Halo Wars 2 Preview - E3 2016
We check out the upcoming Halo strategy game from Creative Assembly
The original Halo Wars followed the exploits of Captain Cutter and the crew of UNSC Spirit and Fire as they first encountered the Covenant, set 23 years before the events of Halo. Developed by now-closed Ensemble Studios, Halo Wars not only took the Halo franchise in a new direction, but also attempted to tackle how RTS translates to a console environment, which has had mixed attempts in the past. In Halo Wars 2, we join Captain Cutter once again who, after he and his crew were suspended in cryosleep, awaken revolving Ark, a Forerunner installation. This all takes place 28 years after the first game and directly after Halo 5: Guardians. Here, Captain Cutter and his crew battle the Banished, a splinter faction of the Covenant, led by Brute Warlord Atriox. During the preview, we got to see a slice of the campaign in action, and later I had some hands-on time with the game in multiplayer.
Halo Wars 2 wants to further refine the accessibility of RTS games on console. While not messing too much with the formula that worked for the previous title, Microsoft did team up with RTS masters The Creative Assembly. With Halo Wars 2 not only on console but PC, too, (and a Play Anywhere title), a little more tweaking was needed to update the sequel for both platforms. When an RTS game comes to both console and PC, there’s always a question of whether the player with the keyboard and mouse will be able to throw down with the player on console. In the case of Halo Wars 2, the two platforms will live independent multiplayer lives.
Before we got down to drop-shipping in a Pelican, we were treated to an opening cinematic, an element of the previous game which received much praise. The premise was simple: scout this area, find any hostile forces, and take them out, building your forward operating base. So, a small band of marines landed on solid ground within a rather picturesque, forested area, replete with running streams. The minimap was filled in piecemeal, the “fog of war” all around. The marines trudged forward and turned a bend to quickly run into resistance in the form of Banished troops. The method of assault, which ran through the core of the gameplay demo, was the “rush” approach. The marines made quick work of this pocket of enemies and then moved onward to a small clearing where they were suddenly overwhelmed.
Never fear, however, because backup swiftly arrived in the form of two tanks, showing off the new destructible environment effects, blowing a barrier to smithereens. As debris hurled across the screen and plumes of smoke drifted into the area, another pocket of resistance soon fell. Moving onward with reinforcements in tow, the marines encountered Banished enemies that were entrenched in small areas. This entrenchment bonus works similar to being on higher ground or in a defensible location from many other RTS games: you get a bonus to defense. But that didn’t stand well against UNSC tanks and troops.
The next objective was using the troops to activate a bridge, and upon crossing to the other side, the tanks found a foe to be fearful of: Hunters. These are your anti-tank units, so the heavy machinery of the UNSC stayed back while the ground troops took care of the enemy. The Hunter enemies continue the sense of “rock-paper-scissors” gameplay that many-a-title have adopted to simplify unit interactions. Continuing onwards, the tactic of rushing the enemy was still very much in play, but we were assured this was nothing more than a preference of play style. It was made clear that tactics are there if you wish to employ them, such as distinct unit groupings and breaking up units to run and flank the enemy, as well as scout ahead.
When it came time to assault the Banished’s base, the area, well, looked like a battlefield. Explosions were abound, structures collapsed in flame, the little healthbars were rapidly depleting, and unique unit moves were unleashed. One of the Banished special abilities was pillars of lightning that cut through marines and tanks like space butter, shaving off chunks of health. But the Banished weren’t the only ones with fancy tricks. UNSC units can be upgraded: your marines can be equipped with rocket launchers to better blow stuff up.
After the dust cleared, the enemy base was no more. A ship then dropped off our new and shiny base, which can supply your team with more crew—and also be vulnerable to attack. It wasn’t long before the marines had to defend their base and finally take the fight to the boss of the area. However, as soon as the Covenant creature appeared to dish out justice, we’d come to the end of our mission. Now it was time to start a new one.
The hands-on experience for Halo Wars 2 came in one flavor: Strongholds. In this 3-vs-3 mode, you begin with three bases for each of the players, located at opposite ends of the map. These bases will spawn different types of units, from ground marines to heavy units to Cyclops and more. You object is pretty simple: stop your base being destroyed, obliterate the enemy bases, and capture other neutral bases along the way.
For this mode, I chose a race closer to home with Captain Cutter and his band of merry marines. Our three-man team faced off against opponents who were using the Banished, a more rush focused unit. The fog of war covers the game world at the beginning of the match, so we needed to spawn some troops and send them on scouting duties. With the near infinite amount of resources we had in the demo, we could replace any lost units quickly, which led to legions of followers ready to throw their lives away.
Teamwork is key in Halo Wars 2, especially in these competitive modes. When the enemy has banded together, systematically marching across the map, they can easily blow apart your small pockets of resistance. Something I found out the hard way. However, with the numerous unique abilities, of which there were five, I managed to even thing out. Abilities like aerial covering support—the most expensive ability—can make quick work of bases and units alike. The turret drop ability is also useful for having a little extra defense at a base you have moved away from, as well as positioning at choke points such as ramps leading to other bases.
One of the issues of the game, and the reason I chose to play on the Xbox One, was to experience how a controller would function not only in a match, but in a mode that puts emphasis and quick micro/macro management of units. With the “A” button emitting a unit selection ring that highlights the troops in its area, you can quickly rally a few peons. However, though you can create premade “groups” consisting of specific units, in the chaos of battle, I was wishing for a mouse and keyboard to make my movements more precise. Obviously, this is the biggest reason why console players and those on PC have a separate matchmaking queue despite Halo Wars 2 being a “Play Anywhere” title.
As the battle raged on, I found myself frantically trying to create more units and slamming my unique abilities whenever they appeared. The fifteen minute encounter all passed rather quickly, and I was not really able to push too deeply into enemy territory. The team and I were mostly busy running around like madmen trying to put out literal fires at our bases. This hectic nature of Strongholds is good, but it would have taken several more matches to get into the real flow of battle. Not being too familiar with the rock-paper-scissor nature of the enemy units also ended up with me just selecting whichever units had not been blown into the stratosphere.
I think “chaotic” would be the best way to describe my Halo Wars 2 multiplayer experience. One of the tenets of Creative Assembly in designing the game was that they wanted to make it accessible, which it is. You can jump in fairly easily, but learning the art of war will take you some time. For me, as Captain Cutter, I’m not going to be winning any commendations for valor and cool-headedness any time soon. If anything, I’d probably be court marshaled for sending all my troops to their deaths. Interested fans can enter the battlefields of Halo Wars 2 in February 2017.