It’s been eight long years since the Halo series ventured into the ruthless world of “PC-only” RTS with Halo Wars back on the Xbox 360. Halo Wars is probably a title that is on this list of surprising games, and ended up becoming one of my most memorable gaming experiences as well as others, but sadly the developers – Ensemble Studios – close house roughly a year after launching the game. Probably most known for their work on Age Empires, Ensemble Studios was acquired in 2001 by Microsoft, and all of its assets remained with the Redmond publisher and developer, and now comes its sequel, simply named Halo Wars 2 under the care of 343 Industries as caretaker of the Halo franchise and The Creative Assembly, a studio renown for its Total War RTS series. Will this be the same experience as it was on Xbox 360, or just a simple upgrade of a former gaming sensation?
The story starts with the cryogenic awakening of James Cutter, Captain of the brave UNSC Spirit of Fire, 28 years of a long sleep. For those of you which played Halo Wars, this is the same crew that you played as in the first game, waking up and embarked in a new conflict against the insurgents of the alien coalition: The Banished led by the Brute warlord Atriox. In any case, the storyline has deep root with the Halo lore – as you would expect – and will be perfect for fans of the franchise, even if it’s a rather short campaign with only 12 missions, which will take 5 to 8 hours to finished depending on difficulty or if you’re a Halo Wars veteran. In the end, even if you peak beyond the cutscenes which are on par with the quality of a certain iconic competing RTS developer (Blizzard Entertainment) – Halo Wars 2’s narrative is all in all particularly faithful to the franchise’s universe, which is great considering it was given to new hands.
Newcomers to Bungie’s original Sci-Fi might find this game a good entry point for the franchise, especially since a “definitive edition” of the first title is paired with Halo Wars 2 as a preorder incentive. Yet there’s nothing groundbreaking, and the campaign basically sees you play as the UNSC, leading Cutter and the Red Team in missions that are not really inspired where you’ll have to destroy Atriox bases, kills X many enemies, defend checkpoints under the pressure of a stopwatch. Nothing that reinvents the wheel for fans of the genre, especially since these are usually winning conditions and goals that will be re-purposed in multiplayer which is the major upgrade in this episode, but we’ll get to that later on.
On the point of view of gameplay, the original Halo Wars smooth playability with the controller is yet again as a success, especially in a game genre that is usually on PC and played with mouse/keyboard combination. For those that never played the first game, the first missions will obviously teach you all the subtleties of the controls, which have been a bit reworked on the interface front as well as adding some new possibilities. Would you like quickly navigate from one base to another? Quickly jump on alert points? Assign tactical groups to the D-pad arrows? It’s all in here. I will though spare you from falling into a very complex description of each unit, its use or hero special skills, as they are mainly based on successful mechanics of the original Halo Wars and are worth discovering on your own. The only inconvenience I wished they fixed from the first game is the unit and building production system, which is as always tedious.
Why tedious? Well you mainly start with a base of command, a limited number of spots on which you can build add-ons to either harvest resources (mainly supplies and power) or assign to other kind of productions like building military units. The whole is ruled by a set of timers based on what build you are going for, and there comes the eternal RTS dilemma between either farming resources to better plan or just playing aggressive and destroy the opponent before he gets a chance to prepare for an attack. While the latter is the wrong approach in this game, the game system induces to build more resource modules (at the beginning of the game) than production, and thus giving you an unbalanced harvest/production ratio. The result is that it makes the matches extremely slow in the beginning, filled with farming and light map scouting, and while there’s always strategic points with fresh resource around the map that will initiate probably early confrontations, they are not enough to build a stable economy and favor a truly aggressive expansion strategy.
These rules of direction are obviously applied both in multiplayer and singleplayer, which gives a slow playing pace that really struggles to take off. Thankfully, when it comes to singleplayer, the most interesting – and challenging – missions of the campaign are those that require almost no economy management, centered around the combat. But with an AI that is not that smart, and the lack of mission diversity, you’ll quickly forget the campaign and jump in the core of the game: the multiplayer mode.
When it comes to multiplayer, don’t expect major clashes and the depth of a StarCraft II, as Halo Wars 2 is an easier RTS game to tame… as well as simpler to master. Multiplayer games start the same as the previous Halo Wars, where you are asked to choose a Leader, with their specific attributes and powers, before each match. You soon get used to the very balanced Stone/Paper/Scissor strategy of the game, even if sadly fades quickly when you are faster at building your economy, and can literally dump insane amount of units, overwhelming any weakness or strength of the opposing force… After all, like all RTS, strength in numbers can mean an easier victory. Bigger matches with allies can be more more interesting and fun, but there are more complete alternatives of this game genre on PC, but it remains one of the rare options on Xbox One for now.
While the original Halo Wars only had one PVP competitive mode which was Skirmish, Halo Wars 2 adds Blitz mode, offering a new take on RTS with a blend of Hearthstone-ish deck building strategies. The concept is simple: open card packs that you obtain by finishing the campaign, performing daily and weekly goals or buy them with real-life money and build decks to use in battle. Blitz mechanics remove the whole need of building specific base modules to build units, instead the cards themselves once played will call upon that same card unit, having only one resource to take in consideration which is energy. It’s a more fun and simpler take on the Stone/Paper/Scissor strategy of each faction, and matches can be finished quickly, in comparison to a more traditional skirmish mode.
On the point of view of graphic engine and the more technical front, Halo Wars 2 is a clean and smooth experience, even if the framerate drops on some rare occasions when there’s too many units on the battlefield, but remains an overall visual success. The special effects such as explosions add some fun flair to the visual output, with overdoing it and removing the attention of the player on the field of action.
Halo Wars 2 was reviewed using an Xbox One and Windows 10 downloadable copy of the game provided by Microsoft. The game was tested on an Xbox One and a PC running Windows 10 Pro, with a 4GB NVIDIA Geforce GTX 960 fitted on a 5th Generation Intel i7 4720HQ 3.2Ghz CPU and topped with 16GB of RAM. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published
• Great for the Halo fans
• The same old Halo Wars effective control scheme
• The campaign mode can be fun from time to time
• Great CGI work on the cutscenes
• Blitz mode is an original concept
• A soundtrack worthy of the franchise
• Really short campaign
• A bit of framerate drops
• Not that much added in terms of tactics in comparison to the original
• Might be too easy for RTS veterans