Halo Wars 2 – Review
Xbox One, PC
Of all the games in the Microsoft back catalogue, I never thought I would see a sequel to Halo Wars. Not because it was a bad game mind you, it just never seemed to set the world on fire in terms of sales or build a big community around it. I personally enjoyed the game and thought it was as good as an RTS would ever get on the console, but I think the world just wasn’t ready at the time for an Xbox only RTS. Fast forward a few years and the world is a different place. Apart from Starcraft 2, the traditional RTS scene is rather barren (though games like the Total War series still thrive) meaning the time is right for a new entry in the genre. Halo Wars 2 may just be that entry because, while I can’t speak for everyone, it certainly has re-kindled my passion for base building and army management.
I want to address the elephant in the room first and that is controls. History suggests that making an RTS game work on consoles is more than a little difficult but I am pleased to say that in this case history has been proven wrong. The game works really well using the controller. It features an abundance of quick shortcuts, double taps and grouping options that are all accessible from the controller with ease. That being said I did find that using the mouse and keyboard (Halo Wars 2 is a part of the Xbox “Play Anywhere” initiative, so one purchase gets both the PC and Xbox One version) to be my preferred method of play. I felt like I had much more control over the battlefield and I was more comfortable in stressful situations. Of course, that could be simply because of my 20+ years of playing RTS games on a PC and people new to the genre may actually find using the controller easier. Either way both control systems work well and players of all experience levels should have no trouble here.
This single player campaign is quite an exciting one. The story, while not ground breaking, certainly held my interest and there is plenty of Halo lore sprinkled through it for the die-hard fans. What is exciting about the campaign is the missions themselves. They are tense, well put together and feature a huge amount of variety. One minute I was sneaking through enemy lines to paint targets on enemy buildings and the next I was leading a full-scale battle. Each mission has multiple stages to it and this means they feel much more dynamic than most RTS mission structures. RTS games of old would be based around one idea per mission whereas Halo Wars 2 can incorporate 3 or 4. Nothing I was doing was new to the genre but the way it was put together made it feel fresh and exciting.
The key to battling in Halo Wars 2 is knowing what each unit does. At its basic level, it works off a rock/paper/scissors system. Vehicles beat Troops, Airforce beat Vehicles and Troops beat Airforce. But there are exceptions to this rule and I found that knowing each unit’s primary and secondary abilities was essential to getting out alive. This is even more important as there is a pretty small unit limit meaning that the good old tank rush isn’t really an option here. Mixing up my units based on what my enemy was throwing at me was the key to victory and it made for engaging tactical gameplay.
Multiplayer is where Halo Wars 2 really begins to try some new things. There are the standard array of game modes for multiplayer in RTS matches. Domination was perhaps my favourite, with the goal being to control key points around they map. As long as I controlled the points my score was ticking over. First to 300 wins. It was a wonderful game of to and fro that requires a little bit of a different mindset to simply crushing the opposing army. Of course, if a war of extinction is what you are after this is an option too.
The real innovation though is Blitz mode. This mode combines deck building with RTS in a wholly unique manner. As I progressed through the game, both in single and multiplayer modes, I was gifted blitz card packs. After unwrapping these cards I could build a deck that I could then take into battle. These cards were a range of units and boosts that cost resources to play. I couldn’t build a base or recruit through buildings, my deck was my only way of winning a battle. It led me to take a host of new tactics and forced me to think on the spot in ways that and RTS never has before. There is even a “Firefight” version of Blitz that allowed me to team up with another player and taking on successive waves of enemy units. The only issue I have here is the ability to buy more card packs with real world money. At the moment it seems I am getting gifted enough card packs that it isn’t an issue, but if that slows down I feel I may be disadvantaged when compared with someone who is prepared to splash some cash. It feels like a little bit of sour topping on what is otherwise a tasty cake.
Graphically Halo Wars 2 is a pretty solid effort. The units and Spartans lack the detail seen in the FPS games but that is to be expected. The environments are all quite stunning and everything runs smoothly with frame rate problems non-existent. The game looks a little better on the PC but that doesn’t mean the Xbox One version is ugly, far from it. Sound wise the game evokes the feeling of a Halo game, while still having its own unique touches. The voice work is top notch and the score is appropriately dramatic when it needs to be. This is a game that has been put together with care and it shows in both the visual and audio design.
What I found in at the end of my time with Halo Wars 2 was a game that satisfied my craving for an old-school RTS but at the same time brought some exciting new features to the genre. The mission design and Blitz modes are both particularly impressive additions to the RTS bag of tricks. The game does have a couple of little faults, like potentially unbalanced micro transactions and a slightly complicated control system on consoles but overall this is the most fun I have had with an RTS in quite some time. If you are a returning RTS hound or new to the play style you could certainly do a lot worse than Halo Wars 2. It is everything I wanted, with a couple of surprises thrown in for good measure.