Halo Wars 2 Hands-On Preview

January 19, 2017

Halo Wars was a rare foray into console Real Time Strategy, but it helped that it had the strong foundation of the Halo universe to stand on. Released back in 2009, it’s been a long wait for a sequel, but that wait is now finally over with Halo Wars 2 just a short month away, coming out on 21 February, 2017, and for the first time the game will be out on both PC and Xbox One. I recently had the chance to go hands-on with the Xbox One version with the first three chapters of the campaign, as well as the multiplayer including the new Blitz mode, and speak to 343 Industries’ Design Director Clay Jensen.

Clay remarked that the wait, at least partially, was due to finding the right partner to take on development of the game.

“Really what we were doing is trying to wait for the perfect partner, and Creative Assembly definitely has done that. The combination of their background in strategy games, but also in other immersive games like Alien Isolation where you’ve got survival horror being every bit as compelling as what they’ve been doing in some of their other strategy titles, I think that fusion of passion and interest in whatever subject they were jumping on as far as the project goes, made them a perfect fit.”

The campaign once again follows Captain Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire, whose mission in the first Halo Wars actually took place before Master Chief’s story. By its end, the crew were placed in cryogenic stasis, but awaken 28 years later, shortly after the events of Halo 5: Guardians. Finding themselves in orbit around the birthplace of the Halos, the Ark, and facing a new enemy in the legendary Brute leader Atriox, along with his army of Banished ex-Covenant, Captain Cutter resolves to wage a new campaign against the enemy.

Halo Wars 2 Cinematic Still Jerome-092

The opening of the game has plenty of beautiful cutscenes to set the story in motion, lovingly rendered by Blur Studios, before the game’s main mechanics are detailed. In the opening tutorial and missions there is some variation on managing hero units and small groups to explore maps and come to grips with their abilities (such as the Spartan’s power to hijack enemy vehicles, or the Warthog’s ability to drive over cliffs), and more traditional RTS base-building mechanics. One hectic mission required you to quickly build units to conquer and hold three control points, in order to unlock the way forward.

Playing on Xbox One, the quick menus for base building are easy to understand, and ordering units about the map with the controller feels intuitive. I didn’t quite get the hang of grouping in my short time with the game, but there are solutions for that mapped to the d-pad. Although what I played was early on in the campaign, it felt like a natural evolution from the first game to something more polished and cinematic, with quite a few spectacular chases and moments that you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a standard strategy game.

In multiplayer, I was able to try a couple of rounds of Strongholds, a mode which gives you near-unlimited resources to produce as many units as you need to storm strongholds around the map and keep them as long as possible away from enemy teams. Removing resource collection from your set of worries leads to some pretty entertaining strategies, such as fleets of Banshees or armies of anti-air units going at it fairly regularly, as each player tries to anticipate and combat the weaknesses of the other.

Clay mentioned that 343 Industries is also looking at the potential for Halo Wars 2‘s multiplayer to enter the eSports arena.

“Something over the horizon, certainly, is the possibility of eSports. Obviously, with Halo we’ve got a huge legacy with eSports competition and with Halo Wars 2 that is very much going to come from the community, that’s going to be kind of an organic process, and I’m very curious to see which aspects of the game the players find that they want to be most competitive with.”

“Blitz certainly is a possibility, it’s not only really fun to play, but it’s really fun to watch.”

Halo Wars 2 MP Ashes Firebase

The most interesting addition so far has to be the Blitz mode, which is basically its own mini-game alongside the campaign and multiplayer. Instead of building a base and using resources to build units, you go into battle with a set deck of 12 cards, which can be played to instantly summon their representative units onto the field. Each card has an associated energy cost, meaning you can’t just spam your strongest cards over and over, although you do regenerate energy slowly, and can increase your stockpile by collecting energy drops around each map. Cards can not only summon basic units, but troop-filled or special variations, as well as heroes and even massive area attacks, including ground strikes, mines and a hailstorm of bullets from a ring of Pelicans. Cards are distributed after matches, and collecting and building your own perfect deck seems to be a very addictive addition to the Halo Wars formula.

“The origins of Blitz really came from a desire to try to combine all of the gameplay we that had in the regular RTS.” explains Clay, “How can you take a mode that could take as much as 30 or 45 minutes or 60 minutes to play, and compress that into a much more action-focused fast-moving match that you can just get into a bunch of games of. And then in the process of designing the mode, cards and card play started to kind of emerge as a very natural choice.”

The Blitz mode will be available as a beta from 20 January, so if you’re interested check out the detailsHalo Wars 2 will be out on Windows 10 and Xbox One on 21 February.