA is attention to detail and authenticity," Hope tells GamesIndustry.biz. "So no matter what source material we are working on, whether that is a 1979 horror movie like Alien, or a historical reality like Total War, or a fantasy world like Warhammer, or this amazing Halo universe, you can see that we have that care and attention and demonstrates that we stay true to the source material."
The team working on Halo Wars 2 is a new group within Creative Assembly, featuring those that worked on Alien: Isolation and Total War, plus new staff hired specifically to work on this game. It also had the support of Halo franchise guardians 343, which allowed Creative Assembly to introduce new elements, characters and worlds into the Halo universe. Hope had enjoyed a good relationship with Fox on Alien: Isolation, but he was still surprised by the freedom he and his team were afforded by 343.
"The freedom that 343 has given us to explore and expand on the Halo universe was, honestly, unexpected."
"It has been a great collaboration with 343, a really natural collaboration," he says. "The freedom that they have given us to explore and expand on the universe was, honestly, unexpected. They were very keen for us to add to the universe. We have introduced a whole new faction, a new character in Atriox, who is quite different to other Halo characters. He's not so black or white, he's a lot more complicated. And a real villain. At the same time, we've added new units."
He continues: "We wanted to create a new game that stayed true to the original. We wanted to expand upon that and expand upon the universe. We needed new units, we needed a big artillery piece for the UNSC [in-game faction called United Nations Space Command], but there wasn't one so we created the Kodiak. So we collaborated with 343 when designing that.
"Going back to our attention to the source material, with something like the Kodiak, we wanted to create something that was new, but we wanted it to feel like it had already existed. So it couldn't look fresh out of the show room, it needed to be a unit that, for whatever reason, we hadn't seen before in previous Halo games. All the units that we've created, I think they just fold into the Halo world quite easily."
Once again, the Alien: Isolation experience helped when it came to doing that.
"You have to really try and understand the IP," Hope explains. "Similar to all the other projects we've worked on, you deconstruct the source material, understand it from every angle - especially visually - so that when you create new elements, you are just putting pieces back together in new ways. That way they get to keep that DNA, hopefully."
"We also have a lot of Halo fans on the team, which was great and helps a lot. We have a huge amount of reference material from 343. Obviously, 343 can point us in the right direction, and are good for just bouncing ideas off of."
Halo Wars 2 is a rare project for Creative Assembly. The Sega-owned studio mostly works on its own games, whether licensed like Alien or entirely owned IP such as Total War. Taking on a work-for-hire project is not something the studio has done since 2001 with EA's Rugby.
"We're really lucky at Creative Assembly because we only work on projects we are passionate about," Hope acknowledges. "I think you can see that passion manifest itself in the games that we make. When we were approached, we really loved the universe, a console RTS is something we have been thinking about for quite a long time, and so it was a fantastic opportunity that we just leapt at."
Of course, for all our talk about Alien, the more obvious comparison for Halo Wars is with Creative Assembly's own strategy series, Total War. And unless you count the ill-fated Stormrise - which was developed by the studio's now defunct Australia arm - Creative Assembly has never made a strategy game for consoles before.
There are a good reasons for that. RTS titles are naturally better suited to PC and the mouse and keyboard set-up, for one. There's also the perception that console players prefer more accessible games, and shy away from big, complex, super-hardcore genres like RTS. However, Creative Assembly feel the console market is one that will allow the genre to broaden out.
"From the outset we wanted to make a game that was genuinely an RTS for everybody - whether you are new to the genre or an experienced veteran player," Hope explains.
"We love RTS and we just want more people to enjoy it. We wanted to make a game that didn't feel too intimidating. We really wanted people to experience these enormous battles in the Halo universe. Yet at the same time, if you want depth, we have that as well. We consciously crafted a load of different game modes. As a player, you can find the mode that best suits the kind of experience you want. So there's Strongholds, which is very much arcade-action. That's not about economy or resource management, it is about getting the units you're familiar with like Warthogs and Scorpions, and taking part in spectacular battles. Then we have more traditional multiplayer mode like domination, which is about map control, and deathmatch, which is a true test of RTS skill.
"One of the goals for us is for people to play Halo Wars 2, and afterwards say: 'I didn't realise I liked strategy games'."
"And then there's Blitz, which is a whole new take on Real Time Strategy. The idea was to create something that was super accessible, but could also be really deep. We streamlined some of the aspects of RTS, replaced the base building and tech-levelling and translated things into cards. It's an opportunity to build an army with 12 cards, and simply deploy the units where you want when you want. The more you play, the more you realise the make-up of your deck means you can go really deep, and you can come up with some unique combinations and way to play. And then if you enter Team Mode, and have teams of 3, you can create decks that are complementary of each other.
"One of the goals for us is for people to play it, and afterwards say: 'I didn't realise I liked strategy games.' There is a lot here for people who do not see themselves as traditional RTS players, but just like good games."
Of course key to this is the control mechanics. Hope tells us that the original Halo Wars made a decent effort when it came to getting RTS controls to work on a gamepad, and that his team have made further tweaks to ensure it feels natural.
"One of the cool things is going to shows like E3 and Gamescom - where you get players from all different angles - and seeing them pick it up and have a really good time," he adds. "You end up thinking: 'Ok, I think we are on the right track.' Once you start playing, I think you forget about the controllers and just immersed in the world and story."
Not that the entire game has been built for Xbox One. The title is coming to PC, too, with players able to buy the game on one platform and own it on the other. So was Hope and his team tempted to make a more hardcore version for PC players?
"Our vision was to create an RTS for everyone," Hope reiterates. "No matter what platform you are playing on, we wanted to make sure that you had the same core experience. We just made sure we took advantage of the different systems, particularly through interface. It all comes back to making it feel accessible. If you are familiar with a controller, then I think you will have a really great experience. And then likewise on PC, if you are an RTS player that is used to mouse and keyboard, then you will feel right at home. It will feel very natural. We are also taking advantage of the hardware, so you can go up to 4K on PC."
Before Halo became the multi-million selling behemoth first-person shooter series it is known as today, it was initially devised as a real-time strategy game. So in many ways, the original 2009 Halo Wars was a long-time coming. And it was a far bigger success than it gets credit for. Microsoft told us that Halo Wars still ranks at or near the top of the Xbox Live most-played charts on Xbox 360, and Hope adds that it is the largest selling console RTS of all time. As a result, 343 says that it had more requests for Halo Wars 2 than any other game.
Despite not building the original game, Creative Assembly has to contend with a lot of fan expectation and opinion around this follow-up.
"Yes there's pressure, but that is also super exciting," says Hope. "Having a really engaged community is something we are familiar with thanks to Total War, and engaging with the Halo fans is equally exciting."
He concludes: "I think people really like Halo, and people really like Halo Wars. The first game was fantastic and that was the exciting thing for us, because we get to create a sequel to such a beloved title. And make something that's a bit more contemporary, up-to-date and expands upon it."