The announcement of Halo Wars 2 at Gamescom 2015 took many Xbox fans by surprise. What was originally meant to be a supplementary release in holiday 2016 has turned into a critical exclusive for 2017. Halo Wars 2 is the direct sequel to Halo Wars, first released on Xbox 360 almost eight years ago. The story takes place decades after events in the first game, giving developers 343 Industries and Creative Assembly liberty to expand the story in a new direction. Appealing to Halo fans and real time strategy gamers is a tall task, but is Halo Wars 2 the sequel we didn’t know we wanted?
Following the events of Halo Wars, the crew aboard the Spirit of Fire drifted off to space in cryosleep. They are awakened 28 years later to an emergency signal from the surface of the arc. Spartans are dispatched with the hope that the war has turned in their favor, or better yet, ended. That signal turns out to be Isabel, a logistics A.I., who warns the Spartans to get as far away as possible. Seemingly out of nowhere, our battle-tested heroes are thrashed by a mystery figure. After an intense chase and evacuation, Captain Cutter learns of the biggest threat to the galaxy, Atriox.
The backstory of Atriox is one filled with oppression, hatred and defiance. In the events following Halo Wars, brutes like Atriox, known as the banished, were used by the Covenant as war pawns. Every one of them was sent to die in battle with the promises of martyrdom. Atriox was the first to return and defy the Covenant, sparking a rebellion that spread quickly. Now it’s up to Captain Cutter and his crew to pull off the impossible task of defeating Atriox to restore peace in the universe. With such a compelling backstory and a tremendous villain, I wouldn’t blame you for wishing this was the plot of Halo 6. Instead of peering down the scope as Master Chef we get to experience this adventure in the form of a real-time strategy game. The player oversees everything in Halo Wars 2, directing troops, building bases and multitasking with the fate of the universe on the line.
The campaign uses the freedom provided by the 30 year jump to flesh out a compelling story about our heroes and new villain Atriox. Stunning CGI video from Blur Studio introduces us to all the characters at the beginning of the game. Scenes like these are a real highlight of the campaign but unfortunately, they are too few and far between. Excellent voice acting moves the story along both during the pre-level briefings, during missions and the in-game cutscenes. Missions in the campaign vary from search and rescue, infiltration, destroying enemy compounds and killing important leaders. I used all the tips I learned in the handy tutorial to build, fortify and upgrade my base.
An amazing base is nothing without troops to protect it, and in Halo Wars 2 you are given freedom to staff your army with a variety of specialists. Your default base creates regular marines at your command, spend a little more on the grenade upgrade to give them an additional special move. If you prefer ani-infantry specialists, the flame-throwing hellbringers will make barbeque chicken out of opposing soldiers. All types of familiar characters and vehicles are available across the game’s three main modes. Scorpions, locusts, wolverines, warthogs and more. To purchase and upgrade your troops, you need both resources from supply depots and energy from generators. What ends up happening is a balancing act between wanting to build and upgrade things and waiting until you have enough money. Thankfully the first handful of missions aren’t complicated and it won’t take long until you feel comfortable with pulling the strings of your army.
The player also gets to turn the tides of war with leader points, special abilities that can be purchased in battle and used multiple times after a lengthy cooldown. If your base or turrets has taken too much damage, dispatch a group of restoration drones to repair it. Archer mines can be placed to surprise ground troops as they march. Turrets, ODST troops, air strikes and more passive abilities can be used at any time; provided you have enough resource points and you’ve waited the required cooldown period. Leader abilities can also be upgraded for more effectiveness, and doing so is usually a good idea.
Real time strategy games have always thrived on PC because mouse and keyboard controls just work better. Trying to map all the inputs to a controller while still making the control scheme intuitive and fully featured is no easy challenge. Thanks to a handy set of tutorials, directing traffic in Halo Wars 2 is a breeze. Selecting all units, units by type or any combination is easily performed with a single button press. Sending them anywhere on the map is done with a press of the X button and special attacks are initiated with the Y button. Move around and zoom in and out with both thumbsticks and a quick press of the d-pad will quickly focus on your base or toggle your bases. The control layout is very well done and I never felt like I was hindered by playing on console.
When it comes to presentation, Halo Wars 2 is a mixed bag. The CGI cutscenes throughout the campaign are incredibly realistic and easily my highlight of the game. The music is also a perfect fit with a mixture of somber, exciting and triumphant melodies. Character voices and actor portrayals are very well done for everyone. Unfortunately, the in-game cutscenes and graphics leave a lot to be desired. For a game built from the ground-up on Xbox One hardware, I was expecting much more detailed characters and environments. I also had a problem with the long load times in general. At pivotal points in a level I would manually save; and every time I wanted to retry I had to sit through the entire pre-level briefing and wait for an extensive load time. I wish there was some sort of quickload feature or at least a way to shorten the waiting.
Online multiplayer is where many players will reap the most replay value. Daily and weekly challenges help keep things fresh with new rewards to earn and are pretty straight forward. Skirmish mode is a custom game where the player can choose their settings and fight against friends and randoms online. After playing through the campaign, multiplayer felt like second nature.
Blitz mode is something players got to see in the final pre-release beta test. It’s a different take on multiplayer, combining resource management, objective control and playing cards. Whether playing duel (1v1), standard (2v2) or brawl (3v3) modes, the objectives are to capture and hold one or more of the three objectives until you have earned enough points to win. This mode is similar to domination in Battlefield or hardpoint in Titanfall. Instead of building a base and creating troops, the player chooses a leader who has their own troop cards at their disposal. Card packs are earned by playing missions in the campaign and can also be purchased separately as DLC. Dropping characters requires resources that need to be collected on the map, meaning the player is constantly juggling the needs of holding objectives, killing enemies, and harvesting resources. It’s frantic, fun and a nice change of pace from the main game. In addition to battling other players online, blitz includes firefight mode where you (or a friend) battle against waves of CPU enemies.
Halo Wars 2 is a worthy sequel to the original that makes improvements in many areas; unfortunately, it’s not the 2017 savior I think Microsoft wants it to be. It is a good game in a niche genre (on consoles) that is counting on a popular license to resonate with Xbox owners. I loved the CGI scenes from Blur Studio and the new characters are easy to root for and against. Learning the controls and executing my plan soon became second nature after just a few levels. I would have loved to see more polish graphically to justify those lengthy load times. Halo Wars 2 felt more about the end rather than the means. I finished levels with the hope that a beautiful cutscene would follow, rather than finding satisfaction in victory. While it may be a true game of the year contender for RTS and Halo fans, everyone else would be better off renting first. There is plenty of fun to be had, but in the end Halo Wars 2 feels like just another decent game from a popular franchise.