Release Date: February 21, 2017Platform: XBO (reviewed), PCDeveloper: Creative Assembly & 343 IndustriesPublisher: Microsoft StudiosGenre: Real-time strategy
2009’s Halo Wars introduced Bungie’s ever-popular sci-fi shooter series to a brand new genre, and it was a mostly successful attempt to explore new territory with the universe’s characters and settings. While the game didn’t quite become a must-have Halo title, it was a proof of concept – and with an epic story at that. After a long hiatus for the RTS spinoff series, Halo Wars 2 is here and it accomplishes largely the same things as its predecessor. Despite the fact that there isn’t anything incredibly special about this real-time strategy game – it certainly hasn’t reinvented the wheel in any significant way – fans of the Halo series will undoubtedly enjoy this sequel, which revisits a familiar setting from Halo 3.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Halo Wars 2 is largely aimed at fans of the shooter series, and the love and care with which the game tells its story will please gamers looking for any chance to revisit this universe. While the story is nowhere near as epic as the one told in the original Halo Wars, it’s still fun to spend time with these characters – especially new A.I. character Isabel, who shines as one of the game’s most interesting players.
The villainous Atriox, a Brute who’s even made an enemy out of the Covenant, falls a bit flat as his scheme is revealed. The leader of the Banished turns out to be just another cackling bad guy – a forgettable one at that. I very much missed facing off against an Arbiter, although that wouldn’t make sense with the timeline in which the game takes place.
Again, the Halo-inspired gameplay really shines if you’re not looking for some kind of new RTS experience. The pillars set forth by series like StarCraft are still largely in play here, and at points executed nowhere near as well. Fortunately, the developers have found interesting ways to circumvent the game’s limitations – namely its dependence on a controller, especially if you’re playing on the Xbox One. Halo Wars 2 offers less point A to B missions where you have to take out an enemy base in favor of an even more linear approach, such as an action-packed escape on a Warthog from enemy lines or a tower defense mission.
In fact, it’s a while before you actually get to play through a more conventional real-time strategy mission, which does hurt the game’s opening minutes a bit. And even when you do finally get to build your forces and strike out into the wilderness to find the enemy, the experience is limited by the controls and what you can actually do outside of your own base. Things like where you can build your base on the mostly small maps are predetermined so you can’t get too creative or strategic at all in missions, and the lack of complexity in terms of maneuvers you can perform fails to hide the fact that Halo Wars 2 is limited by its own platform.
Additionally, Creative Assembly and 343 haven’t quite figured out how to fix some of the controls most glaring problems, such as how you pick specific units at any given time, something that becomes vital in the aforementioned tower defense missions. The controller is still no replacement for a mouse and keyboard when it comes to real-time strategy. Still, it feels that Halo Wars 2 is as good as it gets for the RTS genre on consoles.
Beyond Halo Wars 2‘s campaign, a couple of mutiplayer options are included in the box, most of which are standard RTS fare. Where the game’s multiplayer sets itself apart from other titles in the genre is the Blitz mode, which combines a card game with microtransactions to create an experience that will vary depending on whether you want to spend money to get the best card packs and if you have the patience to adapt when the cards aren’t in your favor. In a way, Blitz mode strips the multiplayer experience of any need for skills as long as you have good cards – which represent units or powers – for sheer luck. At its best, Blitz mode is an interesting twist on the formula, but at its worst it’s just not that fun. Not to mention that it becomes a bit expensive once you have to start buying the card packs from Microsoft.
Where Halo Wars 2 does excel is in its presentation. The game’s cinematics are stellar, showcasing the kind of stunning visual work that fans have come to expect from the Halo series. The story itself doesn’t quite do the great cutscenes justice, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by these short breaks in the gameplay regardless.
Your mileage with Halo Wars 2 will ultimately depend on how much you want to return to the Halo universe. If you’re not a big fan of the series, there might not be enough for you to return for this sequel. Still, if you’re looking for a real-time strategy game on consoles, you could do much worse than Halo Wars 2.