- Developer: 343 Industries and Creative Assembly
- Publisher: Microsoft Studios
- Release Date: February 21, 2017
- Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed), Microsoft Windows
- Playtime: 13 Hours
- Acquisition: Publisher-provided Review Copy
Real-time strategy games released on console rarely make much of a buzz. The genre works well on the PC where the multitude of keys provides plenty of control over a large and chaotic battlefield. When developers seek to put that same chaos under the control of a console’s thirteen or so buttons and sticks, the result is often more frustration than fun.
When Halo Wars dropped in 2009, they managed to hit a great balance between the freedom of a PC RTS game and the simplicity necessary for console gameplay. Players generally viewed the game in a positive light, though many of the more seasoned RTS players did not enjoy the tradeoff of freedom necessary for the simplicity to make the game playable. Overall, though, Halo Wars earned much respect as an RTS title on the console.
Making the Jump in Gameplay Mechanics
Halo Wars 2, the sequel some fans have waited eight years to see, took the criticisms leveled at the first game and tackled them head on. Where Ensemble Studios succeeded in making the original Halo Wars a playable and enjoyable RTS game for the console, 343 Industries and Creative Assembly built on that simplified model to reestablish some of the control over the battlefield that the original game lacked.
Their additions to the gameplay mechanics resulted in more freedom to play the game strategically. Features lacking in the original game that add to the playability of the sequel include queuing orders, creating groups, quickly shifting your view of the battlefield, and new units.
Qued orders enable you to have units or groups accomplish a series of tasks without you having to either keep your focus on them or keep switching back to them, often losing precious time. Adding this to Halo Wars 2 gives the player much more control. Players can now direct their forces to focus attacks on enemy units or buildings in a particular order. Or you can send a group exploring or gathering resources while you give your attention to the more pressing battle that rages on.
However, this feature doesn’t work perfectly in Halo Wars 2, yet. Units who have received queued orders will place them on the backburner if they encounter any enemy units in the course of obeying those orders. This would be forgivable since the death of your unit would put a swift end to its implementation of your commands, but units often forget queued orders altogether after dealing with an enemy’s interruption.
Controlling the Battlefield
Creating groups helps the player deal with a multitude of situations simultaneously. With the added ability to place units into dedicated groups, players can have a group seeking resources, scouting enemy territory, holding a position, and a group attacking the enemy all at once without having to awkwardly scroll to an area of the map and select every unit in a group. For seasoned RTS players, this was one of the most important features that Halo Wars notably lacked. 343 Industries and Creative Assembly did well to include this feature in the sequel.
As of right now, Halo Wars 2 only allows for the creation of four groups, one for each direction on the d-pad. Although experienced RTS players may find this insufficient, the game still deals with a smaller unit cap on the battlefield than some other RTS games. Many players may perceive this low cap as a drawback to a game focused on strategy. The issue doesn’t come from the unit number itself, but from how quickly the forces you produce consume that number. No unit is actually worth only one unit, so your forces add up quickly. Halo Wars 2 allows you to increase that cap more easily than its predecessor, but players will still find themselves forced into narrowing their focus as the game will not permit them to create enough units to deal with areas all over the map.
Halo Wars 2 easily overcomes the difficulties of quickly navigating the battlefield on console. On PC, RTS games often employ the mechanic of clicking an area on a mini-map to make a fast change of focus. In Halo Wars 2, the left bumper enables you to zoom across the map at lightning speed. Also, the addition of dedicated groups and methods of quick focusing them combined with using the d-pad to quickly locate bases, units, and events that unfold makes navigation a much simpler endeavor than in the original game.
Creative Assembly worked with 343 Industries to create new units which although they do not yet appear elsewhere in the Halo universe, look and feel right at home in it. The game relies on a basic rock, paper, scissors style mechanic at its core. Infantry beats air vehicles which beat land vehicles which beat infantry. These new units, such as the Kodiak, a unit reminiscent of Star Craft’s siege tank, add a bit more complexity to the battles. As a result, players aren’t forced to just make mixed groups and hope for the best, but they can also employ (and face) strategies that bring a little more complexity to that rock, paper, scissors mechanic.
A Diverse Battlefield
Halo Wars 2 provides an abundance of situations in which to use these new and improved mechanics. As you make your way through the campaign, every mission provides something different. Sometimes a lone survivor or a small group attempts to stealthily infiltrate enemy territory to cause headaches for the opposition. Some missions consist of head-on assaults. Other missions involve holding objectives, often resulting in situations where decisions must be made about what to sacrifice in order to achieve the objective. All of this adds up to a campaign with great diversity and not just one standard match after another.
This diversity carries over into the wide variety of game modes available. In addition to the campaign, Halo Wars 2 has several variants of multiplayer, including two objective-based game types and a deathmatch mode. Keeping with what fans have come to expect from Halo, this game offers extensive control over the settings of these game types so you can mix it up in custom matches against friends.
343 Industries and Creative Assembly made an excellent move in adding the Blitz game type. Many players already have experience with Blitz after playing the beta a few weeks back. Blitz mixes the quick-thinking challenges of a Real Time Strategy game with the strategic forethought of a card game in the vein of Hearthstone. Fans of both genres will enjoy this creative blending of games. The name “Blitz” perfectly captures the pace and chaos of this fun mode.
Blitz also includes a Firefight variant. Fans of Halo will recognize this as the game mode where you hold out against wave after wave of enemies to see how long you can last. In Halo Wars 2, you can team up with up to three of your friends to see how long you can hold out against the Banished army.
A Fascinating Piece of a Big Universe
SPOILER ALERT. THIS SECTION DEALS WITH SOME CAMPAIGN SPOILERS. MOVE TO THE NEXT SECTION IF YOU WANT TO AVOID THEM.
The Halo franchise has built a name for itself as the source of several excellent stories. Bungie did an incredible job creating this massive world and 343 Industries continues to build on it well. Even in a game outside the bounds of the main story of Halo, Halo Wars 2 manages to weave an interesting and engaging tale.
Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of Halo Wars. After sacrificing the Spirit of Fire’s faster-than-light drive to defeat the Covenant in the first game, the stranded crew went into cryo-sleep as their lost ship drifted far from home. The crew awakens as their ship suddenly teleports to a forerunner structure known as the Ark, shortly after the events of Halo 3. The 28-year difference brings an interesting dynamic to the story. When the crew of The Spirit of Fire went into cryo, humanity had no hope of winning the war with the Covenant. Captain Cutter (played by Gideon Emery) quickly pieces together that humanity somehow managed to survive and may have even won the war.
After a Spartan party goes on a scouting run, we discover that a group of Brutes called “The Banished” have just finished wiping out the human researchers on the Ark and they intend to use the Forerunner structure to make implements of war that humanity will stand no chance against. The Banished are led by a warlord, Atriox, who defied and fought the Covenant with some level of success despite his inferior numbers. As the Spirit of Fire has no way to communicate outside the system, no way to leave, and they’ve lost 28 years of time anyway, they decide to do all they can to stop Atriox. This sets up a showdown between two commanders leading small forces with experience defeating far superior forces. This dynamic produces an interesting and fun story to play through.
Get in There, Soldier!
Though Halo Wars 2 possesses more complexity than the original, 343 Industries and Creative Assembly have given us a very accessible game for those who have little experience in the RTS genre. Although more experienced RTS players viewed the simplicity needed for this accessibility as a weakness in the first game, that shouldn’t stop them from giving the sequel another look. The deepening of the RTS elements in Halo Wars 2 strikes a much better balance between freedom and playability. Add in a solid story, a wide variety of ways to play, and a fun, new game type, and the game is sure to provide hours of fun.