Is it me you’re looking for?
Developers: 343 Industries, Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Format: Xbox One (Reviewed), PC
Released: Feburary 21, 2017
If I was to compare Halo Wars 2 against the other strategy games available on the console market, it would lead the pack without a doubt. Of course, it doesn’t exactly have much competition when you can practically count the number of decent console strategy titles on one hand. But the moment you begin looking at the vastly superior strategy games available on PC, Halo Wars 2 begins to show just how lacking it is in new ideas, or innovative gameplay. You simply can’t cover so many demographics at once without diluting the overall experience. That being said, Halo Wars 2 is definitely not a bad game. For those without access to a decent PC, or those who simply prefer console gaming, it serves as an excellent entry into my favourite genre.
Considering how deep we are into the Halo franchise after fifteen years, Halo Wars 2 is a surprisingly good entry point into the series, neatly sidestepping the sheer volume of lore the games are now steeped in. For those unfamiliar with the setting, these games occur many years in the future, when the United Nations Space Command, or UNSC, has explored much of the galaxy, spreading humanity to many wonderful new worlds. Being an action-oriented sci-fi series, they’ve also stumbled across an alliance of villainous aliens, known as the Covenant, who naturally became hell-bent on wiping us from existence. In Halo Wars 2, you’ll be taking command of the UNSC Warship “Spirit of Fire”. The crew on board are given only very basic character development, relying on the original Halo Wars to have covered most of the finer details, but being a strategy game this didn’t bother me all that much. The crew of the Spirit of Fire is waking up after 28 years of drifting in cryosleep while the war has raged on around them.
Handily, this timeframe encompasses everything that’s happened over the course of all the main Halo games, with our protagonists waking with no idea what has happened during the Human-Covenant Wars. The story-driven campaign serves a dual purpose here. Not only does it provide insight into the state of the Halo Universe at this point in the overarching story from the perspective of those with no idea of what’s been going on, but it also works to steadily prepare the player for the multiplayer experience that is clearly meant to be the meat of the game.
Halo games have a fairly well-deserved reputation for keeping up with modern graphical standards while still retaining distinctly bright colours, kaleidoscopic explosions and easily identifiable friends and foes. Staying true to this approach, and rendered in pleasingly high quality graphics and effects, the combat is fantastic to simply sit back and watch. The graphical fidelity of units and terrain certainly needs to be high, as the game’s camera is almost claustrophobically close to the action. A standard and extremely important aspect of strategy games is being able to easily tell what’s happening even during larger fights. Thankfully Halo Wars 2 sports two visually distinct races to play as, so even a relative beginner shouldn’t have too many issues identifying individual units and their role, given time and practice. Most unit designs have been given a fresh update, but many returning vehicles and characters should still look pleasingly familiar to long time Halo fans, without their importance being lost on newer players.
For gamers who have played the original Halo Wars, the style of gameplay is virtually unchanged. Your main bases, turrets and specialised buildings can only be placed in specifically marked places, allowing you more time to focus on managing your armies. Most units can unlock special abilities, which often provide special utilities like infantry units being able to throw grenades, or your support aircraft dropping an obscuring smoke cloud to help your units escape unharmed.
Each unit is graded on their effectiveness relative against each unit type, providing a guideline on when it’s best to build certain units. Much of this game follows a loose rock-paper-scissors flow, with infantry beating aircraft, aircraft beating vehicles, and vehicles beating infantry. Of course some units fit outside that guideline, but all are marked with short description of their role to help smooth things out, such as the “Cyclops” infantry being marked as Anti-Vehicle, the unarmed “Nightingale” as Support unit, while “Wolverine” tanks are labelled Anti-Air. The campaign does a good job of introducing new units over multiple levels, slowly diversifying threats and prompting the development of new tactics to counter them, without it ever becoming overwhelming. In fact, only a single level ever actually posed a challenged to me, though admittedly that’s most likely because I didn’t exactly pay attention to the hints my commanders were giving to me during the mission, to my detriment. The alerts your teammates provide can often help you prepare for scripted attacks or find special objectives, though It’s just as likely that they’ll be discussing the current state of the galaxy to bring both the characters and the players up to date with what has happened in 28 years of Halo history.
The story itself is fairly uninventive, though presented competently with skilled voice acting and some excellent CGI cutscenes after missions. Though not technically fighting the Covenant any longer, this game retains the distinctive silhouette of Covenant technology, with the addition of spiky bits and blockier armor plating to show that it has been refitted to suit its new owners. Shortly into the game, your foes are revealed to be exiles from the now defeated Covenant, calling themselves the Banished, and led by the ruthless Atriox. Conveniently, both your forces and the Banished forces have stumbled across an ancient device that could have deadly repercussions for the galaxy if it fell into the wrong hands. The stakes are made pretty clear within the first few levels, even if it feels extremely similar to the threats presented in previous Halo games.
One thing I noticed is that the campaign is surprisingly short, with the entire story taking place over 12 missions, most taking roughly 30 minutes. I’m sure many of the missions could take longer on higher difficulties, but beyond completing achievements or unlocking secret objectives there’s not a lot of reason to go back and replay them. Despite most of them having different objectives and requiring different strategies to complete, there’s really nothing happening here that hasn’t been done before. In no particular mission order, you’ll face waves of foes attacking from multiple turret-defended pathways, fight through vastly superior numbers using a powerful hero, steal an enemy super unit and use it to fight back, and survive a last stand against overwhelming odds. All fun in their own right, but I’ve played most of those missions in dozens of strategy games at this point. Like I said earlier, this game clearly expects you to run through the campaign mainly to learn how to play, not to enjoy a new and inventive take on strategy game campaigns.
By far the biggest part of the game, and clearly where you’re expected to spend most of your time, is the online multiplayer. I spent a fair few hours in the various modes available, and managed to rack up a decent number of wins. Most of the game modes available are fairly standard strategy game fare, with AI Skirmish, last-one-standing Deathmatch, and territory control style game types that have been around for years now. “Blitz” is the biggest standout multiplayer mode but also the most divisive to me, which feels like quite an issue considering it’s almost certainly designed for long-term multiplayer staying power.
It’s a strange game type, combining capture and hold the territory gameplay, but then throwing a curveball in the form of also being a deck-building card game. Blitz sees you using a hand of cards to summon your units, completely forgoing any base building in favour of tactical use of your available cards, and thus a fairly decent knowledge of how well units stack up against each other. You’ll be able to use premade decks of unit cards, or build one from scratch using the satisfyingly frequent booster pack drops, though you could use the in-game store to fork out hard earned cash if you can’t be bothered building up cards over time. My distaste for real-money purchases aside, this game mode breathes fresh new ideas into an often-stagnant genre. After getting used to the special mechanics and how best to use the limited “energy” resource to cast units or discard and redraw, I found it to be an excellent game-mode for short and frantic fights. Losses feel less painful when you can blame terrible card draws you had little control over.
That brings me to the downside of Blitz, and the part that irks me the most about this flagship game mode. If you’ve ever enjoyed multiplayer games of Starcraft, or any other strategy game, you’ll understand that losing a match often gets you thinking about what you did wrong that turned the game into a defeat. Perhaps it was bad strategy, or messing up a precise build order, but in any case, the issue always falls back to it being a mistake on your part. In Blitz, you can have the best strategies, the most balanced deck possible, and have all your plans stymied by bad card draws. No matter how skilled you are, if the cards you are given simply don’t match up against the opponents, you may well be put into a losing position from the start without any way to pull yourself into the lead. For some this may not be that big of an issue, but personally, knowing that there will be times I simply will not be able to succeed was extremely frustrating.
I’ve saved my biggest frustrations to the end, Blitz being one, and the control scheme being the other. In some ways I can understand how difficult it would be to organize a strategy game around a console controller, and honestly I’m impressed they managed to keep it as simple as possible with so many commands. Despite that, a controller is just simply not as precise and effective as mouse and keyboard when it comes to managing an army of units. You’d assume that that PC controls would be better, but apparently Halo Wars 2 wants to go out of its way to make that as obnoxious as possible. Not only are the mouse and keyboard controls often unresponsive or slow, but many keybindings simply aren’t set up at all. So to have the game work even half decently if playing on a PC, you’ll have to go and manually set up the controls, which may still not actually respond in the middle of an intense firefight. For a game released in 2017, and a strategy game no less, fighting against the controls is just unacceptable.
I don’t particularly enjoy having to write about the negative aspects of a game, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to avoid the bad while praising the good. Strategy games hold an important place in my heart and I am always excited to try a new one, especially when I’m already fond of the series. I don’t really judge a game on graphics alone, but it certainly helps to look as good as this one, particularly with such attractive story-building CGI cutscenes. I never really expected this game to excel, given that the original Halo Wars was a fairly simple experiment in moving Halo into the strategy game genre. What does disappoint is that they’ve simply expanded on what the developers had already achieved in Halo Wars. They missed an opportunity to really push some bold new ideas in their campaign, and their one attempt to push an inventive new idea with the Blitz game mode feels like its appeal is nothing more than a short-lived novelty. Despite all this, I enjoyed my time with Halo Wars 2, and barring some issues with controlling the game, I was still satisfied with what was provided. It’s just a shame that the game couldn’t do more to push the genre, especially in a position where it can affect both console and PC gamers equally.
Final Score – 4/5
Final Recommendation: Great for gamers new to strategy despite the complex (and often broken) controls, but a shallow and uninspired experience. Worth giving a shot if you’re a fan of the Halo franchise too.