When the Halo series is discussed and passed around in gaming conversations, few and far between are fans of the Halo Wars real time strategy game. The eight year-old title is a clear mechanical shift from the first-person shooter-heavy series, yet has been lauded for keeping the soul intact of the series overall. That’s why it likely surprised a fair amount of fans and critics when the announcement of Halo Wars 2 surfaced at Gamescom 2015.
And while the Halo Wars series may not capture the same hype and build that other Halo titles bring, by no means should Halo Wars 2 be dismissed. More than just a competent RTS for consoles and PC, Halo Wars 2 is far and out one of the best and most accessible real time strategy games players can find on the Xbox One. However, the title doesn’t come without its fair share of issues that developer Creative Assembly will hopefully be able to address.
For those out of the loop in the Halo universe, Halo Wars 2 takes place a fair amount of time after the original Halo Wars, and a short time after Halo Wars 2. After the Spirit of Fire exit their 26-year cryo-snooze, Captain Cutter, Professor Anders and the crew of the Spirit of Fire head to explore a Forerunner environment — the Ark. It doesn’t take too long poking the Ark’s surface before the crew finds Halo Wars 2‘s main nemesis — Atriox, and the Banished.
With Artiox and the Banished’s character designs both ripped out of Planet of the Apes, Halo Wars 2 is able to make a compelling sci-fi story about this new nemesis being the first faction strong enough to break away from Covenant rule. Captain Cutter, with the help of his crew and a new AI — Isabel — aim to eradicate the Banished to bring justice for all the fallen UNSC soldiers.
If you aren’t familiar with the Halo series, the last two paragraphs may sound like a bunch of sporadic sci-fi lingo. However, as a gamer who only mildly dabbles in the lore of Halo, Halo Wars 2 is able to set up a strong opening that can be enjoyed by anyone approaching the series.
The good news about the story campaign — it is an entertaining romp, with a fair amount of diversity to set itself apart from other real time strategy games. Depending on how you personally play RTS titles, each stage will last anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes on the first run. Personally, I need every part of my base developed, balanced infantry, and item researched — I would regularly hit 40 minutes with each episode, even on easy difficulty.
While each episode would take a substantial time, there are only 12 episodes overall. The Halo Wars 2 campaign does have replay value with their different difficulty settings, however someone can easily get through the entire campaign in a sitting or two — especially pros or people looking to speedrun. The game’s campaign ultimately feels like an extended tutorial for the multiplayer options.
Technically, Halo Wars 2 isn’t without its hiccups. On the original Xbox One, players will have to suffer through two-minute or longer load times between missions. The save system is particularly uninutuitive, often requiring manual saves because of an imprecise autosave system. Within the first run of my campaign, I had replayed two full missions because of UI errors, crashing, and autosave problems.
The control scheme for Halo Wars 2 is both the game’s greatest achievement and most notable folly. I’m not going to sit here in my “gaming press pedestal” and say I know best how to design Real Time Strategy controls for an Xbox One controller. Hell, the fact that Halo Wars 2 feels as natural as it does is a huge commendation to developer Creative Assembly.
However, the elements stripped from the control scheme seems to make Halo Wars 2 feel ultimately one dimensional as compared to other series on PC. Because of the precision and variety of commands keyboard and mouse has to offer, the strategy-oriented gameplay felt limited to solely attacking or defending with large units. This didn’t change with the amount of time I spent mastering the Xbox One controls, despite my best efforts.
While Champions of Anteria was by no means a perfect game, Halo Wars 2’s campaign would have benefited from a gameplay mechanic where players could freeze time to issue commands. I got the distinct feeling that the level design was created to fit the jilted control scheme functionality, and not the other way around. Of course, this time freeze could only practically work in single player, so I suppose in the grand scheme it wouldn’t have worked out.
As for what Halo Wars does right, I’ve had a ton of fun with the newly-added modes: Blitz — specifically, Firefight. Creative Assembly has managed to merge a bit of Hearthstone (the good and bad) into standard real time strategy gameplay. Players collect cards by completing campaign missions the first time, playing the tutorials and leveling their service record — the overall scorecard for players. Oh, and of course buying them via microtransactions.
Instead of using gathered resources and creating troops from buildings, players use the randomized cards and collected sparse energy laying around the field to create actions, deploy troops and occupy zones. The person who occupies the most zones — specifically, two — is the one who gets the advantage.
The players can choose between PvP blitz matches and PvE — also known as Blitz Firefight. Blitz Firefight is probably the standout for the entire game. Allowing you to work alone or with another player in co-op, players face off against endless waves of enemies with the modified Blitz rules. Each wave gets progressively harder, until you kick the bucket. With a gentle ramp-up in difficulty, the randomness of Blitz mode and the cards you draw worked out in Firefight’s favor to create a dynamic experience.
The same can’t be said for the PvP fights which felt far more chaotic and unplanned, even if you were the team that was winning. While there is undoubtedly strategy in building and perfecting an amazing deck, far too often my time with PvP blitz relied on my opening hands with little room for underdogs to make a comeback. These fights led to both frustrating defeats and unsatisfying victories.
Of course, those looking for standard PvP RTS routes will have that option. Players can forgo the Blitz rules and take on other players in more traditional gameplay tactics, in a variety of different team and solo modes. The inclusion of these are standard fare and welcome additions for veterans of the genre.
At the end of the day, Halo Wars 2 is still a highly recommendable title — in fact, likely one of the best RTS games that can be found on the current generation. However, accessibility on consoles came with a price to both controls and gameplay in both campaign and multiplayer modes. But don’t let that stop fans of the series or newcoming gamers to the genre enjoy the game — you are assured to have a blast.