Real-time strategy has all but disappeared from the gaming lexicon in the last twenty years. From its heyday in the 1990’s with Command & Conquer, StarCraft and Total Annihilation, the genre seemingly peaked with Blizzard’s Warcraft 3 in 2002. From there, it entered an evolutionary phase, emerging in the early 2010’s as the all-powerful genre known as the MOBA. Halo Wars 2 feels as though its trapped between several schools of thought, attempting to provide a console-friendly take on the aging RTS genre while also working hard to include recognisable handholds for MOBA enthusiasts.
The original Halo Wars released back in 2009. At that time, the expansion of the monolithic Halo brand into genres separate from its FPS roots was considered a forgone conclusion. It was odd, then, that nothing really came of Halo Wars beyond its release. It certainly wasn’t a terrible RTS by any means but it certainly wasn’t going to single-handedly save the genre either. Halo quickly returned to the FPS genre, and Halo Wars became something of a curiosity.
Now, almost eight years later, Microsoft and 343 Studios have decided to resurrect the series, tapping real-time strategy veterans The Creative Assembly (known for their long running Total War series) to create the sequel. The genre pedigree that The Creative Assembly bring to the title makes it seem like its got everything it needs behind it, and yet it still feels like a game on the cusp of deciding what it wants to be.
Rather than throwing out the rule book and starting over, Halo Wars 2 instead takes the mechanical groundwork laid by Ensemble Studios in the original and seeks to hone it further. The original game suffered once the player realised that the “build a force, select all units, throw them at the enemy base” strategy worked just as well as anything else. Halo Wars 2 works hard to get away from that, re-balancing units and refining its controls to allow for better micro-management.
The game’s greatest strength and greatest weakness, however, might actually be that it’s lashed so firmly to the Halo IP.
Halo Wars 2 begins where the original left off. The Spirit of Fire, the UNSC starship you called home in the original, is adrift in the uncharted reaches of space, her crew awakening from cryosleep after decades lost at sea. Far beyond the reach of the UNSC, the crew of the Fire find themselves instantly drawn into a new conflict against The Banished, a battle-hardened collective of exiled Covenant races so powerful their former masters never dared attempt to get rid of them. The Banished are led by Atriox, a bloody minded Brute who delights in the act of destruction. Atriox doesn’t seem to care what he is destroying, or why, only that he gets to destroy it.
I’m making Atriox sound like a really poorly written villain with this description, but that couldn’t be less true. The game goes to great pains to give Atriox a sense of personality and drive and, in so doing, The Creative Assembly have given the Halo series one of its most ferocious, interesting and memorable villains in years.
Like its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 is a side story to Master Chief’s grander and on-going Save The Universe Grand Tour. It is to the mainline Halo games as Rogue One is to The Force Awakens — a more serious take on typically noblebright material. Halo Wars 2 has a lot on its mind, and its approach to the wider themes within its story are a rare thing in video games as a whole. We don’t see AAA titles of any genre talking about the things Halo Wars 2 wants to talk about very often, and that’s refreshing.
So how does the Halo name drag the whole show down? For one thing, it feels like the assumption is that the player’s attention span might not be that long — the campaign is only twelve missions — and its story gets exactly the kind of maddening non-ending the series has become known for. There’s certainly a resolution to the story, but it isn’t in any way satisfying or meaningful. On the other hand, the story was enough to pull me through the re-acclimatisation phase as I got my head around the controls again because I really did want to see where things were headed next. This is lucky because, if you didn’t pick up the Halo Wars: Definitive Edition package that came out on the Xbox One back around Christmas time, chances are its been nearly a decade since you’ve had to find a conceptual shelf in your mind to keep these controls on.
Halo Wars 2 looks on the surface to be the traditional RTS game as you’ve always known it. A single base, or more if you expand, filled with various buildings that themselves create specific units and upgrades with which you can build an army. Most of the time you must then wield this army in clever ways to storm and hold various tactical objectives before the casual dismantling of an enemy base begins.
Developers have been trying to crack the puzzle that is getting an RTS title to play smoothly on a console for decades and I really do think The Creative Assembly have gotten the closest by a wide mark. This is doubly impressive when you consider that Halo Wars 2, a part of Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere program, is also available on PC. The complete range of controls you could expect to find in a complex RTS title on the PC is available right there on your Xbox One controller.
Some are fairly straight forward, like moving your left stick to nip around the map or zooming the camera with the right. While the zooming of the camera is, for me, preferable to any version of camera zoom in an RTS I’ve ever found on the PC, getting the left stick to be as accurate a selection tool as a mouse is an impossibility. Frequently I would over- or undershoot what I was trying to select or select the wrong thing entirely. This was an issue in the original game too, and a big reason the “select all, attack” strat became so popular there.
But Halo Wars 2 doesn’t want you getting away with this strat anymore. Giving you a lot of different things to deal with at any one time means its no longer as simple as building one all-powerful force and kicking down the enemy’s door. Multiple objectives mean dividing your forces and your focus. Neglect any one of them and Atriox will pounce, decimating whatever forces you have and retaking any liberated settlements. Further, and it might be me imagining it but I don’t think so, when you do select everything you’ve got and throw it at the enemy, your entire force seems like it can only move as fast as its slowest unit which makes A Frontal Push With The Works almost completely untenable.
Various button and trigger combinations allow for far better control of your individual unit platoons — only want the soldiers? Double tap the A button on your infantry and they’ll all be highlighted. Want everyone, regardless of class? Double tap the right bumper. Create your own groups by holding down your right trigger and hitting a direction on the D-pad. This is especially important given the game’s Rock-Paper-Scissors balance methodology — certain types of land infantry are good against fliers, fliers are good against land vehicles and land vehicles are strong against infantry.
I’ve been waiting for someone to get RTS controls on a console right since Blizzard released StarCraft on the Nintendo 64 (and yes, believe it or not, that was a thing that happened) and it seems like The Creative Assembly have finally done it. I tried both the PC and Xbox One versions of the game for this review and found that the game actually feels much faster and more fluid when using the controller, even over the keys and mouse.
If I have a complaint about the campaign beyond the threadbare number of missions, it would be that I never felt like the game was particularly difficult to get through. That said, on those occasions that I did take a loss, it was always because the AI outsmarted me, moving in a direction I hadn’t anticipated or pulling a strat out of their arses that I couldn’t possibly have been prepared for. I actually really like that Halo Wars 2 is capable of that! It’s rare that enemies controlled by the computer can really surprise me anymore. I am, being one of a group of friends who live and breathe strategy games, perhaps better versed in this area than your average Xbox One owner, who may find the level of challenge just fine for their tastes. Due to the ability to whip around and select things with the mouse over a control stick, my PC playthrough was laughably breezy and I daresay that PC players will shake their heads at how simple it feels. Having said that, for those PC players that want an RTS that doesn’t require taking a university-level short course to learn how to play it (I’m looking squarely at you, Total War), I’m sure it will be a welcome addition to their libraries.
If you were to ask me to explain why Halo Wars 2 even exists, I’m honestly not sure I could tell you. I don’t know who was asking for this game, I’m sure that Microsoft aren’t expecting a runaway return on investment and it certainly doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen in a hundred other RTS titles before. What it does do is make the RTS genre feel more accessible than it has in years, and refuses to dumb itself down to accomplish that. It’s proof that, should developers want to explore it, the Halo universe and lore make it an easy fit for genres beyond its FPS origins. Halo Wars 2 can’t quite rid itself of certain conventions the series still clings to, but strives to be different all the same and in that, it is a success.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Great controls; Atriox is an amazing villain; Developer pedigree
Lowlights: Rubbish ending; Quite short
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: February 21, 2017
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC