The developers of the popular Real-Time Strategy game Total War: Warhammer have given their hand to Microsoft’s Halo franchise. Reception of the original Halo Wars game released for the Xbox 360 was overly positive, especially for a console-based RTS title, a genre that typically does poorly thanks to the limited control options of the Xbox controller. With the game’s sequel, does it prove to provide as reliable as an experience as the first title?
Real-Time Strategy games have a reputation for delivering poor experiences on consoles, due to the fundamental lack of control options available for these types of experiences. Console RTS games have always struggled with the lack of control options available to the player, and some of them still exist in Halo Wars 2. Players are unable to select a group of independent units, which causes issues when attempting strategic attacks against your enemies. When you have a mix of aircraft, vehicles, and infantry troops, the battle is usually decided by the bigger army, whereas it should be based on what counters what. That said, there is a unit triangle present in the game, where infantry counters air, air counters vehicles, and vehicles counter infantry, but the lack of implementation on selecting each separate group ends up cluttering your army together, forcing nonstrategic and messy fights to take place. There is an option to split the army up, by painting a select AOE of units and putting them in groups, but the organization is inferior to the control that a mouse and keyboard grant.
This being said, the controller experience does work. It uses the same practices that were employed in the original Halo Wars title, with simple base layouts to create functioning stations, and an easy control system to monitor and move your units. The combat system does feel cut and dry during some fights, but base management still exists. You have to be consistently moving your troops from point to point, managing your resources and making sure to use every unit to your advantage if you wish to seize victory from your opponent. There are plenty of resources to make use of throughout several of the game’s maps, including additional bases to manage, and power nodes to acquire. The battles look great when they’re happening, and can often be distracting when trying to move your armies around a battle-zone, but Halo Wars 2 makes it possible to still manage your troops even in heated situations.
One aspect I loved about Halo Wars 2 was its wide range of factions to choose from, with each having their advantages and disadvantages throughout their gameplay mechanics. This improves on the first game’s formula, creating balanced and entertaining experiences through each and every game you play. While some factions may do better against others, simply because of the different types of units offered, there wasn’t a time I thought a battle was unfair. There are several ways you can attack the opponent, like the ever-so-annoying base-rush at the beginning of the game or by slowly capturing bases and cornering your opponent for war. The game responds well to different strategies, and besides the lack of having to group specific units together, which is a feature I will consistently push for, I felt like the game adapted the controller play styles as best as it could.
The development teams took a risk by introducing a new form of gameplay called “Blitz Mode.” Using a card based system, players build their armies by using cards from a customized deck, each of which requires resources. These resources are regenerated through the destruction of your opponent and slowly over time, with bigger, more expensive cards taking longer to summon. Each faction has their sets of cards, which players can use to customize their gameplay experience. Giving the player this much control over what they can create provides an extra level of strategic gameplay, and it feels natural to have a game so focused on a strategy environment to bring along this additional layer of goodness. Not only do you have to worry about what your army is doing now, but you also have to maintain a properly balanced deck; otherwise you could face defeat quite quickly. In the end, you are left with an experience that feels well thought out and intriguing to play. It provides a whole new way to play RTS games, and it compliments the console well, especially with the stripped features from the overall game due to the lack of keyboard and mouse support.
Even Halo fans wishing to continue on Halo’s main quest may have something to gain here. While I won’t talk about the specifics, due to the risk of spoiling the experience for our readers, there are subtle tie-ins to 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians. What I can say is that despite these tie-ins to the main Halo titles, I feel like there isn’t much here for those chasing Master Chief’s path, and that is a good thing. Much like the original Halo Wars title, players step into the shoes of Captain Cutter, the commander for the UNSC. After being asleep for an odd 28 years, the ship they are piloting finds themselves above an Ark installation, where the team winds up finding way more trouble than they wanted. This results in a massive war between Captain Cutter and the antagonist Atriox, the threatening Brute who kicks all sorts of ass throughout the campaign.
Blur, the studio which was responsible for remastering the Halo 2 cutscenes from Halo: The Master Chief Collection, have returned in Halo Wars 2. This team must have a huge passion for Halo, as they provide time after time, some of the best animation scenes I have ever viewed. Halo Wars 2 is no exception. The issue is that the cinematics almost look too good, and end up taking away the immersion that Halo Wars 2 provides. Watching a trailer for a movie in 1080p, only to watch it on 480p leaves the same sour taste in your mouth that Halo Wars 2 will give you. It just doesn’t feel right and is even offputting. I don’t want to discourage the use of these quality cutscenes in video games, however, it is disappointing to see these cutscenes take away from the game itself in comparison.
During the time of this writing, Halo Wars 2 is not available for Windows 10 PC, so a lot of my comments could be fixed the implementation of keyboard and mouse controls. The sad truth is that we are playing on the Xbox One, with an Xbox One controller. Halo Wars 2 does make the best of the hardware it has, but regarding real-time strategy games, naturally you lose functionality when moving it to a controller. At the very least, a core gamer will feel right at home with Halo Wars 2 on the Xbox One, but when playing the game competitively, it falls short of expectations with its limited control options.
Halo Wars 2 launches February 21st, 2017, for the Xbox One and Windows 10 PC.
Thanks to Microsoft for providing a digital copy of Halo Wars 2 to review.