The Real Time Strategy genre has always been under represented on the console space. Sure we’ve had the odd title that attempts to dip its toe in the water and attempt to make the genre work on a system who’s primary control scheme isn’t a mouse and keyboard. But very few have managed to nail that sweet spot between accessibility and comfort without compromising features or the controls themselves. The late Ensemble Studios had reasonable success with the original Halo Wars on the Xbox 360, coming up with a fine balance of controls and accessibility that made the game easy to play for both new players to the genre and veterans alike. Now we have Creative Assembly, of Total War fame, taking the reins and the hope is they can deliver an experience that at the very least matches what Ensemble Studios delivered.
Starting the game for the first time, we see that 343 have continued the great partnership they’ve developed with the Stellar Blur Studios. The rendered cut scenes that are used to introduce the characters and highlight the main story events in the game are just as incredible as the other work they’ve developed for past Halo games, including the original Halo Wars. Acting as great incentives to plough through the campaign and see the next big scene. It’s just disappointing that there isn’t a cut scene after every mission, restricting the cut scenes to only highlight main events encountered in the game.
Halo wars 2 kicks off 28 years after the original Halo Wars ended. After being set adrift in space at the end of Halo Wars 1, the crew of the Spirit of Fire are suddenly awoken from cryo sleep after the ship enters a location that should be very familiar to players of earlier Halo games. Captain James Cutter, the indomitable UNSC commander from the first Halo Wars, sends out the troops to investigate and quickly encounters the new enemy, a splinter group of the covenant lead by a rogue Brute called Atriox – arguably the most interesting villain added to the halo in a good while. Within the first 5 seconds of being introduced to him, he’s single handedly fought off 3 Spartans and forced them into a tactical retreat. A feat no other single covenant figure has achieved before. That one brief encounter sets the scene brilliantly. This will not be an easy fight.
The single player is comprised of 12 missions, which at face value feels quite short, especially when we still only have one faction to play as, the UNSC. This was a bone of contention the first Halo Wars faced and it seems, Halo Wars 2 still doesn’t want to add a campaign that focuses on the Covenant side. Still, the 12 missions we have will take you a good 6 – 8 hours to plough through, depending on difficulty levels and your comfort level playing this type of game. With hidden and bonus objectives to complete, as well as the traditional Halo Skull pickups to find, there is even reason to go back and replay missions once you’ve made it to the end. But be warned, the end of the campaign leaves some very unsatisfying story threads open.
While the climatic last mission was a lot of fun to overcome, you can’t help but feel short changed when you realise that you are not getting a satisfying ending to the story they have been building up over the course of the game. This has either been left to the promised campaign missions coming with the Season pass, or 343 has grander plans at play that we’ll need to wait till Halo 6, or other Halo franchises to finish the story for us. Either way, it’s a very disappointing blemish on otherwise wise short, but fun campaign.
There is variety to the missions that isn’t just the usual RTS trope of amass as many troops as you can and then rush the enemy base. Some give you limited troops and no facility to build more and ask you to achieve certain objectives. Some missions use the Domination multiplayer mode objectives and tasks you to hold specific locations on the map for a certain amount of time. One mission even tries to incorporate tower defence mechanics which was a welcome surprise I didn’t expect. All in all, there is enough variety in the missions to prevent the journey through them getting stale, not knowing what the next mission is going to ask you to do.
There is a real polish to the look, feel and sound to this game. I was getting serious nostalgic pangs for the original Command and Conquer games as Halo Wars 2 seems to have captured some of the spirit those games had which pleased me no end. The maps and environments you play in are vibrant with colour and detail which I was surprised to see. From the maps to the units themselves, you can see a lot of care was poured into everything in the game. Units have a bold colour scheme to them and their design makes them pop out of the map, more so than they did in the original Halo Wars. The sound design is impressive, with soldiers having individual footsteps when you zoom down to their level, explosions are meaty and the accompanying animation makes them look powerful and dangerous too. But every unit has its own unique sound footprint which really adds to the immersion. The units even communicate to you when they are being tasked with attacking a unit or defending against something they know they are not equipped to tackle. Send soldiers to attack a tank and they’ll ask for heavy fire support, or tanks against aircraft and the drivers will demand air support to back them up. It’s a very nice touch which adds to the impression that these are living and breathing troops.
Multiplayer wise, Halo Wars 2 has a full suite of game types and options available for anything up to 6 players of 2 teams of 3. Oddly enough, the ability to have a free for all seems to be missing from the options, restricting the multiplayer mode to always be a team effort, which is a disappointing oversight. We have the traditional Deathmatch mode along with Domination, where players have to hold the control points longer than the other team. We also have Strongholds, where each team has to capture and hold more stronghold bases than the other team. But the twist being is that the tech tree is gradually unlocked over a very short time period and everyone has unlimited resources, allowing players to solely focus on amassing huge armies and getting into the fight as quickly as they can. At the time of writing this review, players have a choice of 7 leaders to choose from, each of which has access to units that are specific to them, as well as special abilities which play to their unique strengths, giving the game an extra level of variety that doesn’t normally exist in other real time strategy games. Playing non-ranked games allows players to customise their games to the way they want and let’s not forget the ability to play against AI bots in skirmish mode too – this is always a welcome feature.
The biggest addition to multiplayer is the new Blitz mode that Microsoft has been promoting heavily leading up to the release of the game. The mode centres on the idea of a deck of 12 cards, where each card represents a unit that can be spawned into the game or a power to be. To play a card, a player has to pay the energy cost that’s displayed on that card. Energy accumulates over the course of the game, with additional energy dropping into the game in the form of drop pods which can be attacked by your units or refunded to you, where destroyed friendly units return a percentage of their initial cost back into your reserves. Before a match begins, the player chooses one of the leaders mentioned above and then selects a deck of pre-constructed cards to take into battle. You then play a modified version of the Domination gametype, and fight for control of the 3 control points on the map. It’s a genuinely fun mode that only takes up to 10 minutes to play, or ‘blitz’ through, so it can easily satisfy that itch for a quick few games, with the other aforementioned game modes satisfying the appetite for those looking for longer, more involved games.
Disappointingly, while there are plenty of maps to play the other game modes on, Blitz mode is restricted to one single map, which is an odd decision for a mode which was heavily promoted as it was. Admittedly, new maps will be free, not wanting to split the user base up by hiding them behind paywalls which seems to run in tandem with the dlc strategy of other Microsoft first party games at the moment. But not having more than one map to play on, at launch, just seems like an odd decision to make. If Creative Assembly aren’t quick at releasing more maps before the player base gets bored, this frankly peculiar decision could potentially turn off alot of players to a mode which has alot of potential.
The decks used in Blitz mode can be customised to include specific units or to compliment a specific strategy you want to employ. However, when you first start playing the mode, alot of the cards are locked away and are only unlocked when you open expansion packs which are awarded to you when you rank up or complete the daily and weekly objectives. Opening a pack relies heavily on RNG, you’re not always guaranteed a card you don’t have and you WILL get alot of duplicate cards. But thankfully, duplicate cards aren’t wasted and actually go towards powering up your existing cards. Cards are unlocked as a basic version of that unit. As you get duplicate versions of those cards, they are consumed by the original card and slowly start to level them up, giving them health and damage boosts. Eventually your lowly Warthog will easily be able to dispense of another warthog that isn’t as high a level as yours was.
But this leads to a troubling pay to win scenario as you can pay real money to buy more expansion packs if the volume of packs you get from doing your daily and weekly challenges as well as ranking up is not enough for you. And, to be fair, the rate you get expansion packs aren’t too bad. I was easily getting between 3 and 5 packs a day when I was playing it. Heavy time investment can lead to sometimes getting more than 8 in a day. While you can’t buy specific cards, just by the fact you can buy more expansion packs than a person who is playing the game normally will, by virtue alone, mean your units are levelling up faster than theirs are. And while it does only affect the Blitz mode, and these cards have zero impact or influence in every other aspect of the game, Blitz mode is getting marketed almost like an eSport and being able to artificially boost the levelling of your cards may get will have an impact on those games. Time will tell whether the RNG nature of the expansion packs will have an impact on the power gap that will potentially exist between those who earn packs and those who pay for them. I’ve personally spent close to 20 hours on the mode myself and have managed to open up close to 100 expansion packs that I’ve earned while not spending a single penny on any expansion pack and I wouldn’t say I’ve had any battles that have been unfair.
Overall, Halo Wars 2 is a great game. The campaign is fun for the length of time it lasts, but it feels like it should have lasted longer and even offered us the chance to play it from the Covenants side. The season pass promises more campaign content and rumours abound that we might actually see a campaign for the covenant included in that, while great for those of us who have the season pass, it’s still disappointing that something that should have arguably have been there from the start is hiding behind another paywall. At least the multiplayer maps are being made available to everyone. Multiplayer feels like it has feet to provide enough fun for a long time, with plenty of modes, customisation and AI to skirmish with. The Blitz mode, while fun and quick to play through has a troubling pay to win mechanic which may or may not end up being a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are planning in investing any serious time with the mode.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or are new to Real Time Strategy games, there is fun and depth to be found here. And I hope Halo Wars 2 has enough of an impact to invigorate other developers to release more Real Time Strategy games on the console space. Creative Assembly has shown that not only can Ensemble Studio’s formula can be improved upon and make the genre work, but that they can potentially thrive on the console space too.