Halo Wars 2 - Review

Halo Wars 2 is something of an anomaly. Although the game is available on PC (and compatible with Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere initiative), it’s on the Xbox One where it will probably find its biggest audience. Fascinating when you consider that, just as it was when the game’s predecessor was released eight years ago, real-time strategy games have basically no presence on consoles. Certainly the popularity of RTS games in general has waned in recent times, but the main reason for the genre’s absence has always been a problem of control, or rather, lack thereof. Developers have always struggled to make large scale battles feel manageable on a controller. The mouse-and-keyboard combo that has served PC strategy enthusiasts so well over the years just doesn’t have a parallel on consoles.

RTS supremos and creators of the monolithic Age Of Empires series Ensemble Studios were rightly lauded for what they achieved with the original Halo Wars, especially with the controls. Since that studio was eventually absorbed and then shuttered by Microsoft, it’s down to Creative Assembly to tackle Halo Wars 2. They’re no slouches, having had huge success with their own Total War series, and so probably seemed like the best candidates to take the Halo license forward into its second RTS outing.

And the game certainly feels very Halo. From the minute the title screen appears, accompanied by the familiar gentle orchestral music, there can be no doubting which universe you’re entering. Starting with the very first Bungie title, all through the series to the current 343 Industries iterations, Halo has always set the bar in terms of presentation, and Halo Wars 2 certainly carries on this tradition. These high production values are especially evident once you begin the game’s single player campaign, and are treated to a cinematic to set the scene. It’s the end of the human-covenant war, and 28 years since the principle ship from the previous Halo Wars, the Spirit of Fire, was left drifting through space. Now, the entire crew has awoken from cryosleep to find themselves next to the Ark, with a signal coming from the surface. It doesn’t take long before Captain James Cutter and the rest of the Spirit of Fire’s crew realize that although the war may be over, there’s still a very real threat to humanity, and it's down to them to stop it.

These cut-scenes punctuate the story, and are never less than excellent, with each of the main characters, including Captain Cutter, Professor Anders, and the AI, Isobel, performed and mo-capped beautifully. The game’s lead antagonist, Atriox, is set up particularly well as the brutal leader of the Banished faction that serve as the game’s enemies. An unfortunate side effect of the great cinematics is that when the game transitions from these to the in-game engine, the effect is jarring and unwelcome. That’s not to say Halo Wars 2’s visuals are bad. The game actually looks crisp at all times, with some truly spectacular effects. It’s just that when the story is told through the game’s graphics, which are designed to render large amounts of action, not individual detail, I lost the connection I had with the characters. They were like poorly animated puppets compared to what I’d seen before, and my brain reconciling the two.

Regardless, after a stirring speech from Captain Cutter, you’re thrown into your first mission, a simple recon job that, inevitably, turns out to be absolutely not simple at all. It’s straightforward enough to learn the basics, though. In each mission, you’ll control a number of troops, directing them around the battlefield from your top-down view. As is tradition with RTS games, you’ll build bases, which is very simplistic in Halo Wars 2. Once a central base structure has been thrown down, other structures built off the central hub allow the production of more advanced units. Build, select, throw them into the fight, repeat. Units follow the tried-and-tested rock-paper-scissors blueprint of strengths and weaknesses, meaning you’ll need to mix-up you force to be able to handle different types of threats. The standard infantry, vehicles, and flying units available would be interchangeable with any RTS game of the last two decades, were it not for the familiar Halo coat of paint everything has. Fans of the series will certainly get a kick out of sending Warthogs, ODST troopers, and of course, Spartans, into battle, and though this helps make encounters feel special, you can’t help but feel you’ve seen it all before. 

Likewise, I found the base-building equally lackluster. Resources are needed to build units, but the resource gathering here is streamlined to a bare minimum — you simply built a supply pad and generator, and watch those numbers increase. There are control points on some maps that bolster your resources, and a quantity is sometimes strewn around to be collected by your units, but it’s rarely necessary to go after this. Also, bases can only be built on pre-defined areas on each map, removing any potential for strategic placement of defenses. I understand these choices were probably made in order to simplify the mechanics, but for me, it ends up taking much of the tactical nuance out of the game.

It’s lucky that the story kept me interested, because it wasn’t long before the missions themselves became stale. There’s seldom a mission type in Halo Wars 2 that, if you’re a fan of the genre, you haven’t seen before. There are attempts to vary from the usual ‘build up your forces, seek and destroy the enemy base’ type missions with some ‘survive waves of enemies’ and ‘protect the hero’ scenarios, and there’s the odd side-mission thrown in there too, like having to complete an objective before a designated time limit, or destroying extra stuff, but it feels forced. Also, many of the missions fall into the trap of serving mainly as training for the multiplayer portion of the game. It’s understandable of the developers to want players to get accustomed to playing online, as that’s the best way of extending the longevity of the game. But these missions not only detract from the story but are often simply just plain boring.

Onto the multiplayer itself, and there’s quite an exhaustive suite of options at your command including a whole host of game modes to have a go at. Domination is a classic take-and-hold situation, where towers must be controlled to score points, with the first player to reach the score limit crowned the winner. Strongholds has each player building as many mini-bases as possible with limited resources. Deathmatch speaks for itself; destroy all enemy bases to win. You’ve probably noticed that, as with the single player, everything feels adequate but far from mind-blowing. Even playing as The Banished faction, possible in Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer modes, lacks originality. The mixture of new and familiar Covenant units seems a little too similar to those of the UNSC to warrant using a different style of play.

Or course, this is Halo, so Skulls can be added to modify match conditions. These range from the fun ‘Grunt Birthday Party’, where every grunt killed explodes in a shower of confetti, to the game-altering ‘‘Things That Go Boom’, which makes every hero unit go nuclear when killed. These add a bit of variety to games, but as they’re only available in custom matches, standard games are left to suffer from chronic samey-ness. That said, they at least were technically reliable; On Xbox One, I rarely experienced frame rate issues online, or in single player for that matter. Matchmaking was always flawless, throwing me quickly and efficiently into games often before I was even ready. 

So far, so by the numbers, then. Where the multiplayer does start to get interesting, though, is with Blitz, a new game type that has clearly been given plenty of attention — it’s even got its own menu tab, completely apart from the standard multiplayer options. Could the fact that this game-type includes in-game purchases have something to do with this extra focus?

Cynical cash-grab or not, there are still elements here that warrant attention, as this is perhaps the one part of Halo Wars 2 that bears a spark of originality. Blitz fuses domination style area control gameplay with a lightweight card-battle system, whilst doing away with base-building entirely. Before taking to the battlefield, you select a leader, and a deck of twelve cards. Each card, whether a unit or a support power, has an energy value. In game, you can play anything in your four-card hand once you’ve got the amount of energy you need, gained either from arbitrary resource drops that bestow a small amount every so often, or from grabbing energy from the battlefield. You spawn with a small force, and must charge around the map, taking and holding the three control areas, A, B and C. Matches can be a 1v1 face off, or 2v2 and 3v3 brawls where you have to work together with your teammates to score points by controling the majority of the areas. 

Blitz matches, especially those with six players, are utterly chaotic, with carnage going on in all corners of the map. Here, a mastery of each unit’s strengths and weaknesses helps immeasurably. Should you play a couple of units of the cheap and flexible Marines, or save for a costlier, but potentially more devastating Grizzly tank? Support powers really come into their own too. These single-use gambits are also present in the standard multiplayer and the campaign, but here, choosing when to use them to grant the best advantage seems somehow even more paramount. There’s nothing more satisfying than perfectly timing an Archer missile strike to obliterate an enemy’s force just as they’re gaining the upper hand.

This chaos, coupled with the card mechanic, means Blitz has large degree of randomness, which won’t be to everyone’s tastes. But perhaps because it offered the freshness I was craving from the rest of the game, I actually ended up preferring it to the standard multiplayer modes, which felt played-out and humdrum in comparison.

My one concern with Blitz — and it is a major one — is that the balancing will eventually start to be spin out of control. As previously alluded to, real world money can be used to buy packs of in-game cards, with a rarity system ensuring that some are more desirable than others. Decks can then be customized, with (at least in theory) different strategies available to those who persevere. Resource costs should prevent a player from dominating based on their possession of the most powerful cards, but I can’t help but worry that Blitz will start to become more ‘pay-to-win’ over time.

So far I’ve tiptoed around them, but make no mistake, the controls of an RTS are absolutely make-or-break. 

Adequate. That’s how controlling Halo Wars 2 feels. Creative Assembly have continued the work started with the original in offering a workable control scheme on controllers. Selection is handled by pressing A, with a long press used to select bigger groups. Tapping the right shoulder button once selects all units on screen, while double-tapping selects all units in your army.  There’s support for assigning control groups, and even queuing commands for your units — workarounds have been devised for most of the controller’s limitations, often involving you holding the right trigger to activate a second bunch of options. 

The problem is, none of this feels particularly intuitive. Even though I’ve played through the entire campaign, I still have problems with basic actions like moving my units away from an enemy who is slaughtering them. Selecting different unit types in the same group is needlessly tricky, and if you’re thinking of trying to coordinate more than one attack group in something resembling a strategy, forget about it. The limitations of the control scheme effectively kill any potentially elaborate tactics you have in mind. Whether you like it or not, you’ll probably end up just selecting all of your troops and clicking attack most of the time, in both the campaign, where the lack of strategy barely matters, and in multiplayer, where you’ll likely be way too flustered to be too particular about tactical planning. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no doubt that this is probably the best control scheme ever devised for a console RTS. But it just never feels as instinctive as it should, and as a result, you’ll never feel like the master tactician you’d love to be.

Though Halo Wars 2 doesn’t exactly feel like a necessary game — besides the new Blitz mode, there’s precious little innovation to speak of —  it certainly uses the Halo license to its fullest, and fans of the series will find something to like here amongst the familiar units and enjoyable contribution to the Halo story. But if this is the limit to what can be achieved with an RTS on consoles, you have to ask, why bother? I’m left thinking that just because it can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it should.

Score 6.5