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Halo Wars 2 is the sequel to Microsoft’s real time strategy iteration of the Halo franchise. Halo Wars 2 is a completely different beast than what you’re used to. Quick, reflex based, first person combat has been swapped with a more passive, strategic formula. Halo Wars 2 takes the universe of Halo and tells it in a different way… but is it successful? Halo is a huge franchise, there’s no doubt about that. Sometimes taking a new spin on a popular brand can produce a great product. Other times, it diminishes the value of the original property. Where does Halo Wars 2 fall in those lines? Short answer: somewhere in between.
Story & Narrative
Halo Wars 2 tells the story of the Spirit of Fire, a UNSC (United Nations Space Command) star ship floating through space. When the crew is awoken after 28 years of cryo-sleep, they notice something is wrong. Floating above a massive planet, an encrypted signal gets received from the surface. When the crew realize it’s a friendly call for help, they head down to investigate.
Shortly thereafter, the UNSC team find out that a Brute leader named Atriox has started his own faction of mercenaries and deserters. After defying the Covenant (the prominent alien race of the series), Atriox inspires hordes of brutes and rogue Covenant to fight alongside him. This new group, known as the Banished, has even surpassed the Covenant in battle prowess. It’s one star ship of UNSC military personnel versus an army of savage beasts. Halo Wars 2 sets us up with a true David and Goliath tale.
Performances & Characters
Out of all the new characters introduced, there’s one definite stand out. Enter Isabel, the new A.I. that the Spirit of Fire meets up with. She’s incredibly human-like, sometimes more so than the actual humans. Her character is written exceedingly well, and I found myself growing rather fond of Isabel after a few brief missions. A lot of the characters come down to pure dialogue, as you won’t see many of them up close. The majority of face time is restricted to the beautiful cut scenes (more on that later). Unfortunately, most of the cast is voiced by-the-numbers, and my empathy for those characters suffered from it. Besides Isabel, the rest of the cast is functional but rarely noteworthy.
The game is presented well, I’ll admit that. The menus are clean and easy to read, and I rarely had a problem visually navigating. In fact, the presentation and level of clarity in graphics is Halo Wars 2‘s biggest strength. Cut scenes are obviously high production; character models look pristine and textures are nearly photo-realistic. The story’s tone can be attributed to these fantastic cut scenes, and it’s one of realism. Fights between marines and enemies feel violent and high stakes in cinematics. This gives a humanity to the marines behind the helmets, and I enjoyed the style. It honestly gets me excited for the inevitable Halo 6, if this is the tone that Microsoft is now aiming for. I enjoy the darker and more serious atmosphere, as it adds weight to the action.
Although the genre is strategy rather than first person shooting, the specific aspects of the Halo universe work well. Franchise features like skulls, multiple difficulties, and scored missions all feel rewarding within the game. It also feels great to use familiar units like the , Warthogs, and more.
There is one pretty drastic problem with the game, and that’s loading and technical issues. For a first party game tied into one of the biggest franchises in gaming, some of the issues I encountered are inexcusable. Load times can be extremely long, and sometimes infinite. At least four times, I was forced to restart the game due to an infinite loading screen. This is absolutely ridiculous for the caliber of work that went into the rest of the game. When load times can exceed a minute or longer with no progression bar, it makes the infinite load screens even worse. I would sit there, wondering if I was going crazy or if the game was truly taking three minutes to load.
That’s not the only issue I encountered either. Sometimes the game would halt up for a second or two for seemingly no reason. There were audio skips and interruptions in cut scenes. Nothing ruins immersion quite like stuttering and freezing. I actually stumbled across a lone Warthog, suspended in mid-air above a giant chasm. I didn’t put it there, I promise. Small glitches and the horrendous load issues truly diminish the quality of the game in a substantial way.
Halo Wars 2 is pretty standard real time strategy fare. Played from a top down perspective, you’ll gather resources such as “power” and “supplies” to build a base. Bases can be expanded with new buildings to spawn reinforcements, or research new abilities for existing units. There’s a large variety of units to use, ranging from vehicles and air crafts to soldiers and snipers. All of the game’s concepts can be learned through basic and advanced tutorials, which can be skipped if you don’t feel the need.
As you perform well in battle, you’ll earn Leader Points that can be used to activate Leader abilities. These are global power ups that can turn the tide of battle, and they feel awesome to use. These abilities give you a variety of strategic options, and can certainly help in a pinch. I found myself using Restorative Drones quite a bit; they swarm around an area and heal units within that zone. Other favorite of mine included some offensive goodies, such as carpet bombing and calling in elite ODST drops.
Campaign & Controls
The campaign of Halo Wars 2 can be played solo or cooperative. I chose to run solo, but having a second player might’ve made the game a bit more enjoyable. Across the campaign you’ll employ your strategy across twelve different missions. Mission objectives are varied when it comes to story motivation, but rarely prove to be unique. Each mission has story weight, but that doesn’t retract from the repetitiveness of the objectives. Most end up being retreads of the same few concepts. You’ll capture zones, blow up enemy bases, and sometimes defend a person or place. There were one or two stand out missions, and I truly enjoyed those (and won’t spoil their contents here). I just wish that more of the game’s missions felt original and thought out, rather than padded and uninspired.
Real time strategy games live and die by their control schemes. It’s also why you rarely see them on consoles. When it comes to the RTS genre, it’s truly a PC gamer’s territory. There’s a certain precision and level of options afforded to keyboard use. That being said, the controls in Halo Wars 2 aren’t bad. It’s impressive that they were able to contain full control down to the 12 buttons and three directional options on the controller. It’s all there, but there’s no comparison to be had to keyboard and mouse. There’s an inherent level of control that is lost when you have to use a gamepad. The controls are there, but take a while to get to. The game feels balanced more towards a keyboard and mouse setup too, which means you’ll die quicker than you can fix the problem. Sure, you can select specific units and move them, but that requires selecting everyone first, and then tabbing slowly through the list. If you need to separate units quickly, you better rethink your strategy entirely. This is easier said than done, because Halo Wars 2 can get pretty chaotic at times.
Blitz Mode & Multiplayer
Along with the campaign comes a variety of new modes to be played against A.I. or online. Blitz mode has been a big marketing feature; it even has its own spot on the menu. Blitz is a zone capture mode similar to “Territories” in Halo’s FPS games. You attempt to capture and hold more zones than your opponent, all the while gaining points for successfully doing so. The first person to reach 200 points wins the match, plain and simple. The curve of Blitz is the integration of deck building. As you play the game (multiplayer, campaign, whatever), you’ll gain new packs of Blitz cards. New packs can also be bought with real money. Utilizing the cards you own, you create decks of units and power ups. When you play Blitz mode, there’s no bases to replenish units. You use “energy” to activate cards which then spawn new troops. As you use cards, they get replenished with new ones from your deck. It’s a neat mode, but luck plays a big factor in winning these matches. Additionally, there’s a “pay to win” aspect to Blitz, as players with bigger wallets can buy better cards quicker than you can unlock them.
A lot of what I said in the gameplay section transfers into multiplayer. Multiplayer offers several modes, all with a slightly different objective. Domination mode has you capturing control points similar to Blitz mode. Strongholds mode focuses on creating the most bases before time runs up. The player with more bases remaining wins. Strongholds plays out more defensively than Domination, and seems to be a more passive experience with more strategy. Deathmatch is an all out battle of base destruction, where the last player standing wins. Online multiplayer ran well for me, with little lag and no problem finding matches.
A (Halo) War Worth Fighting?
Halo Wars 2 will work for a select group of people. If you like Halo, and you’re interested in trying out a real time strategy game, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it. Fans of the RTS genre might find it less complex than desirable, and might have a better time just booting up StarCraft 2. Halo Wars 2 isn’t a bad game, but it’s a starting place for newcomers to the genre. Due to this, long time RTS fans will find the experience a bit shallow. Even fans of the original Halo Wars should tread carefully, as that game handled some aspects better than the sequel did.
Whether or not Halo Wars 2 is worth a buy is up to you. If you’re unsure, I highly recommend renting it or waiting for a price drop before jumping in. The campaign took me about 10 hours on Easy setting and felt like a precursor to the online multiplayer. If you think you’ll enjoy the multiplayer portion more than the campaign, Halo Wars 2 might have a higher value for you than I. Halo Wars 2 is a good RTS on console, but a shallow experience in comparison to genre staples. You’ll have fun, just not as much as you would have hoped.