Halo Wars 2 Review
Perhaps the definitive console RTS, though with room to improve
What if you were to create a gaming concoction that contained key ingredients from a few particular games that came before it? Say for instance, you took the meat of the first Halo Wars as well as Starcraft, lathered it in a Halo marinade, and threw in a dash of Hearthstone? The resulting creation might be Halo Wars 2. Grabbing the reigns from the now defunct Ensemble Studios, developer Creative Assembly has taken the core elements of its console exclusive RTS predecessor and, at least in a minor degree, upped the ante with its multiplatform sequel. Halo Wars 2 exists as a sort of jack of all trades, drawing inspiration from a handful of titles as well as genres, while never quite excelling. Simultaneously, it builds and refines a bit from the first Halo Wars and tacks on a few new features for good measure.
If you’ve at least dipped your toes into the water of the original Halo Wars, you’ll be starting from an advantageous point when delving into the sequel as you’ll recognize the familiar engine underneath the slick new hood. From the limited spots for base building and expansion, to the streamlined process of building and upgrading by flicking the joystick to a particular direction on a selection wheel of actions, Halo Wars players will find much that’s familiar. The “rock, paper, scissors” style of combat - which is to say, one type of unit having an overall strength advantage over the other, coupled with a few more specialized combatants, is still in place.
Franchise veterans will of course recognize the iconic units from Halo lore, from Warthogs to Covenant Grunts. Much of the same palette of troops, land vehicles, and aircraft is still intact, with a few additions and alterations. As we’re talking about a Halo game, Spartans of course make a return as well - the super soldier heroes who still possess the satisfying ability to jump into a vehicle and hijack it. A few new units include a healing aircraft called the Nightingale, as well as the massive and absurdly powerful Condor gunship on the UNSC side. And if the Banished is more your cup of tea, you can play around with a handful of new forces as well - like the anti-air walker known as the Reaver, and the giant mechanized spider-esque Blisterback.
When it comes to the differences between the UNSC and Banished, we’re not exactly talking Terran vs Zerg. At a core level the dynamics feel more-or-less similar, outside of some more minor variants in the specialties and abilities of the units themselves. This is probably for the best though, as it helps to keep the factions somewhat balanced. However, it should be noted that I did notice a bit of an advantage when it comes to some of the Banished leader powers. The plasma beam leader powers for instance can be a killer, cutting through some of the more vulnerable units like butter, and wiping out half your army before you know it.
You’ll likely have heard of the resident protagonist, the prideful UNSC Captain James Cutter, who has abruptly found himself thrown into yet another conflict against the Covenant. The game takes place 28 years after the story of the first Halo Wars, surpassing even Halo 5: Guardians on the timeline. Cutter, along with fellow returning cast member Professor Ellen Anders, has awoken from a lengthy sort of cryosleep “hibernation.” Upon returning to the fold, they find that little has changed since the pre-Master Chief era. Though this time, it is the ruthless band of ex-Covenant mercenaries known as The Banished who wish to see humanity fall to its knees, by way of gaining control of The Ark - a sort of control mechanism for the Halo weapon system. Leading them is Atriox, a super-Covenant rebel whose forces - along with his general Decimus - you will fight throughout campaign mode. Cutter takes it upon himself, with the help of Anders and new AI chum Isabel, to keep this new rising threat at bay.
When it comes to Halo Wars 2’s strengths, neither the campaign, nor its story, is exactly at the forefront. There is little throughout that innovates or inspires, and the 12 missions provided can be completed relatively quickly and with only a moderate understanding of the game’s mechanics. Also, like its predecessor, the campaign only allows you to play as UNSC forces, a bummer as playing the story through the eyes of the Banished could have been a neat addition. Of course, you can thankfully still play as your alien foes in multiplayer. That said, there is plenty the campaign does right. For one, the cutscenes are a treat for the eyes and ears, featuring an epic cinematic quality, and almost making me resist my usual impulses to gloss over them in order to get to the action. They are well crafted, well acted, and help draw you into the story - an impressive feat considering there’s not much substance to the narrative in the first place.
There also exists a relatively smooth progression and learning curve throughout most of the journey. Despite my relative lack of experience with the first Halo Wars, and console RTS games in general, I rarely felt overwhelmed or confused when playing through the missions. The game did an overall nice job of holding your hand through the early portions, cleverly inserting a variety of tasks throughout to help get newcomers acquainted with the basic mechanics as well as the features the game provides. You might, for instance, have to utilize the long range firing of the snipers to take out explosive grunts from a distance, jump cliffs with a Warthog, or be forced to activate a light bridge by reaching its control panel.
Yet, a disclaimer - even though you can at least gain a basic grasp of how the game plays during the campaign and pick up some little tricks, there are a number of more intricate abilities and strategies the story mode either glosses over or doesn’t mention at all. For this reason, Halo Wars newcomers should probably run through the tutorials. They aren’t particularly exciting, though they help you get more into the nitty-gritty details that could nudge you towards a strategic advantage. This proves particularly beneficial when delving into the often unforgiving online battles.
You are also given a decent set of scenarios to play around in during the campaign, but many of the earlier missions in particular felt rather shallow and tedious, almost to the point where much of the experience itself felt like a glorified tutorial. There is some more depth to be had in the 2nd half of the campaign, which often requires you to utilize creativity and resourcefulness to organize a strong enough attack and/or defense. Though at the same time, you’ll still find yourself taking on more menial and dull tasks such as - escort x unit to y location, travel to z and defeat a boss, or meet up with a squad to assist them. While I suppose these help diversify your objectives outside of “hold off the enemy forces!” they felt a bit more dull compared to the rest of the gameplay. Ironically, I found myself enjoying the missions that featured a more straight-up assault or defensive holdout.
There's a laundry list of optional objectives as well, which act as a sort of in-game achievement system that encourages you to venture beyond the confinements of the missions and complete minor tasks. You might be asked to collect certain items or take out enemy silos scattered about. These objectives help to flesh out a somewhat slim campaign mode and also incite players to replay missions to add to their score. While I typically found it more trouble than it was worth to take on many of these smaller tasks, seasoned vets could find these useful by way of siphoning some more substance from the campaign. The ranking and scoring system helps make things more entertaining, and there are additionally in-game modifiers you can unlock in the form of “skulls” while completing tasks, along with Phoenix Log collectables scattered about. Still, when disregarding the peripheral collectables and objectives, I was able to breeze through most of the main missions pretty quickly and without a ton of effort - especially on normal mode. This despite the tricky control scheme which I still don’t feel I’ve quite mastered.
In all fairness, Creative Assembly probably did about as good a job as they could in terms of translating an RTS experience to a less-than-intuitive controller layout. There are a number of little shortcuts and tricks subtly embedded in the game. These are designed to provide a foundation for players looking to get serious when it comes to micromanaging and strategizing. How easily and effectively do they work? That is a different story, though there is probably a degree of subjectivity here. Perhaps the most effective and streamlined shortcut is using the D-pad to quickly jump to various points of action on the map. Since the game utilizes a top-down perspective that hones in on nearby areas rather than allowing for a wider shot of the entire battlefield, bouncing instantly between various structures and forces proves very helpful.
Simply selecting and moving around pieces on the chessboard that is Halo Wars 2 can be done through a variety of techniques. The amount of depth in this regard enables players to find a method that is more comfortable for them. The R bumper is your biggest ally here, as a simple tap will select all units on your current screen, or a quick double tap will snag every available force on the map. Although this is by far the easiest, and in my experience, most utilized function, it doesn’t always get the job done.
Certain instances of the game will require you to use more finesse, and be forced to juggle several things at once. You are thankfully given control options to take on a more tactile approach - assigning “groups” of units through a tough to grasp combination of buttons, but this often just complicates things. The game also allows you to cycle through different types of units, though this takes a bit longer than the fast-paced nature of the game tends to require. You can even cursor over a group and hold A to select a smaller group, as well as set rally points by holding Up on the D-pad.
For a console RTS, it is impressive what lengths have been taken to allow for a degree of more advanced tactics and flexibility in ordering around your forces. The catch 22 here however is - with how fast things often transpire, you’ll likely find it better to simply spam the “all units” or “local units” command and swarm your foes with a massive collective force. It’s a shame because the depth is there on some level, it just doesn’t quite feel properly executed, and can often prove a chore to wrestle with when multiple areas of the map require your attention at once.
Building and upgrading bases works much better when it comes to micromanaging. As mentioned, they can be utilized by simple joystick movements and button pushes. Considering you are only given a limited space to work with, don’t except Age of Empires or even Starcraft level of complexity here, but you’ll still want to know what to build and when to build it, in order to get momentum on your side. Each building allows for an array of options via the selection wheel which is straightforward and well organized. Additional units are found on the right side of the selection wheel, while corresponding upgrades and additions for those units are at the top and right side. You can also demolish your structure and build a new one by way of using the “recycle” option at the bottom of the wheel.
Typically, you’ll want to kick things off by throwing in at least one supply pad and a power generator to get the resources flowing. You can also call forth some inexpensive marines in the meantime and send them off to collect resources or take out bands of troops. You can construct an armory early on, which is your hub for several key upgrades, like the ability to build quicker and expand the army troops limit. A barracks will produce more specialized infantry, such as Hellbringers. These flamethrower wielding units specialize in taking out other infantry, and to balance things out, you can also build Cyclops, which are effective against vehicles. Once you’ve spent some time gathering resources, building basic structures, and have begun to amass an army, you’ll be able to upgrade your main base. This is key, as it will open up a few more building spaces. This enables you to fit in new, more impactful structures; most notably the air pad and garage.
At that point you’re essentially off to the races. You can bring out the heavy artillery, from the smaller and speedier Hornet choppers and Warthogs to the more lumbering, Scorpion tanks and Vulture ships. Meanwhile, you can supplement your military might by tacking on abilities and upgrades onto your forces by way of spending energy at your buildings. Soon enough you’ll command a force to be reckoned with.
Your leader of choice also comes with his or her own selection wheel containing a number of both passive abilities and powers, each with their own cost and cooldown time. Unlocking the more impactful ones will take time, and will cost leader points, which are earned during the course of the game. However, it’s usually worth the wait, as some are quite powerful and can be unleashed to assist your troops or to supplement an attack on opposing forces when your army is in a pinch. Some of the UNSC powers include - the ability to summon restoration drones, temporarily drop in a turret, or launch a missile attack. Anders and Isabel have some of their own specialized powers too, from reducing costs and build times, to the ability to project hologram copies of your forces to throw off enemies. These are certainly amusing to pull off and add even more insanity to the chaos of warfare and carnage occurring on screen.
As you build up your base and beef up your forces - as well as your leader - you’ll want to start venturing around the map with some of your troops. This will allow you to take out bands of enemy forces and collect piles of extra resources, though you can also reach designated spots throughout to build additional bases. It can be tough to manage two, let alone three bases at once, but it often proves necessary if you truly want to make an impact and be effective in battle. If you want to take more of a safe, minimalistic approach, there are also a few spots within most stages that allow you to build a more localized but limiting “mini-base”. These are beneficial as quicker, more short term solutions for expansion. The game at this point becomes both a war of attrition and a juggling match of allocating and rationing resources to units, upgrades, abilities, and leader powers.
For the most part then, Halo Wars 2 does take on most of the key characteristics of the tried-and-true RTS formula on a core level, despite feeling a bit like an “RTS lite” at times. At the same time, it’s sometimes tricky to utilize all the tools at your disposal at their full potential thanks mainly to the console controls.
Like its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 allows you to call on a friend online to join you in a co-op campaign journey as well. Having a comrade in the trenches with you takes much of the burden off in terms of jumping around between different points and painstakingly trying to order around two or three groups of units. You can divide up tasks how you see fit - having your teammate handle most of the base operations while you venture out and tackle most of the objectives, for instance. It certainly adds life into the sometimes stagnant campaign, but it still doesn’t quite compete with the multiplayer battle modes.
The online multiplayer is where Halo Wars 2 really shines. I’ve spent the bulk of my time playing it, and it is where the bulk of the game’s enjoyment, as well as its replayability, can be found. There is a multitude of maps, leaders, as well as game modes to play around with. You can team up with opponents against AI, as well as face off in a 1 vs 1, 2 vs 2, or 3 vs 3 match. You’ll also accumulate XP, which can be used to boost your rank and even net you Blitz card packs. All these attributes help make for an enduring and rewarding multiplayer experience overall.
Skirmish mode makes a return - a solid option for those who wish to test the waters and hone their skills against AI opponents, and is additionally a good way to toy around with various leaders. I’ve found that this is especially useful in trying to take charge of some Banished forces for the first time, as they come with a few subtle differences from the UNSC forces. Along with skirmish, there is the return of the cookie-cutter Deathmatch mode, which simply requires players to wipe out their opponent’s structures.
Strongholds is typically one of the most action-packed and wacky game types, as you are given a vast pool of resources from the outset that would make Bill Gates or Oprah jealous. Taking an even more minimalistic approach in terms of strategy, it encourages players to spam their way to victory by cranking out units and making a mad dash to target points, holding as many as they can. It is entertaining in small doses, and an amusing detour from your typical Deathmatch. People who like over-the-top action might find preference in this mode, though I didn’t find much longevity in its appeal. It was almost too chaotic to truly take in and appreciate. My Xbox One apparently agreed, as I’ve had a few game crashes and disconnects here.
A highlight for me was Domination mode, which acts as a fine balance between strategy and steadily flowing action. The name of the game is to try and hold on to a number of capture points near the middle of the level, which adds to your score. The team that reaches a certain point threshold wins the match. While Deathmatch can tend to drag on, and Strongholds are rigidly timed, Domination keeps things flowing smoothly as the points consistently creep along, and at the same time, can still provide some lengthy and captivating experiences.
Last, but certainly not least, is one of the most notable additions to Halo Wars 2 - Blitz Mode. This mode takes a page out of the Magic the Gathering/Hearthstone playbook, utilizing collectable cards as your only means of attack. Each card represents a different type of unit or ability, and there is a surprising amount of variety to choose from, which you can put towards a custom-made deck. The units can also be leveled up over time, and many come in more powerful, decked-out varieties (pun not intended), that are more costly but more effective in battle. The plethora of options when it comes to deck customization is a neat idea that instantly adds a layer of depth. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some satisfaction crafting decks, or unearthing a rare card that I could look forward to unleashing in battle. It’s no Hearthstone replacement, but it certainly has the potential to draw some of those fans, while giving RTS fans a little something new to try out as well.
While there is plenty of customization to play around with when it comes to building and tinkering with a deck, the actual gameplay of Blitz is somewhat simplified. You are in relatively close quarters, there are no structures or upgrades to speak of, and your only resource is energy - which crops up at various points during the battle. The goal is to obtain energy in order to summon troops and abilities from the deck you’ve chosen. You and your army then try to conquer as many of the three given capture points as you can for as long as you can. The gameplay, like Strongholds, felt a bit lacking in substance at times, but its unique card system allowed me to overlook it for the most part. RTS purists might cry foul when it comes to the more-watered down gameplay, and the potential for excessive microtransactions here could be a bit concerning. Nonetheless, it proves an enjoyable diversion from the constant grinding and stressing over eight or nine things at once, like most of the other modes demand.
Overall, the online gameplay is a stellar experience that will have you wanting to come back for more. However, it suffers in technical aspects; I've had my share of lag, disconnects, as well as a couple of matches that froze up. Perhaps one of the causes is the almost absurd amount of things happening on screen with up to 6 people as the battles heat up. I also feel that the balancing of the matchmaking could probably be improved. Many of my experiences seemed heavily skewed in favor of one side or the other, and the truly epic, evenly matched battles were rare, though this could correct itself over time.
The presentation of Halo Wars 2 is top notch. The art style tends to adhere to typical glossy sci-fi blue and gunmetal greys, but that doesn’t mean it’s ugly or dull. The environments actually look pretty for the most part, and come with some nice and crisp textures. The visuals of the in-game action don’t quite live up to the epic standards set by the cutscenes, but they are more than sufficient, complete with some cool particle effects from explosions and powers, as well as some nice animations. The detail of the individual models is quite impressive considering how many are often packed into the onscreen action at once. The audio side of things isn’t too shabby either. In addition to some solid voice work, the soundtrack throughout proves engrossing and a joy to listen to - from the familiar Halo orchestral themes to the more somber ambient tunes.
Halo Wars 2 proves a well polished sequel that takes tried-and-true RTS gameplay, and does its best to translate it to a controller. While it may not quite succeed in certain areas, it nonetheless proves to be one of the better console RTS games out there. There’s a sufficient amount of depth and enjoyment for those who have the patience to get acquainted with the somewhat steep learning curve. Although you shouldn’t expect the most intuitive, nor the most fleshed-out real time strategy experience, there is plenty of value and fun to be found. As a result, Halo Wars 2 is sure to appeal to newcomers of the genre, seasoned strategy vets, and some Halo fans alike.