Good RTS games are hard to come by on consoles. Often they’re ports of PC games that are either un-optimized to run on consoles or their controls are clunky. The original Halo Wars for Xbox 360 released in 2009 was seen as a saving grace of the genre, marrying RTS mechanics with simplistic—but deep—control inputs that made sense and worked well. Eight years later, Creative Assembly and 343 Industries deliver the goods with their latest instalment in the franchise: Halo Wars 2.
Halo Wars 2 picks up right where the original left off, with the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire awakening its crew from stasis after 28 years. In the first game the war with the Covenant was in full swing, but now things have changed thanks to the Master Chief, Spartan 117. Unfortunately, the Spirit of Fire finds itself in the vicinity of the Forerunner megastructure The Ark, which is the factory that churns out the Halo superweapons. While responding to a mysterious distress signal from the structure, it becomes apparent that a deadly rag-tag faction of ex-Covenant have taken ownership and decimated prior UNSC personnel on-site for study. This faction calls itself The Banished, led by an all new threat to humanity: the treacherous brute Atriox.
This new story brings back some of the characters from Halo Wars such as Professor Anders and Captain Cutter. The Spirit of Fire’s original AI Serena is now considered “gone” as AIs in the Halo mythos begin to mentally deteriorate after seven years of service/life. A new AI named Isabel joins the crew following an attack by Atriox and his Banished.
While the original game primarily featured Sergeant Forge as a playable character throughout the campaign, Halo Wars 2 puts players in the control of Spartans Douglas, Jerome and Alice either individually or all-together (depending on the mission). These Spartans maintain the ability to hijack an enemy vehicle and respawn after being temporarily downed in battle. This new title brings with it a bunch of new units for both sides of the war, and even ties in a couple more fitting with the latest releases in the main Halo saga.
Halo Wars 2 improves on the control of the original without making the experience seem unfamiliar. For example, tapping right bumper will select local units (those immediately on-screen) whereas double-tapping will select all units on the battlefield. Previously, unless selecting units individually, this made splitting squads to take on various points/firefights difficult to manage. However the game now includes a function to assign up to four custom groups on the D-pad by holding the right trigger. For example, if I was taking on a Banished base with a shield generator behind an energy shield, I could assign all ground troops to RT+right and order them behind the shield to take it out. Then with the enemy’s defending forces in full-swing outnumbering my troops, my RT+left squadron of hornets and vultures can fly in and wreck shop to support. It let me spend more time getting into the battle rather than having to frantically micro-manage specific units in the heat of the moment.
Hero powers make a return in Halo Wars 2, this time with the ability to be levelled up as you progress in a mission. Restoration drones (squad healing), Archer missiles (carpet bombs) and more can all be upgraded for stronger effect thanks to leader points, which are earned during missions. It still feels as good as ever to drop ODSTs into the mix for that added destructive flavour when your units are dwindling. And all this is available while playing the campaign in online coop.
Speaking of multiplayer, the biggest addition to Halo Wars 2 is Blitz mode. Blitz takes away the need to build bases and manage resources/squad upgrades by replacing them with cards. Think Halo Wars mixed in with some Hearthstone. Blitz games are 1v1,2v2 or 3v3 territory modes where the objective is to have the most zones; the first to 200 points wins. In order to build units or call support strikes, one must earn energy points which accrue over time or upon destroying energy cores when they’re dropped into battle. These points are then spent cards dealt in your hand to build units or call in support strikes. You’ll always have four cards in your hand, with each card having different costs depending on their rarity or function.
Blitz cards are earned by playing the campaign, levelling up your profile rank or spending real money in the store for booster packs. Many cards are specific to certain Hero decks (named after leader characters in the campaign), however some are neutral within their UNSC/Banished factions. These decks can be customised to suit your play style and matches usually only last between 5-7 minutes at a time, which is perfect if you have 15 minutes to play a few rounds.
If traditional RTS strategy is more your thing, that’s still here too in competitive matchmaking. If you play through the main campaign, you’re pretty much set when it comes to matchmaking as it serves as a very elaborate tutorial for the competitive side; if you’re new to RTS games it’s always best to practice strategies and get comfortable with how systems work for each faction.
On the whole Halo Wars 2 feels like a great step up in strategy games for the current generation. Unfortunately it does have it’s faults though, mostly in how the game runs. The last few missions in particular saw frequent freezes in gameplay when a new objective or wave of enemies appeared, sometimes lasting up to 10 seconds. It’s frustrating to have battles get more intense and your heart pumping, only for the game to lock up and leave you waiting nervously hoping that things won’t crash. It also wasn’t uncommon for the game to hang during a pre-mission loading screen, requiring me to reboot and try again. These are all issues that will surely (hopefully) be patched out soon.
Other than that, the game looks great. Colours and environments are beautifully detailed, every sound is unequivocally Halo-esque and the game’s effects look incredible when battles get nuts. And like the original game (and the Halo HD remakes), Halo Wars 2 sports wonderfully made cinematics by animation company Blur Studio.
As an added bonus, Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title meaning purchasing a digital copy for console also nabs you a copy on Windows 10 PC and vice-versa at no extra cost. So if you’re a PC RTS purist, you can enjoy the action there instead. Switching between platforms also allows your save files to carry over so your progress remains unchanged.
Halo Wars 2 is a strong entry to the Halo series despite its real-time strategy formula. It’s a well-designed game through-and-through, bringing the old seamlessly into the new. While card-game mechanics are becoming a new trend in contemporary games, it’s a welcome fit here in Blitz and doesn’t feel particularly forced or out of place. For those who enjoy experiences that branch out and expand upon a series’ main story, or those who just like strategy games, be sure to pick this gem up.