STAFF REVIEW of Halo Wars 2 (Xbox One)

Friday, February 17, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

Halo Wars 2 Box art I am not a big fan of Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. That got your attention right? Well, it’s true, mostly. I’ve never been good at them, with all the micromanaging and resource handling. They have not been not my cup of tea, and so I’ve essentially avoided them, that is until Halo Wars came to Xbox 360 in 2009. Ensemble Studios, the studio behind Age of Empires, took the reins on the first Halo Wars, a RTS specifically built for console.

This was a big deal given the fact that RTS games don’t generally translate well to consoles, the main reason generally being that converting all the keyboard and mouse commands to a controller is seemingly a near impossible job to pull off. Ensemble Studios proved this theory wrong, creating a RTS game that felt natural with a controller in hand. It may not have set the world on fire, but I fell in love with the original Halo Wars, not just because I’m a massive Halo fan, but because it made the genre accessible to someone like myself that’s always struggled with the genre's complexities.

Almost a decade later and we’re finally treated to a full sequel, Halo Wars 2, this time headed by Creative Assembly, best known for their popular RTS series Total War. Things have changed since 2009 though, and Xbox One is now the current console and Play Anywhere is a Microsoft backed initiative that is gaining steam on many titles, allowing you to play your game on Xbox One or PC and continue playing on either platform whenever you like.

Halo Wars 2 seems to have learned from the shortcomings its predecessor, improving many mechanics and issues players had, making for a much more cohesive experience and fluid game. I knew I was going to most likely enjoy Halo Wars 2 given that I fell in love with the first, but my expectations were blown out of the water once I was a few hours in.

Halo Wars 2 takes place nearly 3 decades after the first in the series. The Spirit of Fire crew has been in cryosleep all this time, but they are awoken when they drift within range of the Ark. Yes, the same Ark that Master Chief encountered in his journeys. A distress signal forces them to land on the surface and they save an AI named Isabel. Isabel catches the crew up on what’s happened all these years and how a new threat has emerged, a new Brute faction called The Banished, led by an absolutely powerful antagonist, Atriox.

Atriox is so powerful that he was able to earn his faction’s freedom from the Covenant. The first cutscene that introduces you to Atriox will show you how powerful he really is, and I for one am glad to have another looming evil presence that will hopefully see a showdown with Chief and Locke in the future. You need to stop Atriox, as he knows what the Ark is designed for; creating Halo Rings.

What really excites me about Halo Wars 2 is that it’s now parallel with the cannon Halo storyline in relation to the time of events that occur. I’ll admit it, I was giddy when Master Chief was mentioned, and Halo Wars 2 takes place after the events of Halo 5. Atriox is not to be messed with, as he’s declared war on everyone and will stop at nothing to succeed in his mission.

The storyline is one of the best features of Halo Wars 2, incredibly more engaging and exciting than the first game, in my opinion, and now that the timeline matches up with the core Halo games, there’s some exciting revelations to be had and crazy anticipation to see the outcomes of specific events (make sure you stick around after the campaign credits to see what I mean).

Blur, the studio behind the incredibly impressive cinematics for Halo 2 Anniversary, return, making for some truly extraordinary cutscenes, one of which may actually be my favorite in the whole Halo franchise. Their cinematics are on par with the best movies coming out of Hollywood and give Halo Wars 2 a sense that 343 truly cared about making this game one for the fans, something they’ve succeed in.

While Halo Wars 2 is a RTS at its core, the campaign doesn’t play like your traditional RTS where you are simply stuck gathering resources and crafting new units. Over the course of the 12 missions you’ll do some base and unit building, but it is more action orientated than that. You’ll be controlling units of ODSTs, Scorpions, Warthogs, and many more weapons of destruction against The Banished. I won’t spoil anything, but near the end is an event that I’ve wanted to do for a long time in a Halo game. Co-op is also an option, but only with friends, much like with Firefight, though I wish matchmaking was an option for those times my friends aren’t on.

What surprised me the most is how varied the mission structure in Halo Wars 2 is. One mission may have you simply getting from point A to point B while the next may have you defending a beach landing with many infiltration points. There’s even a level that plays out like a classic tower defense game, something that really surprised me and took me a moment to adjust my tactics. The constant changing of objectives and types of missions forces you to think and react quickly, something that is easily done with the excellent controller scheme.

I was honestly expecting a handful of missions that essentially played the same, but that wasn’t the case at all, as each mission is varied and there are many surprises to be had. My initial tactic of herding all my units in one massive onslaught simply wouldn’t cut it for many missions, and I had to split and make my army diverse across many fronts, all while managing bases and creating new units simultaneously. There are even a handful of collectibles to find (yes, skulls make a return) and many optional objectives to complete if you’re skilled enough. Some of these side quests are incredibly challenging and will take a lot of strategy and preparation to complete, adding to the replay value.

Before heading straight into multiplayer or campaign, I highly suggest playing through the 3 separate tutorials that will give you an overview of the core controls, mechanics, and the newly added Blitz Mode. They aren’t exciting or in-depth, but it’ll teach you the core basics that you’ll need to begin with, especially the controls.

It’s clear that the gameplay was built with a controller in mind, and while it does play slightly easier and quicker on PC with a mouse and keyboard, it feels natural with a controller, even in the most hectic battles. It’s not just about finding an intuitive way to map all the commands onto the controller, but the developers also needed to figure a solution to be able to do so quickly and intuitively, especially in the heat of battle. Creative Assembly seems to have figured out a solution, as you’re able to quickly cycle between bases, powers, units, squads, and more with just a button press or two. Sure, it takes a little getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature.

You’re able to create custom squads, select one or all units, and even ‘paint’ and select any highlighted units. It took a while, but once I started grouping specific units together, for different purposes, my strategies became much more varied and purposeful, though it’s also fun to double tap the Right Bumper to select all units and send my complete army like a steamroller to roll over my enemies. Your leaders also have special abilities that can be called upon at any time, given that you’ve spent the leader point to unlock it and have the resources to do so. Call down ODSTs, missile strikes, or even healing aura’s to help your troops. These leader abilities can easily turn the tide of a battle if used properly, even more so in online matches.

One of the features I enjoy the most about Halo Wars 2 is that it doesn’t play like a traditional RTS. You don’t simply build a base wherever you like and then gather and manage your resources. There are predefined plots where bases can be constructed, sometimes in neutral areas, and often times behind enemy lines, as they’ve already taken it for themselves. Once your base is built you can attach a number of plots to it, ranging from supply production, barracks, flight pads, garages and more. The more resources you amass, the better the units you can create, but watch your max population count, as you need to balance power with numbers as well. Buildings can be upgraded, at a cost of supplies of course, but allow for even more powerful units, so there’s a constant balancing act of spending versus investing that comes into play.

Sometimes it’s necessary to spend supplies on turrets at your base to fend off any enemy attacks while you’re away, and these can also be upgraded to do more damage to infantry, vehicles, or air units. I really appreciated how powerful they’ve made the Spartans this time around, as they were supposed to be portrayed as mobile tanks in essence. The very few Spartans you do get to control are immensely powerful, and it never gets old seeing them hijack an enemy vehicle and using it for themselves.

With campaign out of the way, it’s not time to move onto the multiplayer modes, where a bulk of your time will most likely be spent. There’s essentially two different experiences to be had online, Skirmish and Blitz. Skirmish is more of your traditional type of RTS gameplay, of course with its own slight twists on the standard modes. For those wanting a slightly longer experience and classic gameplay, Skirmish is where you’ll want to head. Blitz is something completely new to the genre, and while some might scoff at it for being card based, and an excuse for microtransactions (which is completely optional and not needed), I really enjoyed it as it was faster paced and a completely new experience.

Skirmish mode offers a few different types of gameplay like Deathmatch, Strongholds, and Domination. While this may seem like a small offering, the modes are varied enough that fatigue shouldn’t really set in, especially with how chaotic 6 player Stronghold games become. This mode has your team trying to hold as many of the bases as you can on the map before time expires, and with two teams of three, some massive battles ensue at nearly every base.

Regardless of the faction you choose to control, Banished or UNSC, they feel balanced. Certain leaders have special abilities and units, but there’s a counter for every attack, defense, and unit. Brutes tend to be much more focused on brute strength (see what I did there?), whereas UNSC has a bit more tactical advantage. Each leader plays somewhat differently, so experiment with each and find the faction and leader that suits your playstyle (and team).

And now we come to Blitz mode, arguably the most interesting and controversial addition to Halo Wars 2. During the previous beta this was the mode that was showcased exclusively, so keep in mind that if you’re not a fan, you still have the traditional skirmishes available to play as well. Blitz mode is akin to a blend of RTS and card based battle. You earn new cards by simply playing Halo Wars 2, even the campaign. There are daily and weekly challenges to earn experience to level up and there’s no forced reason to purchase packs with money, unless you don't want to grind for them.

You build your deck of 12 different cards, each of which represents a different unit or ability. There’s no overall cost limit on building your deck, so you can stack it with the best 12 cards you have, but to use cards costs resources, so you won’t be able to use any cards for quite some time with that strategy, so you need to balance cost, effectiveness, usefulness, and more when creating your decks, of which you can make numerous presets.

Each leader has special cards only available to them, with their best cards being absolutely devastating should you be able to save up enough resources to use them. These specialty cards add variety and strategy to your decks and choices. There’s a lot of nuances with Blitz that also come into play, as playing a card at your home base is generally the best option because if you play it outside of the home base it’s damage and health are halved for about 8 seconds. So yes, you can play a stack of cards in the middle of a battle, but they will only be half as effective when doing so.

There are a ton of small instances like this that you need to factor in before playing your cards, figuring out what the best course of action is. The single Blitz map is a mostly symmetrical oval one with bases on each side and 3 points in between both sides. The first team to 200 points, by capturing and holding the points, wins. Sounds easy, but Blitz is incredibly fast paced and doesn’t deal with any base building at all. Instead, random resources will appear on the map at certain intervals that need to be destroyed then gathered. Do you split up your units to gather, or hold out on the point to fend off attackers instead?

Blitz is very chaotic, as you can have a battle almost won, only to see your opponent play a special powerful card, like a scarab or orbital strike for instance, changing the potential outcome and forcing you to react quickly. Once you get a handful of card packs from playing through the campaign and leveling up, bolstering your decks can become addictive, as duplicate cards work towards leveling those specific cards up, making them more powerful. This is where the allure of spending cash for packs comes in obviously, but it’s not needed.

You can choose to play 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3, all of which require different strategies and communication with your team if you want to be successful. Playing against the AI turns Blitz into a survival mode where you need to last against as many waves as you possibly can. My only real complaint with Blitz is the ballsy decision to only include only one map at launch. There’s no doubt that more will be added in the future, and I get that Blitz is very luck based, determined on your decks and card randomization, but some might burnout on the mode with only a single map to play on.

Play Anywhere is a Microsoft initiative that seems to be proving somewhat popular among gamers. A Play Anywhere game essentially allows you to play your digital version across PC and Xbox One, giving you access to both. So while I played for a few hours on Xbox One, the family wanted the TV, so I switched over to the PC version and my progress was there automatically. It’s a great feature, but sadly Cross-Play isn’t included, meaning PC and Xbox One players cannot play together or against one another on Halo Wars 2.

I knew I was going to enjoy Halo Wars 2, as I’m a Halo buff and super nerd, but I didn’t think I would enjoy it this much, especially the campaign’s narrative. The only issue I had with the campaign was that it seemingly ends too soon, nothing like Halo 2’s infamous "To finish the fight..." abruptness, but it definitely left me wanting more, even after the awesome final climactic mission that had me grinning from ear to ear. That being said, the post credit scene blew my mind; I’ll just leave it at that.

Halo Wars 2 proves that RTS games can not only work well on console, but deserve to be there as well when done right. Blitz mode may not be for everyone, but it’s a game changer for the genre regardless if you agree with its addition or not, at least they’re offering a different experience, something that inexperienced RTS players, like myself, have always wanted to enjoy, but wasn’t able to for whatever reason. Halo Wars 2’s campaign is fantastic, blending itself into the overarching, and main, Halo storyline seamlessly, and as a game, it feels right at home on a console. In the end this game reaches many different fans, including the fans of the Halo universe, fans of RTS games, and fans of gaming in general who may just want a good story combined with a solid gameplay experience.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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