Reviewed on: Xbox One. Copy supplied by publisher.
The original Halo Wars was the best-selling and highest rated RTS game on console. Why? Because it refined the genre’s controls and gameplay for consoles, using its limitations as strengths; plus it didn’t hurt to be a Halo game at the height of the franchise’s popularity. But now that Halo has fallen a little to the wayside, Halo Wars 2 needs to rely on its own strength to hold itself up. Luckily it has some decent armies behind it to do just that.
The first thing I noticed about Halo Wars 2 is that it’s the best looking Halo game in years. Developers Creative Assembly have assimilated Bungie’s and 343 Industries’ designs, as well as adding some new flavours of their own. For example, the Banished Wraith has its classic chassis, but with spikes and metal plating attached to suit the rough style of Atriox. It’s nostalgic to watch these units clash, yet still feels fresh.
There are also little details that make this title pop, like when you’re training marines, a dropship will actually land on your base and the infantry will run out. It’s also great to watch a Spartan perform a body slam to finish off the last brute in its squad.
The campaign of Halo Wars 2 is a little short, with only 12 missions, following the UNSC crew of the Spirit of Fire, fighting the Banished forces (a splinter faction of the covenant) on the Ark, while trying to send a message back to Earth. And that’s pretty much it. Kind of plain compared to the original Halo Wars, which had the crew going from planet to planet, rescuing people, stopping the Flood, all while in pursuit of the Covenant who had discovered new Forerunner technology. Yes, I realise if you aren’t in the loop on Halo lore that all made about as much sense as a candlelit dinner with Nicholas Cage.
In Halo Wars 2 nothing important happens during the entire second act, so most missions open by simply telling you an objective needs to be completed. I’m not asking for a big space opera, a boots on the ground story is great. But you need to show the boots. The only character with any real development is Isabel, which isn’t enough to carry the personal side of the story. Why isn’t Captain Cutter upset he never got to see his daughter grow-up, or talking about Sergeant Forge’s death? That was like yesterday for him.
That all being said, there is some great gameplay during the campaign, like a surprising boss battle against one of the Banished leaders, and one mission where you have to avoid a giant enemy as you rush to capture control points. One of my favourite missions had me control a group of snipers, taking out infantry and spotting targets for artillery. But the majority of the missions boil down to ‘destroy that base’ or ‘defend this base’.
I expected more, as the original Halo Wars used its campaign to play with its unique RTS formula and constantly keep players guessing. This sequel often feels like you’re playing a standard multiplayer match against AI opponents.
Thankfully, multiplayer is Halo Wars 2’s strength. It keeps the simple and accessible gameplay of its predecessor, while still remaining intelligent in design. Most units fill the same roles as before, but with additional functions that strategic players will be able to take advantage of. Controls are still snappy and even smoother, except of course for micromanaging, which remains a nightmare for thumbsticks.
What’s been truly expanded are the Leader Powers: the perks, super weapons, and abilities that are unique to each character. These are what really promote different tactics, as one leader can teleport units or make them invisible, allowing you to flank and surprise. Another has perks to quickly construct economic buildings, giving an advantage to rushers. Powers are gradually unlocked as a match progresses, meaning players have to think about which powers they’ll need, so you can have multiple strategies for just one leader.
There are five multiplayer gametypes, with each catering to Halo Wars’ gameplay in different ways, and nine maps of varying sizes and landscapes. The maps are solid with multiple base areas, flanking routes and teleporters, and a few have additional elements, like healing towers or deployable bridges. There’s room to expand and add more life into the game, but there’s a decent amount of variance to keep players happy at launch.
Blitz is promoted as the revolutionary new gametype, and while it’s unique, I mostly stand by what I said in my first impressions. Usually the winner will be whoever grabbed the most energy. However, when you’re up against an evenly skilled opponent, matches are intense and action-packed.
Blitz Firefight is just like Blitz, except instead of another player, you’re fighting waves of AI units that become increasingly difficult. As the difficulty ramps up you really have to think about unit placement, control points, gaining energy, and eliminating enemies before the next wave comes through. It’s surprisingly complex, and if you let your guard down for a moment you can lose your entire army after a single wave. It’s a good challenge, but the main issue for both Blitz modes is that there’s only one map and it’s the smallest in the game. Because of this, the Blitz gametypes quickly become stale.
Custom matches allow players to experiment with different options, like resource count or skull modifiers from the campaign, allowing different and fun ways to play against friends or AI. I found customs useful to experiment with different units and leader powers and to understand how everything functions. I also enjoyed setting it so I could build three Scarabs in a few minutes and annihilate an easy opponent. And isn’t that what RTS games are really for?
I have had a couple of skirmish matches against AI where the framerate has suddenly dropped to an unplayable single frame every fifteen seconds, forcing me to quit.
It seems to occur when I have a large army attacking a base, but I’ve also had plenty of matches where there are no issues and Halo Wars 2 feels like the crispest RTS ever, so let’s maybe put that down to early teething problems.