Way back in 2009, Halo Wars seized on a glaring gap in the console market with a real- time strategy game that not only had wonderfully mapped gamepad controls but expanded on the Halo franchise, providing a slower paced feed of universe-building information. Halo Wars was unique in its ability to bring the world of a popular first person shooter and repurpose everything found within into a solid, fun, tactical Command and Conquer style experience. Yet there was an itch which was never truly scratched for all those people who grew up with the likes of Red Alert and Total Annihilation but had slowly migrated from the computer desk to the lounge sofa as they got older. Hands up over here!
Now it’s 2016, many years have passed since the original, multiple traditional Halo games have come and gone, the original Halo Wars development company Ensemble Studios is no more and any gamers who longed for some lounge-based strategy now have more options through the new Steam boxes, Steam Link and Steam Pad (along with, of course, a PC somewhere in the house). As a result it’s an interesting time to release Halo Wars 2, but Microsoft with a seasoned real-time strategy team on board (Creative Assembly) seems to have a put a lot of stock - and funding - behind this release.
Halo Wars 2 is set in 2559, roughly twenty-eight years after the original Halo Wars and ever so shortly after the events of Halo 5. We pick up with Captain Cutter following the extensive hyper sleep he entered right at the end of the first game, awoken to find that the war between humanity and the Covenant has ended, with the Spirit of Fire and all on board declared lost forever. As they awake, a distress beacon calls them to a nearby Ark but sadly not all is at it seems. The Banished led by the fantastically over the top Atriox await them along with a friendly new AI companion by the name of Isabel. Fight or flight is the first dilemma and naturally fight is the chosen option.
As you would expect from a Halo game the cutscenes are at times wondrous to watch, gorgeously rendered with fantastic voice acting, they really are quite sumptuous. These CGI cut scenes set up the core narrative in the single-player mode as well as introducing you to some of the new characters in the Halo universe. To supplement these story-driven scenes there are also lots of in-game pointers which help you as you go, an example being that certain types of units will be required to contain an incoming threat. These little nods here and there come fast early on and are then left to the later, more complicated missions before reappearing and distributing their sage wisdom. If anything, they depart a little too early which can lead to confusion and cause you to flounder a little while you figure out what you both can do during the mission and what you need to do to be successful.
The main campaign is made up of thirteen missions and are for the most part entertaining, if a little limited. You will take control of a variety of troops including all the firm favourites from the Halo universe - direct a Spartan to hijack a Scarab, call in some ODST, launch a full assault with a team of Scorpion tanks and more. Naturally, given the campaign’s length of around eight to ten hours on the normal difficulty there are some duds in there. Missions range from simple “get from A to B with a group of troops” to multi-phase multi-base “throw everything at the wall and hope for the best missions” which, whilst glorious on screen, are particularly difficult and hectic to manage using the pad. In a similar fashion to the original the core experience is base building, point taking and butt kicking using a variety of well-designed, well-animated troops and vehicles (both land and air) along with some simple resource gathering and base building. Nothing relating to the base or troop creation is particularly tricky, if anything the game actually falls down a little due to the aforementioned in-game help in some of these areas which can result in you going way over the par time for a map as it wasn’t immediately obvious that you’d need to research and build a ton of a certain unit to be successful. At its core though the campaign is very much designed to teach you how to play the game for the online components, in itself that can often result in a tacked on single-player experience but Halo Wars 2 manages to keep things interesting enough to avoid this trap. If there are negatives to level at the campaign they would be the core length and also the final mission, which is actually a multiplayer domination match masquerading as a story mission.
From a technical standpoint you can see a lot of time and budget went into the making of Halo Wars 2. Those gorgeous cut scenes steal the show, however on the early review build we played we did experience a number of audio glitches and some minor stuttering, which in isolation is annoying but not a deal breaker. We did however experience a series of stop/start style freezes many times across the final two campaign missions; only by pressing the start button would the game come back to life. This didn’t cost any game time or mission status but did try its best to spoil the latter parts of the campaign - we’d like to think this will be patched for launch.
Controls are always an interesting proposition for a game of this nature on a console and Halo Wars 2 makes some key design decisions here which for the most part are great choices. Base building is limited, but not overly Fisher Price and the game also only concerns you with two types of resources to collect to enable you to create your army. Users have multiple options when selecting units, the trusty A button to select one, hold A to select a circle of units (the circle expands as you hold), or alternatively RB to select local units and double tap RB to select the crowd favourite ALL UNITS. Once selected you simply use the X button to move your squad(s) and Y to utilise the various special attacks for the group. Quick links to troop squads, bases and waypoints are accessible via the D Pad, although this is a bit hit-and-miss when you’ve three bases and 100 units scattered across multiple capture points.
In addition to the core single-player campaign a smattering of multiplayer modes are available, these include; Deathmatch (requires no explanation), Skirmish (a quick jaunt into battle), Domination (hold zones) and Strongholds (no base building involved). These modes cater nicely for 1v1, 2v2 and even 3v3 matchups. To add to the online multiplayer suite above, the package gives us a brand new game type called Blitz. Blitz is arguably the gem in the collection; aimed at gamers who aren’t necessarily strategy gamers and utilising the one thing that’s quite hot right now: cards. Playing like a mixture of a deck-building game and Domination mode it provides players with a twelve card deck of varying unit types. No base building is involved at all, allowing you to play fast and loose if you have a deck full of powerhouse units. Blitz mode (and Blitz Firefight) are a ton of fun and can be enjoyed against both human and AI opponents. Naturally as you play you will start unlocking card rewards allowing you to create varying builds. The uncomplicated gameplay and excellent production values allow this mode to be very easy to get into and enjoy, adding a deeper deck-building element to the already established game modes.
Halo Wars 2 fills a gap no one really knew needed to be filled, a solid real-time strategy game on the latest console generation. High production values, excellent immersion into the world of Halo (arguably better than it’s big brothers in some cases), along with a reasonable campaign and the excellent Blitz mode make Halo Wars 2 the go to standard for console real-time strategy games right now. The wheel is not reinvented here but it’s a great experience all the same.