While this sequel to 2009’s Halo Wars is often more flash than substance, Halo Wars 2 provides engaging tactical gameplay rarely seen in the console space, and as a result, it is still very much the RTS gold standard on the XBox One.
February 21, 2017
Normally, I wouldn’t feel compelled to make such an admission. I mean, aside from a small subset of the hardcore gaming crowd, who actually cares about whether someone else is good or bad at a type of game? It’s all about the enjoyment, right?
Well, when it comes to RTS (real-time strategy) titles, I have found that it is better to err on the side of caution or risk the wrath of the APM gods. This is a genre that has been historically dominated by the likes of the Total War series, Sins of a Solar Empire, Age of Empires, and, of course, the Korean national sport–Starcraft. One does not simply play RTS games; one must have “chops,” as it were.
Thus, my admission that while I have played all of these games, I would not call myself skilled at them in any way. Yet, at the same time, I find myself drawn to the Halo Wars series for precisely this reason. The slower pace of the Halo experience translated to the RTS genre fit perfectly within my wheelhouse back in 2009, and early last month, I was excited to see what the long-awaited sequel might do for the franchise as a whole.
The results are in: while this sequel to 2009’s Halo Wars is often more flash than substance, Halo Wars 2 provides fun and engaging tactical gameplay rarely seen in the console space, and as a result, it is still very much the gold standard for RTS play on the XBox One.
In terms of the story arc, Halo Wars 2 is set over 20 years after the original, with Captain Cutter and the crew of the Spirit of Fire awakening from deep sleep to find themselves floating in space above the Ark (of Halo 3 fame) and receiving a distress signal from a research base on the ground. A throwaway campaign mission and incredible Blur-generated cutscenes (for which the original game was famous) then introduce an engaging new AI character named Isabel and a terrifying antagonist in Atriox, a rebel brute that built his own guerrilla faction even the Covenant could not defeat at the height of its power. As battered Spartans escape Atriox’s initial attack and the ensuing onslaught of his soldiers, the Spirit of Fire sends down a missile barrage to clear out immediate pursuit. In this opening number, Creative Assembly constructed an incredible visual experience that instantly drew me into the new adventures of this somewhat familiar cast.
Unfortunately, this opening is where the campaign’s strengths both begin and end. The overall plot is forgettable, and without reading the dozens of collectible Phoenix Logs (or taking the time to actually collect them at all, for that matter), players won’t always know exactly what is going on at any given moment. For perhaps the greatest letdown of the game, after his incredible introduction, Atriox never reappears, except in a closing cut scene. In fact, the game’s conclusion does not lead to a climactic confrontation of any kind, and despite Isabel’s moving storyline, there is no protagonist of the Sergeant Forge variety to frame the story’s most important events. While Captain Cutter delivers a rousing speech at the game’s outset, most of the game itself is dominated by interchangeable Spartans whose only defining features are different weapons and voices.
Beyond story, the campaign also doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability or ingenuity. Most missions are variations on the standard RTS formulae: build a base, destroy a base, defend a base, hold a location, etc. One interesting mission is structured as a kind of tower defense variation, but the defenses themselves aren’t entirely feasible, and even the enemy paths are predictable. At first, while I thought it might be fun to play through the campaign a second time to grab each mission’s bonus objectives and garner that coveted gold medal score, many of these objectives are annoying enough to be unenjoyable and require multiple attempts in ways that build frustration more than a sense of accomplishment.
Halo Wars 2 shines a bit more brightly in its new multiplayer modes, which provide interesting variations on the standard build-a-base-destroy-a-base RTS experience mentioned above. While it retains a Deathmatch mode, Halo Wars 2 inserts Domination, which requires players to control a series of towers across the map in order to generate victory points, and Strongholds, a game type with unlimited resources wherein players must build and hold as many bases as possible in order to win.
While both of these modes offer a nice change of pace to the RTS genre, the showpiece of Halo Wars 2‘s multiplayer experience is the new Blitz mode. With influences from the Halo 5 multiplayer card system, Blitz mode pits 1vs1, 2vs2, and 3vs3 teams of players against one another as they struggle to control three points across the map. However, unlike the traditional RTS model, teams do not have bases; instead, they build a deck of unit cards that they subsequently play using energy points. These points are generated by controlling key locations and picking up randomly placed energy drops throughout the match. Cards are awarded by completing certain missions and objectives in the campaign and by playing in Blitz mode matches, but they can also be purchased for real world money.
As one could imagine, this kind of game design produces organized chaos within matches that can turn on a dime and swing wildly in favor of either team, but like all card-based modes where chances at better cards can be purchased, it suffers from pay-to-win fatigue. Although Creative Assembly clearly attempted to limit this influence by controlling deck sizes and requiring massive energy investments for higher level units, I consistently found myself up against low level players with fully upgraded decks. As a result, despite the fun I had playing in Blitz mode, I couldn’t help but feel that I was constantly losing because I couldn’t play cards on the level of my competitors’ decks, even though I had clearly put just as much time into the game’s leveling system as they had.
For both campaign and multiplayer modes, however, the main issue players will want to consider before buying Halo Wars 2 is the control scheme. The original Halo Wars introduced an innovative control and UI design that made RTS systems manageable in a console environment, and Halo Wars 2 keeps almost the entirety of those controls, with only a few minor tweaks. Players can now select similar unit types within an army, but the response is sluggish at times, and the counter-moves players need to make with those unit types will often have missed their windows by the time players are able to manage that input. Overall, moments of even average activity become a struggle against the controls, rather than a tactical or strategic experience.
In other words, the game seems to be constantly testing the player’s ability to use the controls quickly, and combat against groups of other players’ units is not the tactical experience of choosing which units are strong against your enemies (i.e. vehicles against soldier, soldiers against air, air against vehicles); instead, players more often than not simply throw giant clusters of units at the enemy and hope for the best, with little to no chance to make rapid adjustments in unit match-ups. Hero powers also show specifically where the control system struggles the most. For Captain Cutter, the Archer Missile power lays down a devastating barrage of missiles in a straight line across the player’s viewing area. So far, due to sluggish controls, I have yet to see a player avoid that attack.
In the end, while I still recommend Halo Wars 2 for console players who want an RTS experience, the game has a number of flaws that prevent it from becoming the truly fantastic sequel the original deserved. While there is talk of greater multiplayer variety and extended campaign work in forthcoming DLCs, Halo Wars 2 is clearly a niche title that will at times strain the patience of even seasoned fans.