Halo Wars 2 is a sequel that came as a surprise when it was announced in 2015. The original title developed by Ensemble Studios was an Xbox 360 exclusive real-time strategy (RTS) game that was met with warm reception as a great entry in the Halo franchise as well as being a very enjoyable strategy game. It received some additional content, then faded away away as newer Halo releases overshadowed it.
Someone at Microsoft must’ve noticed how well the game was received by fans, as a new title has finally arrived, even including the old one for purchasers of the Ultimate Edition. Swapping out the Covenant for the Banished and featuring some brand new characters and additional game modes, as well as being developed by an entirely different studio – Creative Assembly, who’ve had a significant amount of experience in the RTS field from creating Total War content. Being somewhat of an anomaly in the gaming scene, we’re excited to take a look at this new addition to the series, so let’s jump right in.
Halo with some more recent exceptions has always had a compelling and exciting story about a unique setting involving war against a zealous religious group known as the covenant. While the newer titles take place after the major conflict of the original trilogy, Halo Wars 2 actually takes place in what seems to be during the events of the older titles, at the very least the crew of the “Spirit of Fire” left for their journey while the war between the UNSC and Covenant was still raging. Generally, it covers the series of battles leading up to the fights between Captain Cutter, and Atriox, the one covenant leader who managed to stand against the Covenant in defiance of them. This puts it at an interesting place in the timeline, but it does somewhat drop the ball in the setting, as the previously mentioned Atriox is supposed to be a unstoppable war machine, capable of taking down any force regardless of its size. This really isn’t reinforced very well in gameplay, as no encounter with or without him really feels like the stakes are any higher than the previous fights which offered similar in-universe consequences for failure – the death of the Spirit of Fire.
That said, the dialogue itself along with the scenarios the characters find themselves in feels much closer to classic Halo than anything post-Reach, as Halo 4 and 5 both went nuts with science-fantasy ideas as opposed to the much more science-fiction style of the Bungie developed Halo titles. Halo Wars 2 seems to follow much more of that science fiction, as the units and characters interact with the scenarios and environment in logical ways. Spartans are mostly relaxed in combat while the leaders tend to stay detached from engagements, covenant infantry reacts to being fired upon with logical retreats or rushing head on with suicidal units – the whole experience feels similar to the first title, a genuine adaptation of the series into an RTS format as opposed to trying to take the series in a new direction like mainline entries by 343 Industries.
Gameplay is similar to the original, in a good way. Many of the old units make a return, being iconic members of the Halo universe – marines, ODSTs, Spartans and a wide variety of various vehicles and covenant forces. Anyone who played the first game will feel right at home in terms of what they’re working with in making their army. One major change here was the addition of Energy as a resources as opposed to just tech level and supply count. Energy is generated similar to supplies, by building generators as a building on bases as well as capturing specific structures located on the various maps. Many of the more advanced units, mostly vehicles, require the use of Energy to build but it’s also the primary resource for researching upgrades. There’s also several new leader powers added for every leader in the game, like the R&D passive for Anders that increases research speed, and old favorites return like the ODST drop.
In terms of the raw gameplay, Halo Wars 2 still uses the tried and true rock-paper-scissors method of balance between units. Infantry counters air units, air units beat vehicles and vehicles trump main line infantry, however specific counter units can also be developed like the Wolverine, a vehicle that busts air units like there’s no tomorrow and the Hellbringers which shred other infantry almost as hard as the anti-infantry upgrade on turrets does. It feels very similar, so anyone who put their fair share of time into the original will find what they learned still very useful. All of the units still have their signature secondary abilities – Spartans can hijack vehicles, marines and ODSTs have throw-able explosives to deal heavy damage to groups and buildings – from the moment gameplay started we felt right at home with the controls and mechanics.
Speaking of the controls, big credit to Creative Assembly here who managed to squeeze an entire keyboard’s worth of controls onto a controller by using the right trigger as a modifier for the whole pad. It’s impressive that they managed to fit everything one would need on here including controlling the build queue and making various groups of units to quickly deploy them in areas without trying to individually select the appropriate response in the heat of battle. A slight issue in controls does pop up on the PC version, namely that rebinding keybinds is very clunky. Every control can be rebound to any key, which is fantastic and much better than most titles will let one do, but the menus are slow to navigate and when trying to rebind a key, one has to make sure it’s not bound to any other key, as it doesn’t automatically switch or unbind other keys, just gives the player a prompt telling them that keybind is already in use. Even during our time on PC, we found it easier to just use an Xbox One gamepad because rebinding all of the options to be more comfortable would’ve eaten up a significant chunk of our review time. That said, looking at the default controls reveals that there’s an absurd number of easy-access controls using a keyboard, like being able to save to different slots without even opening up the menu.
In addition to the base game’s single player and the traditional Deathmatch RTS mode of taking out the enemy leader’s bases and armies to claim victory, Halo Wars 2 also added some new twists to the mix. Domination has the players fighting for control of three key locations to gain points over time, with the first to reach the point goal claiming victory, while Blitz goes a step further into card game territory. Using the same base idea from Domination, players can build and edit lists of decks, made up of card packs earned from playing the single player and leveling up one’s profile. Each card represents a unit, marines, scorpion tanks, etc. and have a set energy cost. One has to try to capture as much energy that spawns around the map at random while also holding onto the three domination points. The energy is what allows the players to summon units, as each has a set cost, but summoning them out in the field causes them to spawn with reduced health and attack power, so the choice between bringing them in the field as an emergency reinforcement or spawning them back home for full health and damage is a very frequent proposition the game threw at us.
It’s an exciting mode and it even has a firefight version which pits the player against waves of A.I., however it’s also the drive behind the microtransactions, as these packs are purchasable. It doesn’t seem too intrusive, as the amount of packs for just playing through the single player is fairly generous, but it’s hard to tell what kind of impact this will have on the multiplayer over time, as unlike Gears of War 4 which also featured a pack system, these actually have an impact on gameplay. However those who feel that this kind of system is inappropriate can simply play the other modes, and with how fun Blitz is without us having opened a single pack, we feel safe in saying that every addition does add to the game and give it extra longevity. Something it definitely deserves after the somewhat quick fade to obscurity of the original.
On the topic of the PC version, it feels appropriate to discuss performance and graphical fidelity. To put it shortly, both versions look great, and the Xbox One version, we never noticed a drop in framerate on. While the beta was plagued with unstable framerates, this was a rock solid 30 FPS at all times that we put into it. PC version is a bit of a different story, it looks even better naturally but performance seemed off, as the framerate was dropping in odd places. The culprit ended up being the vsync interval, as turning it from 2 to 1 immediately cut out any performance issues. Anyone with a solid mid-range or better card, like a GTX 1060, should have no problems maxing the game out with minimal framerate issues. While both versions look great, the PC version running at 60 FPS just looks beautiful and plays like a dream, especially watching armies go at each other in a swathe of flame and explosions.
Overall, Halo Wars 2 feels like a fantastic entry into both the Halo franchise and as a sequel to original. The gameplay is spot on, as it takes the mechanics that were already there and expands on them by adding a new resource to balance and making leader powers more varied, allowing for more strategies to thrive. It looks great and runs well on both Xbox One and PC, which is good to know because of the cross-play allowed in certain modes so users from both platforms can benefit from each other. The single player is long enough for anyone to get their feet wet and move into the multiplayer, which features it’s own wealth of content in various modes. The soundtrack is good enough for what it needs to be, the story is much better than the more recent Halo titles, if a bit lacking in certain aspects, and the whole package comes together to really elevate the title above others. Anyone who enjoys RTS games, and especially fans of the original title should be taking a look and giving it a chance. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.
|+ Expands upon the original, adding many new units and changing up the rock-paper-scissors formula||– Some minor stutters occur at higher settings on PC, easily solved but worth mentioning|
|+ Multiplayer is fun and highly replayable, allowing for endless content alongside the Blitz mode||– Phoenix logs are haphazardly placed and don't add much to the game, unlike the Skull modifiers|