Halo Wars 2 review
It’s no secret real-time strategy remains one of the few genres yet to properly seed on consoles, but what better way to cross-pollinate than one of the most recognisable franchises on the planet? The incredibly talented (and now long defunct) Ensemble Studios tried it with the original Halo Wars and ultimately failed to start an RTS landslide away from PC. So, eight years on, can Creative Assembly work its Total War-flavoured magic and make Halo and real-time strategy co-exist in science fiction harmony?
Halo Wars 2 is one of those games that wears its influences on its sleeves. Spend five minutes in its polished, hyper-stylised world and you can practically feel it trying to tap into that delicious magic that made the Command & Conquer series, the pinnacle of accessible real-time strategy, so popular. Units are clearly defined in their roles and base-building is fun, fast and instantly empowering. The two share rich, rewarding universes and scenery-chewing cutscenes, but that’s where the similarities end. C&C’s longevity came down to the way it balanced simplicity and complex systems, but in its desire to make HW2 appeal to the casual audience of Xbox One, Creative Assembly ends up over diluting its end product.
A deep RTS experience this certainly isn’t – the sheer level of automation sees to that – but that’s not to say those compromises were for nothing. Working off the basic structure of the original 2009 game, it’s almost shocking how well HW2’s control work on a gamepad. The use of radial wheels, hot keys and a ‘sprint’ button (which enables you to navigate the battlefield at speed) has been carefully calibrated for a controller and it makes selling the transition a lot easier. The only caveat being the console-focus of its menus makes using a mouse and keyboard on PC noticeably less intuitive.
Halo Wars 2 might not be breaking the mould established by its predecessor, but it’s certainly received some much needed tinkering. There are far more tutorials and hints in HW2 than there were in the original, so you’re no longer surprised to discover Spartans can commandeer a Wraith. Resource gathering remains automatic (as does combat, once again based on a rock/paper/scissors setup), but you can now take advantage of new Leader Powers (such as being able to heal entire armies or call in missile strikes), a new trump card that can make all the difference if used correctly.
Thankfully, mission design and locations have been give a redesign – linear paths are gone, replaced instead by multiple routes that offer potential flanking options (or ambushes, depending on your luck). It’s a structure that urges and often rewards the plucky explorer, with missions having moved well beyond the simple build base, find enemy base, destroy enemy base routine. Halo’s over-dramatic sci-fi setting makes for an ideal backdrop and the missions are often enjoyably diverse, if perhaps a little too easy to navigate but for the last few encounters of the game, which are a little trickier.
The warm and comforting set dressing of the Halo universe is certainly the main reason Halo Wars 2 is such a diluted experience compared to the likes of Starcraft II and Total War: Warhammer, but it gives the game every chance an RTS is ever going to get to succeed on console. The beautifully rendered CG cutscenes, the plot that weaves into the existing canon, the sight of Spartans, Warthogs and Pelicans swooping about the shop – it’s not a shooter, but it feels as accessible as any title with the word ‘Halo’ on the box.
New villain Atriox – the head of a mean Covenant splinter group called The Banished – is also the best antagonist the series has spawned since the Arbiter. Those aforementioned cutscenes in between missions are full of the usual pomp and cheesy machismo, it’s just a shame so many other characters fall flat compared to the complex Brute sat in the seat marked ‘villain’. But if you love your Halo lore, the story of a lost UNSC ship and its crew reappearing after nearly 30 years will no doubt tickle your fancy.
Multiplayer also returns, with your usual Co-op, Deathmatch and Skirmish options on offer to keep you busy online. It’s pretty standard fare, but it’s when you pair up against another player that the dilution of the elements that make the RTS genre so unique becomes painfully obvious. There’s very little cover to take advantage of, bar sparingly placed garrisons that act like makeshift bunkers, but the automation of so many systems makes much of the micromanagement and busywork that defines a hard-fought RTS victory feel a little less sweet in HW2.
This desire to make a real-time strategy game feel accessible certainly takes the edge off the campaign and the multiplayer side of things, but it has born some very sweet fruit: Blitz mode. Combining the card-collecting battles of a CCG with a barebones RTS structure, Blitz breaks HW2 down into quick ten to 15 minute games where cards are played to deploy troops and effects. Free of the usual shackles expected of a regular real-time strategy title, Blitz mode embraces the ‘pick up and play’ mentality of Halo proper and reshapes it perfectly for a new audience.
At its heart, HW2 is a console RTS that does what it needs to fit the broader appeal of the modern console generation. On PC its approach to game design will keep it off most GOTY lists, but on Xbox One its seamless gamepad control scheme and hefty selection modes make it a must for Halo devotees. Look past the shortcuts and you’ll find the best effort yet to light the real-time strategy fire on console.