The last time there was a Halo Real Time Strategy game it signalled the end of a developer, with Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios even saying their goodbyes within the credits. Now with RTS experts Creative Assembly, hot off the heels of their success with Total War: Warhammer, given the job of bringing us a sequel to Halo Wars, we have to ask: Will they carry the spark of a fun game and continue on with the franchise or is this the doom of them too?
As an RTS, Halo Wars 2 will feel very, very simple in how it works:
- Bases can only be constructed at specific locations and each can support a number of modules that are each responsible for select units and upgrades. They can be upgraded to support more modules and build advanced units.
- Combat consists of pitting the right units against each other and mostly operates in a rock, paper, scissors fashion consisting of infantry versus ground units versus air units.
- Resources are generated through modules or pickups found on the map.
- Players have a unit “budget” that restricts the amount of units on the battlefield at any time, though this can be increased through upgrades.
It’s kept simple I think because it’s meant to be played fast and there’s only so much you can do with a controller. This is made clear as you play through the campaign and it works well in pushing players to complete objectives during each of the missions. Those skilled enough to achieve bonus objectives will unlock Halo Wars 2‘s version of “skulls” which allow modifiers to be added to campaign missions to adjust the difficulty (with the appropriate bonuses) or just make things a little bit wacky. You can expect to get around 10-12 hours from it on the normal difficulty setting.
The storyline itself is pretty good and is again backed by those glorious cinematics from Blur Studio. The crew of the Spirit of Fire (from the first Halo Wars) are back after almost thirty years in cryosleep to find themselves at the Ark – the giant installation that builds the Halo rings. They soon find themselves facing off against the Banished which are a splinter group from The Covenant lead by the Brute known as Atriox. The opening sets a strong tone that at times the rest of it has trouble matching but there are some cool moments that may bring back memories from other games in the franchise.
PC fans of CA’s previous entries in the genre are probably going to be surprised with its console friendly tendencies but Halo Wars 2 isn’t trying the reinvent the wheel here. If you’re wanting a “deep” RTS, this definitely isn’t it but if you enjoyed the original game on the Xbox 360 (and the Definitive Edition remake on Xbox One) this will make you feel right at home.
The game also supports multiplayer with modes such as Deathmatch and Domination but I could imagine the simplistic style of the RTS gameplay may be wasted as players feel the need to resort to unit rushes where they aim to fill their unit quotas and quickly as possible and hope to have the right combinations to quickly smash their opponents. Then it’s no longer about having the right strategies over the course of match but to have that one single tactic in a first strike to cripple your opponent enough to finish them off quickly. If taking risk and going online is not your thing, there is an option to play against an AI opponent which is a nice touch and something we still don’t always see in games with robust multiplayer features.
The developers must have thought about that too and introduced an interesting addition to multiplayer with a mode called Blitz. Through the use of player card decks that work alongside the core gameplay by allowing units and buffs to be dealt out as they come. This introduces an element of controlled randomness to games where the player has an idea of what cards they have at their disposal but must work with what they have been dealt with in their hands first. It then becomes a test of being smart with your units and the cards you have available at the time. It’s a fascinating idea that potentially turns the limitations of the game’s mechanics into an advantage. There is also a solo variant of Blitz called Firefight that allows you to take on waves of AI much like the mode of the same name within the Halo shooters.
The cards in Blitz have that collectable quality much like what’s already been seen in Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4 where you obtain packs either in game or through microtransactions. How effective it is in the long run time will tell but if new cards are introduced over time that foster different strategies it has the potential to help keep the Blitz fresh and challenging.
It’s hard for me to tell if any of the multiplayer features will catch on but the developers deserve credit though for allowing players to at least try these modes solo and experience everything that the game has to offer.
Visually the game is pretty good with units mostly identifiable but the zoom levels on Xbox One don’t really give you a chance to get in too close. With massive units like the scarab it’d be nice to be able to get in and see what details might be hidden away there. If you’re fortunate to have a 4K capable PC the game ramps up nicely.
Of the recent Xbox games that have been produced by new teams working on established franchises, this feels like the safest of bets made so far. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as Halo Wars 2 is easy to pick up and play even without full mastery of the controls. But for PC gamers who already enjoy the best of what the genre has to offer it may feel a little lacking. But I like it for it is: an RTS for those who prefer controllers over keyboards. Let’s hope the steps taken so far with the series are not wasted and we see a sequel much sooner this time.
Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title. The majority of the review was with the Xbox One version.