Halo Wars 2 Xbox One Review
-Beautiful CGI cinematics
-Shallow RTS mechanics -Not the huge leap I was hoping for from the previous game
-Small niggles like pathfinding still an issue
Halo Wars was an interesting, if not entirely successful experiment. Primarily, it was an experiment to bring a fully-fledged Real-Time Strategy game to consoles, a genre which has traditionally made its home with the hotkeys and precise mouse control of PC gaming. While I feel that experiment wasn’t entirely successful, the game did have a legion of fans who enjoyed its simplified rock-paper-scissors power balance and multiplayer possibilities. It also showed, to a degree, that the Halo universe can expand beyond the confines of the FPS genre, even if its story is still cemented in the same intergalactic struggles. Now, seven years and change later, Halo Wars 2 has finally arrived from The Creative Assembly, somewhat without ceremony, promising to take another quiet stab at a console RTS (while also bringing the series to Windows 10 for the first time).
Fans of the Halo lore may have been hyped by the fact that Halo Wars 2 takes place post-Halo 5, meaning that chronologically it should further the overarching narrative currently taking place in the mainline games. However, this isn’t really the case – Halo Wars 2 is still firmly a side story, and seemingly takes no advantage of the new time period it takes place in.
Awakening after 28 years in cryosleep, the crew of the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire find themselves mysteriously in orbit around the Ark. Halo fans will remember the Ark from Halo 3, as a massive habitable foundry where the galaxy-cleansing Halos are constructed. The facility has been cut off from Earth and is under siege by the Banished, led by the ex-Covenant warlord Atriox. Atriox is built up to be the ultimate badass, with an introductory scene that shows him effortlessly pulverizing a Spartan, and an interesting backstory as a warrior forged by years of being used as cannon fodder.
The entire game rotates around The Ark and the Spirit of Fire‘s campaign against Atriox, but none of the elements really feel like they’re used to their potential. Beyond his first scene, Atriox is hardly heard from again beyond a few lines, his motivations are unclear, and he’s never confronted directly. The Ark is a cool location, but it visually isn’t very different to the Halos of previous games. There doesn’t even seem to be any benefit to setting the game post Halo 5, as the Prometheans and Forerunners aren’t used, and the plot or lore doesn’t advance significantly, beyond a small tidbit of information at the end. And, not to give away the ending, but the game shies away from a meaningful resolution to its events, despite an action climax. Ultimately, while Halo Wars 2‘s set-up is interesting, the payoff is disappointing.
That’s not to undersell the great work Blur Studios have done on the game’s many CGI cutscenes. These are all stunningly rendered, beautiful to look at and convincingly acted, especially from the new AI character, Isabel. There’s even some great action beats, from Atriox’s first appearance to a Star Trek Beyond-inspired drone attack.
The campaign itself offers a great deal of variety, even if it feels brief. There are missions focusing not only on standard base-buildings, but adventures with small squads of heroes facing off against specialised Banished forces, control point capture scenarios and tower defense. The campaign is very interested in teaching you the individual strengths of each unit, how they fare against other units, and how best to act in certain situations, in what ultimately feels like an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. While this is all appreciated, there are very few surprises in the progression of the campaign, and there’s no third faction or outside force around to shake things up. It’s the UNSC in small skirmishes against the Banished (who are really just the Covenant) for the entirety. Once again the campaign focuses solely on the UNSC, and there is no alternate story or campaign for the Banished.
The gameplay itself doesn’t feel as far removed from the first Halo Wars as you think seven years would make it. Your base building is still limited to a pre-selected station, with ‘slots’ around the main building to build facilities for resource-gathering, units or research, that open up as you progress through the tech tree. The intention is clearly to simplify matters and make it easy for console players to get a base up and running, especially as supplies and power are automatically generated by their respective facilities. It is very quick to get started, and the controls on Xbox One are as good as they probably could be, allowing for quick scanning over the field and ‘painting’ units to select them. It’s also quite simple to understand the rock-paper-scissors power dynamics of the game – infantry beat air, air beat vehicles, vehicles beat infantry. Even with this knowledge, you’re often able to succeed simply by manufacturing as many units as possible, and sending them as a blob into a single location at a time (even if pathfinding around certain areas of the map can be a little weird at times).
While this simplicity makes for an unengaging campaign, it does support Halo Wars 2′s greatest strength – the multiplayer. There’s a good number of modes to choose from in standard multiplayer, the best of which place an emphasis on quick action and decision making. Strongholds provides you with almost unlimited resources, placing the emphasis instead on your tactics as you try to take and keep strongholds around the map before your enemies can.
Of course, the biggest change-up to multiplayer is ‘Blitz’, which is advertised throughout the game and even in the campaign mode, where you’re constantly rewarded with Blitz decks for completing missions. Simply put, Blitz takes a collectible card game and adds it to Halo Wars 2 multiplayer. The idea sounds a little strange and even cynical, but in execution works surprisingly well. In Blitz, you choose a ‘leader’ character to determine your faction (UNSC or Banished), as well as passive buffs, while building a deck of 12 cards, collected from randomised booster packs. In matches, the cards in your deck provide your only means of playing units on the field, requiring energy to use. You only have access to 4 cards at a time, and knowing which units to play against which opponents (in the rock-paper-scissors analogy) is vital. It’s here that Halo Wars 2 actually shines in a unique way, as an addictive, fast-paced take on Real-Time Strategy, with quick rounds and a constant sense of reward. However, the fact that card packs also form the game’s microtransactions is worrying with potential ‘pay-to-win’ issues.
If you were one of the more fervent fans of Halo Wars , clamoring for a sequel, Halo Wars 2 provides an effective and fun update of its multiplayer, that will be sure to satisfy you for years to come. However, for RTS and general Halo fans, there’s less here to sink your teeth into. The campaign treads old ground with yet another Humans v. Covenant scenario, while the gameplay is more suited to the quick, simple gameplay of its Blitz mode than a serious foundation for an RTS. I did enjoy my time with Halo Wars 2, certainly more than the first game, even if it didn’t quite live up to the potential I was hoping for. It’s as successful an RTS as I’ve ever seen on a console, and while that may not be enough for most fans of the genre, it should be worth a look-see for the curious on Xbox One.