The first edition in the subseries, Halo Wars, was released right around eight years ago for the 360. That was a joint venture between the then named Microsoft Game Studios and Ensemble Studios. It coalesced basic real time tenants within the Halo-verse realm. With the odds stacked against (usual RTS-on-console control mismatch, melding facets of a shooter to fit a completely different genre, et cetera), the critical consensus was more than positive. No doubt Ensemble’s pedigree with Age of Empires, Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, and Age of Mythology had much to do with the surprisingly affluent characteristics and mechanics. Halo Wars 2 is getting its generic expertise from Creative Assembly, being proprietors of the Total War series and its many iterations. So, the stage is striking similar to nearly a decade ago: dual production as one half is in charge of presenting and preserving the extensive Halo lineage with the other tasked with the technical backbone of strategy.
Irrespective of your strategy game experience, it’ll still be a wise decision to spend about an hour milling through the handful of Tutorial opportunities. Basic covers the essentials; chiefly among them being camera control with left stick, how to select units individually with A, and the “fog of war” concept. For those not-in-the-know, the “fog” is the understanding that although you can scan across the entirety of the map and view topographical outlays, you won’t be able to “see” more pertinent things like enemy positioning or potential “hot spots.” You’ll also be briefed on generating economy, managing resources, and building construction. Advanced extrapolates on these concepts, offering intel on “special” troop and vehicle types, programmable D-pad shortcuts, higher ground vs. the “kill box” concept, and the rock-paper-scissors paradigm of unit combat. The last selection is Blitz, which affords the 411 on HW2‘s unique mode, but more on that later.
Campaign escalates gameplay elements and demands whilst pushing a solid story. United Nations Space Command frigate The Spirit of Fire has been adrift for 28 years. The ship’s crew was shook from cryostasis by self decommissioned AI Serena to an uncharted astrolog location. Captain James Cutter and Lead Engineer Professor Ellen Anders begin the harrowing task of making contact with the UNSC, establishing humanity’s standing in its conflict against the Covenant Armada, and discovering the vast structure within their immediate proximity. Alice-130, Jerome-092, and Douglas-042 are the SoF’s residential Spartans. During a reconnaissance mission, the Spartans run onto a vacated outpost housing a terrified AI named Isabel. Despite a frantic warning, the team is ambushed by a hardened master Brute. Their hasty escape attempt proved just successful. Upon returning to the ship, Isabel supplies Captain Cutter with info on the antagonist. Atriox is the de facto leader of The Banished, a group of seditious Brutes that have laid waste to all Covenant forces whom have tried to sack the band. Well aware of the immense odds, Cutter howls for his SoF “family” to mount up and prepare for one last fight!
Assuming you’ve run through the tutorials or have at least semi-extensive knowledge strategy game templates, jumping right in shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Most missions will front you a few units consisting of an aforementioned Spartan and assorted others. This serves to set the stage to what lay ahead and the chapter’s basic premise. After essential intel is established, you’ll get afforded the opportunity to construct an initial base and start raising economy. Supply and Power are the two means of currency that control all “purchasing.” Build and upgrade Supply Pads and Generators as quickly as possible. Particularly in later stages, improved units of the human and vehicular variety are essential. Barracks, Garage, and Air Pad must be built for access to Hellbringer flame thrower troops, Warthogs, Hornets, and so forth. Upgrading the base “HQ” level brings with it a host of new researched tech. An important choice of note is the Nightingale mobile repair station. Positioned as a large aerial unit, it can repair vehicles on-the-fly, which is the sort of auto micro-management that can make the difference when you begin pushing or defending multiple fronts.+
Speaking of, enemies are from usual Halo adversary reservoirs. Expect Grunts, Hunters, Wraith tanks, and even the ever menacing Scarab mobile attack station. They’ll also be some bespoke spins on familiar baddies, like Brutes that leap into battle, causing extra AoE damage when they drop. The deeper in the Campaign you go, the more numerous and formidable attackers become; and they’ll increase the number of base sieges in which you’ll have to contend while still pushing forward with primary and secondary objectives. Fortifying defenses is step one. Build and upgrade turrets incessantly, as they will buy you time while new friendlies cook. It’s also not a bad idea to create a somewhat diverse set of units that aren’t mobilized to just guard the base, as units in range of each other will automatically engage. Delegating troops to Garrison berms scattered about are a serious advantage with the right usage. For instance, basic UNSC Marines may not have the best HP, but their Assault Rifles dole out serviceable punch at surprisingly distances. By loading them up in a Garrison, they’ll take aggro on incoming units and start the “chopping” process while bigger/badder help comes and finishes the timber job! In the events of full scale combat, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each used unit type takes on more and more relevance. For instance, Scorpion tanks are great at mowing down Grunts by the bushel, but struggle against Banshee air support. You can use the D-pad to setup four distinct packs as a quick way to make proactive and reactive movements. Leader Powers are a huge source of boost. Restoration Drones heal the HP of everything within a certain circular range. Archer Missiles afford a swift attack with decent payload against slow moving foes. Lotus Mines can be used to setup an explosive perimeter in front of points of interest you may be tasked with defending. All of this leads to perhaps the most pervasive and obvious problem with HW2. Flat out, RTS doesn’t translate well to controllers. While I don’t readily prescribe to all the “PC master race” propaganda that is regurgitated by the mass of computer gamers, a keyboard and mouse certainly has a distinct advantage in certain situations. The ability to freely swing the mouse cursor in any direction, being able to hotkey routinely used items or commands, and just the sheer amount of more scheme options is a critical part of what separates strategy game players. Simply, two thumbsticks and a maximum of 16 buttons (if you count thumbstick “click downs”) can’t translate the same mark of articulation. 343/Creative Assembly did a great job with what they had, and the game certainly doesn’t play bad. But there are definitely annoyances in attempting to make more nuanced adjustment. And when decision deployment becomes a race against the clock, this can get frustrating.
Multiplayer offerings are decently deep. In MP proper, you’ll find three different modes. Domination translates the familiar template to RTS. There are three control locations scattered about the map. Gain the lion’s share or all three to quickly count points towards your total. First team to the designated amount wins. Strongholds is another territory type. Several plots are available in which to build bases; having a construction built allots the area to the maintaining team. Additionally, unlimited resources are afforded with upgrades gradually unlocked during the course of the match. Whichever side has the most when time expires gets the victory. Finally, Deathmatch is the traditional setup of headquarter warfare. With no time limit by default, it’s about generating resources and growing a substantial regiment to destroy the opposing base(s). The team does that goes home with the dub! You might have noticed I’ve used words like “team” throughout this paragraph. In each mode, 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 orientations are offered. I think this will do much to increase the longevity of MP for months to come. Nice decision to open the field for viable teamwork and camaraderie.
The last way to play was probably the game’s most heralded leading up to launch. Blitz is a different take on the Domination rule set in terms of unit availability and management. Borrowing from table top trading card manifestations, you’ll chose twelve cards from your collection to create a deck. When the game starts, you’ll have four of them to play at will (not turned based). In order to change the cards in your “hand,” you can play one to bring up another in the deck or spend five Blitz points for a shuffle. Each card takes a certain amount of points to use, so you’ll want to watch for locations of them on the mini map. Cards are assigned a number ranging from 10 to 300. The higher the number, the more powerful the item. Basic Marine units are a lowly 20 while the Jerome-092 card registers a hefty 220. Before the start of a match, a “Leader,” consisting of Campaign main characters, must be chosen. This will determine what cards you can place in a deck. Captain Cutter is the bellicose sort, so he can utilize ODST drops. Protector Sentinels fit well with Professor Anders, a “tactician.” Duel (1v1), Standard (2v2), and Brawl (3v3) constitute the PvP section. For PvE, take on multiple waves of Covenant baddies in Firefight. While this mode is pretty fun and adds a noticeable remix in comparison to the other modes, earning packs comes down to accomplishing in-game tasks like completing Campaign missions or (dun-dun-DUN!) microtransaction purchases. Only time will tell if HW2 will fall victim to pay-2-win. But considering the nature of the card numbering system and no default restriction on an average “rank” per deck, there is an obvious potential exploit.
In the way of 3D strategies, the visuals here are adequate. Even with the camera racked all the way up, bigger items like different vehicles are discernible. Ground troop units become a little more muddled, especially when nestled in a large gathering. Map aesthetics exude a good amount of detail, but none of it is especially flashy, to be honest. Audio engineering is resplendent. Gameplay sound FX rock hard! Unit mannerisms such as movement and firing are accompanied by bold and pronounced audition. Even the voice acting is enveloping. While we’re in the neighborhood, the pre-rendered cutscenes done by Blur Studios are absolutely lit! There not as abundant as I would like, but those few minute set pieces interspersed throughout the Campaign are genuine gems. Best I’ve seen since, Halo 2 Anniversary, coincidentally also created by Blur.
As stated previously, the biggest drawback is something that MS Studios, 343, nor Creative Assembly can alleviate. RTS with a controller is just clunky, and unless there is some incredibly massive overhaul on the average pad construction and layout, that’ll never change. Insofar as that is an accessibility gate, Halo Wars 2 largely wins in all other aspects. The core gameplay mechanics of management and movement are solid. Engagement strategy demands can be extensive depending on opponent acumen, whether that be in CPU or flesh & blood form. Each PvP and PvE offering adds its own shade of complexion. And we’ll have to wait and see what effect microtransactions are going to have on the competitiveness of Blitz. For even the most naif to the strategy genre, there may be enough appeal to give a go. Those that fall into the thin sliver of hardcore Xbox and hardcore RTS fan on the video gaming Venn diagram, this should probably be your next purchase.