Halo Wars, back in 2009, could be considered a test, a gamble, an experiment. What I mean by that is the RTS genre on consoles was not exactly a dominating force, what with only a small handful of titles even released and even less so remembered by name. The Halo brand was a force to be reckoned with and Microsoft was keen on exploiting this to no end. What’s truly ironic about Halo Wars is that even before Microsoft took in the Halo brand to debut on its first ever gaming console, the original Xbox, was that Halo started out as an RTS, to begin with.
Halo Wars, despite the real-time strategy genre being an oddity on consoles, worked. It showed that a genre that is usually centered around a mouse and keyboard could function and be enjoyable with a controller, and the same can be said about Halo Wars 2 as well. While the title functions and works within the confines of a controller, what it lacks; however, is the S in RTS and depending on what you are wanting out of Halo Wars 2 will differ on your opinion on it.
To be blunt, Halo Wars 2 is not a deep and engaging strategy game, and frankly, I am ok with that. If you are wanting something more along the lines of StarCraft, Rome: Total War or Company of Heroes, then you’re probably not going to be satisfied with this seemingly watered down RTS. Halo Wars 2 is an RTS for Halo fans and is not likely going to win over strategy purists with its mostly casual approach to the genre.
Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of the first game, with the crew of the Spirit of Fire waking up from cryonic sleep after drifting in space. When they receive a signal from a strange new location, Captain James Cutter sends a small recon squad to investigate. While searching the wreckage of an UNSC base, they discover an AI named Isabel who makes them aware of the threat they now face; Atriox, the leader of a group called the Banished, a sect of warriors that freed themselves out from under control of the Covenant.
While most of the story is told through the 12 mission briefings and during play, many of the standout moments here are told via the 7 wonderfully animated cutscenes. I am a huge fan of the lore that the Halo series is known for, and I was rather impressed with the story here and how it may or may not tie directly into the forthcoming Halo 6. I do wish that the same intensity that is displayed in said cutscenes was somehow worked into the actual game better as the closest we get to that level of action is the Warthog chase at the start of the game and a brief few moments in the final mission. That’s not to say the rest of the game lacks action, it just lacks the cinematic feel of action that the cutscenes are packed full of.
While the campaign is enjoyable, it doesn’t take a lot of risks gameplay wise or gives us what we haven’t already experienced in various other RTS games like what StarCraft did almost 20 years ago. What Halo Wars 2 does well is changing up the win conditions on certain missions. Sometimes you’ll need to hold out on wave after wave of enemy forces on a beach, or building a tower defense gauntlet to protect a key resource. My favorite mission is still the final one and that is just because it creates a genuine sense of panic and I wish more missions gave me that feeling. I did find that the limited unit count did nothing to help the large scale maps the game throws at you. The level titled “From the Deep” has an epic showdown protecting a base near a beach. While the top portion of the map is utilized for battle, as well as a few sections to the right, the entire bottom portion of the map is never used and felt wasted. The current unit count is set to 80, with some costing more to recruit. Had the unit count be pushed to 100 or 120, I feel the game would have had a grander sense of scale.
Another element that is quite enjoyable via the campaign are the leader point abilities. Throughout your progress in a mission, you will earn leader points that can be used to purchase new skills like healing your squad, setting down an instant-turret or unleashing hell with a giant laser from the sky. These abilities can turn the tide of battle in a heartbeat. The campaign features a particular set of these, while multiplayer will depend on which leader you have selected, and I’ll touch upon leaders later on.
A few of the characters from the first game are back and are sporting fresh new looks. Cutter, as voiced by Gideon Emery, not only looks like the actor but has far more of an iconic look than his original design in the first Halo Wars. Professor Ellen Anders also bares resemblance to her new voice actress as Faye Kingslee steps in and takes over voice duties this time around. I found these updated changes to the characters well worth it as both actors give above and beyond better performances than the original cast. Those who know me know that Cortana is easily my favorite science fiction character of all time, so you might say I have a slight fascination with the female AI this series can offer, and Isabel is no different. Despite actual human characters like Cutter and Anders, the orange tinted Isabel feels the most human out of all of them. She has some very strong emotional scenes and combined with the tremendous voice work by Erika Soto, who also lends her appearance to Isabel, may be the most impressive character this spin-off series has introduced thus far.
Playing an RTS via a controller can make or break this title for you depending on your getting to grips with not having a mouse or keyboard at the ready. Creative Assembly took what worked in the first Halo Wars and refined it even more so, making the controller a natural fit for what Halo Wars 2 has to offer, and this is in some way because the campaign isn’t terribly demanding on a need for complex controls. RB selects all units on screen and double tapping it selects all units on the map. You can use RT to then cycle through each unit type, making it easy to select a type of unit to take advantage of alternative fire modes like infantry throwing a grenade or Kodiak tanks locking into place to fire their long distance fire support. Selecting the same units of a single type is also made even easier by simply double tapping the A button, making it a snap to select the same unit types out of a large crowd. Speaking of large crowds, you can select a patch of units by simply holding down the A button to create a selecting circle, it’s an easy way to pick up a small squad and set them loose immediately. The circle can also be moved around to add to your already selected units.
You can set squads to the D-pad with custom hot-keys for support. This can come in handy when sending out troops to combat a certain type of opposition. Halo Wars 2 uses a basic triangle combat system for its units; Infantry>Air>Tank>Infantry. Setting those types of units to your hot-keys can turn what could be a frustrating loss into an easy win. The hot-keys are only accessible when holding down the RT button as the D-pad is naturally there to set up rally points, return to your base or selecting units that are in or out of combat.
As was the case with the first Halo Wars, bases are a segmented affair that prevents any creative placements of buildings. You start with one main base and you can add onto it via slots that surround that base, with higher level bases having more slots. You cannot place bases wherever you want ala StarCraft, nor can you move that base either. While you can build new bases in preset locations around the map, this leads to a lot of predictability in multiplayer. Resources in other RTS games have usually been environmental and setting up a base near them was, and is a great tactic. Resource gathering in Halo Wars, for better or for worse, are structures that you build in the slots of your main base, meaning you can’t resource hog a map to overpower your opponent.
While the campaign will take you anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to complete, the lasting appeal of any RTS is through its various multiplayer modes, and Halo Wars 2 has a few to keep you occupied. There is Domination where you’ll capture and hold control towers to score points. Strongholds is a frantic chase to see who can build the most structures by the end of the match, while Deathmatch sees you wipe your enemies from the face of the earth. Finally, there is Blitz. While each and every mode in the game has you dependent on a base to churn out cannon fodder, I mean units, Blitz has you summon those units with cards. There are infantry cards, vehicle cards and a whole wealth of different types that each have different recruiting costs. You’ll earn this recruitment currency by collecting a key resource on the map. Blitz can be played against other players or co-op against waves of enemies in what is called Blitz Firefight. You’ll capture areas on the map that earn you points should you at least control two zones.
One element that is shared across all modes is having a set leader for your squad. Cutter, Isabel, Anders, Decimus, Atriox, Shipmaster and Forge are all selectable leaders each with key abilities that may shape how you play, or play to your strengths. Isabel, for example, improves the effectiveness of vehicles and employs hacking and distraction powers in battle, whereas Anders’ expertise allows her to field Sentinal units and her upgrades are cheaper and faster. Decimus and Shipmaster, who are allies of Atriox, have abilities that siphon health or cloak their respective units. Blitz takes the leader system a bit further by having custom cards that only work under that leader, so pray you get lucky when opening a pack of cards.
The cards featured and used in Blitz are unlocked while playing the game, completing certain objectives or simply exploring all the content in the game; however, you can also buy these cards with real money. While the packs are random, those with a semi-disposable income can have a clear advantage based solely on luck, but it is still an advantage regardless. While this won’t really matter in Blitz Firefight, it can in the versus modes where you battle your friends or random players. I will say that one issue I have with Blitz is the placement of the cards on-screen, they tend to block a good chunk of screen real estate, making it sort of hard to see what is going on when the action gets hectic.
Halo Wars 2 is a game bursting with color. Despite other shooters and action games that tend to rely on seven shades of brown, Halo has always been a very colorful franchise. Isabel’s glowing orange color or the beautiful environments all compliment the color tones of the Halo series well. I noticed some slowdown when the action got intense, but overall the game runs and looks gorgeous and very much like a proper Halo game. I also have to give it props for not simply recycling the same audio command when selecting the destination for a unit. Sure, they may only have 2-3 options, but Forge consistently shouting “Rolling!” each time you moved the Warthog in the first Halo Wars was almost enough to make me start crawling up the walls.
As is the case with most Microsoft first party games is the play anywhere system. Should you purchase Halo Wars 2 digitally, then you’ll have access to it on both Xbox One and Windows 10. You can easily swap to both as it will sync up your save games and unlocks instantly. While the game is playable with a mouse and keyboard on PC, it is drastically designed for a controller, so keep that in mind.
Depending on what you expect out of an RTS, regardless of platform, Halo Wars 2 may scratch that itch. It’s basic, sure, but there is a lot to like here, and even more so should you actually be a Halo fan as well. Halo Wars 2 does tread upon material that Blizzard perfected almost 20 years ago with StarCraft, and that influence is very apparent throughout much of the content here. While Blitz is an entertaining way to waste hours and hours online against friends and random players, the microtransactions sadly look to hurt the staying power a mode like this should have. Halo Wars 2 is not without its flaws, but they are minor if you can keep your expectations in check for a console RTS. Sure, it’s not the deepest game, and the low unit count can make the game feel a bit less epic than it should, but it’s a fun game with a great story and it had me at Halo.