Written by Mark Turcotte
In 2009 the Xbox 360 was arguably in its prime. Nearly every genre of video games was well represented on the system. First-person shooters, action games, and role playing games all existed on the console with some of the most memorable games in the respective genres having been released that year. There was one genre, however that just hadn’t found it’s place yet. The Real-Time Strategy game or RTS had a few scarce releases but with the mouse and keyboard being scrapped for the much “simpler” controller, none of the releases to that point had been well received by fans or critics.
Microsoft recognized this and decided to take a chance with its biggest franchise and release Halo Wars. The game was able to map the RTS experience to the controller and hold the crown as the best console RTS for nearly 8 years. With Halo Wars 2 Microsoft and Creative Assembly have made a much bigger and more action packed RTS that succeeds it predecessor in every way.
The initial meat of Halo Wars 2 is undoubtedly its campaign. The 8 to 9 hour story driven action will have you controlling your UNSC and Spartan units across many maps and locales. The story picks up 28 years after the events of the initial game and finds returning characters Captain Cutter, Professor Anders, and others waking up from cryosleep aboard the ‘Spirit of Fire’. The crew finds themselves at the Ark, an installation that is used to build the lethal Halo rings. A new enemy faction, the Banished, is introduced and its leader Atriox presents himself in one of the most brutal cutscenes in a Halo game ever. Right from the start Atriox lets it be known that his extreme Covenant sect is ready to go to war. The cutscenes sprinkled throughout the campaign are fantastic and had me wanting to hurry through missions just to see if there would be one at its conclusion.
The gameplay varies across the 13 campaign missions. Many of the early missions slowly teach you the controls mapped to the controller which at times can be cumbersome and confusing. It was only through trial and error that I began to learn the complicated and numerous controls. The game does offer a standalone tutorial, which is highly recommended completing before jumping into the campaign, but it is honestly only by repetition through the campaign that the controls began to become second nature. After a few missions I definitely settled in to the controls and was quickly directing troops around the map via direct commands and shortcuts by grouping unit types. The game offers hero units on certain missions that can be commanded and some even come with special abilities pulled straight from the Halo series like the Spartan slam or hijacking of vehicles. This added a unique twist on how to tackle the many different enemy types.
Speaking of controls it should be noted that the game is available for both the Xbox One and Windows 10. We were provided a review copy that of course utilizes the ‘Play Anywhere’ feature of many of Microsoft’s first-party games. I was able to play both versions of the game and the controller is a definitely a viable option for playing and is surprisingly intuitive once you learn it. The PC version of the game however is much smoother with the mouse and keyboard. On PC you are able to quickly select units and unit types and direct them much faster and with much more accuracy. Realizing this advantage it should be noted that Microsoft has decided to split the multiplayer for both the PC and console versions of the game. After spending my time with both versions, the PC version was easily the better version for me due to the mouse and keyboard controls.
Overall the campaign was a lot of fun to play through. There were however, a few bugs that were encountered which seemed to occur more so on the Xbox One version. Here I encountered infinite loading screens, game freezes, and even two hard crashes. With the game featuring an auto-save and allowing me the option to save mid-mission, these weren’t exactly game breaking, but they were annoying.
On Normal difficulty the campaign wasn’t too hard. The game is constantly wanting you to switch between units and attempts to force you to split your army up but often the most successful method was to just build up a massive, varied army and just snowball around the map destroying everything in your path. The game also offers leader powers that allow you to heal units, drop missile barrages, and even call in ODST’s. These leader powers help ease the challenge of each mission. I can imagine when played on the harder difficulties or with game modifying skulls turned on, that some players up for the challenge could test themselves against a ruthless Banished army and find failure often.
Most RTS’s have a campaign but lets be honest, it’s the multiplayer options that give these games legs and determines if players will continue playing them into the future. I’m happy to say that Halo Wars 2 delivers on the multiplayer front offering the traditional modes that the series is known for, as well as introducing a new mode that is quite honestly the shining piece of the whole package. Starting with the traditional modes players have the option of going in and battling in 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3. These modes generally task players with building up their base and units and attacking the opposing teams. The game offers a few different standard modes including Deathmatch, Domination, and Strongholds. Each of these modes offers varying rules for victory ranging from controlling more bases when the timer runs out, to full on assault of last man standing. Much of what is here was present in the previous game, but it was fun then and is still fun here but with the new units and leader ability twists.
The most exciting piece of the multiplayer by far has to be the new Blitz game mode. In Blitz, players spawn into a match by choosing a leader and a preset deck of cards. When a card is played a unit spawns onto the battlefield at the cost of set energy for that card. Players start with a set amount of energy and then must acquire more by racing around the map gathering more while fending off the enemy team who are attempting to do the same thing. As matches progress more powerful cards are played and ultimately stronger units are spawned. The goal of the match is to control 2 of the 3 control points on the map. When in control of 2 of these points a score ticker begins to tick up. The player to score 200 points first or with the most points when time runs out wins. Blitz throws the base building and slow paced beginning stages that the RTS genre is known for out the window, in favor of action packed battles that just scale in size as matches process. It is easily the best part of Halo Wars 2.
One of the more interesting pieces to Blitz is the cards themselves. Blitz card packs are acquired through playing any part of Halo Wars 2. Players are able to browse their cards and build decks tailored to strategies that they want to employ on the battlefield. An interesting twist to Blitz is that card packs can not only be acquired through play, but also by spending actual money. That’s right, microtransactions. This of course raises concern that Blitz could potentially become a pay to win mode and since the game is so fresh and new we will have to wait and see if that becomes the case. The concern is definitely there that certain metas could develop around certain cards and decks, and unless players have those certain cards, failure in certain matches could be a given. Microsoft has adamantly said that they don’t want Blitz to become be pay to win and for now, the mode is extremely fun and part of that fun is sharing deck builds and strategies.
As a complete package Halo Wars 2 offers something for just about everyone. New comers and veterans to the series will all feel at home with the content and with the wealth of options on how to play this standard RTS experience. Daily and weekly challenges are offered with reward for completing them, being coins to buy more Blitz packs. Those not willing to spend money outside of the initial purchase price will be just fine playing Blitz. I think the biggest hurdle for the game is in who exactly it is for. On one side, the hardcore RTS fan may find its simplistic approach to the genre a bit of a turn off, while the hardcore Halo fan may be turned away by the genre itself and its slow methodical gaps between action. If given a chance however, I think both sides can find a fun and exciting title that is definitely worth spending time with. It may not be for everyone and may lack an appearance from the Master Chief himself, but Halo Wars 2 stands tall with some of the great Halo titles to date.