For me, Age of Empires on PC was my gateway into the world of real-time strategy games. Then, just a couple of years later, Command & Conquer on the N64 almost did the exact opposite, making me recoil from the genre. It wasn’t the games themselves, but the method in which I played them. Although I became more engrossed in consoles over the years, the RTS genre always held a special place in my heart from those early PC days, but I could never find one that captured what made the genre great on a console. So, when I needed a fix, it would end up leading to a rare PC purchase for me. Then, in 2009, fittingly enough the studio that made Age of Empires figured it out with Halo Wars. It wasn’t just marrying one of my favorite shooter series to the genre, but they had figured out a way to make it control almost as well as on a PC. Ensemble Studios may now be gone, but Halo Wars lives on, and another stellar RTS developer in Creative Assembly has picked up the ball and run with the series in spectacular fashion in Halo Wars 2.
When last we saw the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, they had immersed themselves in cryosleep, beaten, battered, and with heavy losses after emerging victorious in a grueling battle with both the Covenant and the Flood. Now, 28 years later (up to date now with the Halo timeline), the crew is woken up when the Spirit of Fire drifts within range of an Ark, and picks up a UNSC distress signal coming from its surface. Commander Cutter quickly dispatches a team, and everyone is shocked as all they find is a young AI named Isabel. She quickly gets the Spirit of Fire crew up to date on the last 28 years, and reveals a new enemy in The Banished, a Brute-led force so powerful they were able to splinter off and earn their freedom from the Covenant.
On the surface, Creative Assembly has only really made minor tweaks to the basic gameplay of the original Halo Wars, but that in and of itself is an accomplishment. It’s not easy to make an RTS game work on consoles, but maintaining a lot of the same controls—like using the A-button to sweep over and collect units, or double-tapping a bumper to select all the units—I never once felt hampered when commanding my UNSC or Banished armies in both campaign and multiplayer. One major addition was particularly handy, though.
A feature long available on PC RTS games—and noticeably absent from the original Halo Wars—was the ability to assign units to groups so you could bounce back and forth easily between teams fighting on multiple fronts. Now, you can create four separate groups on the D-Pad by holding a direction and a bumper, making army management a lot simpler. It may not be as much as the 10 groups you can create on a keyboard, but it’s a start, and can go a long way to your enjoyment of the game—in particular when the campaign sets up several missions where fighting along multiple fronts is the necessary way to go if you are to achieve victory on harder difficulties.
The other major addition is how much more in-depth Creative Assembly has gone with the upgrade trees and units you can make. Following the story, the Banished won’t have many familiar Covenant faces like the Jackals, because they wouldn’t make sense (no spoilers!). A variety of different Elites, however, help fill in myriad roles of units like these that didn’t carry over from the first game. And this works on both sides of the war, with one example being retrofitted Cyclops replacing the Cobra tanks—the UNSC’s anti-vehicle units for the original Halo Wars.
One of Halo Wars 2’s best features, however, is how the campaign not only fits perfectly into the Halo universe with a tremendous story, but teaches you all about these new mechanics and units as you play. You’ll experience them all as the narrative unfolds, prepping you before you take the plunge into the multiplayer modes. There’s also some surprising replayability with four different difficulties (all also available in 2-player co-op), high scores, and the optional and bonus objectives, which is how you actually unlock skulls this time around instead of searching for them tucked away in corners of the battlefield.
The campaign, however, is also where one of the biggest flaws with the game crops up: its length. A full playthrough on normal only clocks in at about 6-8 hours (depending on if and how often you fail a mission), and only consists of 12 missions—one of which is really a 5-minute tutorial. Looking back, this is three chapters shorter than the original game. While the length doesn’t detract from the great story, and it’s nice the campaign goes to such lengths to teach you about all the units and lower the bar of entry for those potentially new to the RTS genre like mentioned above, I also got the feeling that I was never about to truly cut loose until the very last mission.
That’s because right up until the end, I felt the game was still giving me tutorials and holding my hand for a bit too long, keeping certain units back behind a curtain—and when everything was finally at my disposal, the game was over. Limiting players with certain scenarios and stipulations is good some of the time in an RTS campaign, but doing it nearly every mission can get a bit stifling, and prevented me from learning as much on my own. Really, experimentation in an RTS is sometimes part of the fun.
I was also surprised that there were a couple of moments in the campaign where some precipitous frame rate drops occurred (in particular, many of them happened in Mission 7). There really weren’t any other technical issues to speak of in my time with the game, and these could’ve just been the occasional pre-launch hiccup which can easily be patched on day one—but it’s definitely something to keep an eye out for.
While playing an RTS game in single-player is all well and good, as I alluded to before, it’s really just the appetizer before diving into the multiplayer. Halo Wars 2 really shines here if you’re any sort of an RTS fan. The multiplayer suite is larger than before, featuring new modes like Strongholds, where players are given infinite resources while racing to build the biggest army first while trying to control the most bases. The team with the most bases at the end—or the one that can wipe out their opponents—wins. It’s a nice complement to Team Deathmatch and Domination if you’re looking for something more casual and less centered on the all-important resource management of other RTS modes.
The shining jewel, though, is the brand new card-based Blitz mode. Yes, it’s really an easy way to add microtransactions to yet another game, but it is entirely unnecessary to spend any extra money. You can earn cards by playing the game’s other modes (including campaign), and by leveling up your overall rank. There are also daily and weekly challenges across all modes that can reward you with special cards, too.
The idea in Blitz is that every player has a 12-card deck, and can even customize 18 total decks if they want (three for each of the six starting commanders in the game). Each commander has special cards only they can wield, and really add some unique elements to each deck. When you play Blitz, you draw a four-card hand and can only call units onto the field by playing cards, which you do by collecting resources like in any other RTS game. If playing against others, it takes on a Domination-like feel, with each player or team vying for control of three different points. If you play against AI, Blitz turns into a wave-based survival mode.
I hate to admit it, because it seems like so many games are trying to add trading card game elements somehow now, but Blitz was probably my favorite of the multiplayer modes. Each match was fast (8-10 minutes), deck building is easy, and there’s still the strategy element you’d expect from something featured in an RTS game. Knowing where and when to play cards is vital. And, since you will always have a limited amount of units, knowing when to break someone off from your main groups to go collect more resources is critical to being ready for the inevitable conflicts. My only complaint about the mode is it only features one map, but with no match ever playing the same—even when using the same deck—it’s really a minor annoyance at worst. Also, it should be mentioned that I noticed no problems with Halo Wars 2 servers, but these were pre-launch conditions only populated by devs and a few dozen other members of the press. Once the game is released into the wild, it could be an entirely different ballgame, so that’s also something else to keep an eye out for.
As a fan of the original Halo Wars and RTS titles in general, I almost couldn’t be happier with Halo Wars 2. It continues the story of some of my favorite characters in the expanded Halo universe in a fitting and fun way, while giving me the competitive, strategic gameplay I expect and crave from a game of this genre. I wish the campaign would’ve given me a bit more length and freedom in a lot of scenarios, but other than that, Halo Wars once again shows the right way to do real-time strategy experiences on a console.
|Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.21.17|
Halo Wars 2 does a fantastic job building on the foundation laid out by the original game. New modes and new characters highlight what is a fun return to the Halo universe, even if the campaign is shorter than I’d prefer.
|The Good||Deeper upgrade trees, being able to assign units to groups, and Blitz mode are all fantastic additions to this stellar continuation of the first game.|
|The Bad||The campaign is on the short side, and the occasional lag.|
|The Ugly||The stream of expletives that one dude screamed on headset when I stole his Grizzly tank with my Spartan Alice in Blitz mode.|
|Halo Wars 2 is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|