Halo Wars 2 is an exhilarating odyssey into parts unknown. Creative Assembly’s attempt at a real-time strategy game in the console space is a valiant yet relatively safe experience. With fast paced combat, fluid controls, and some novel multiplayer modes, Halo Wars 2 adds up to a flawed but uniquely fun strategy experience.
The game’s story pits Captain James Cutter and his aptly named unit “The Spirit of Fire” against, the Banished: a renegade Covenant faction led by Atriox- a terrifying Covenant defying brute. Atriox and his faction have taken over some dangerous weapon called the Ark, and has been using it to destroy human controlled research bases. It’s up to Captain James Cutter and “The Spirit of Fire” to stop Atriox before his quest for vengeance destroys those not aligned with the Banished.
Real-time strategy games are few and far between on console for one particular reason, the controls. Halo Wars 2 aims to solve this issue with a unique control scheme that makes perfect use of the Xbox one controller. Small additions like double tapping RB to select all of your troops or mapping your most useful units to the d-pad allow you to control the battlefield in an extremely flexible and manageable way.
Yet these controls are far from perfect. During intense firefights I found myself fumbling between units or using abilities I didn’t want to. These complications often led to my units’ untimely demise. The majority of the issues can be chalked up to user error, but after a couple of hours to get used to the layout there’s a lot to love about Creative Assembly’s unique control scheme.
From the onset, everything from the music to the visuals, and even the menus are very distinctly Halo. The campaign itself may not be the most compelling, ultimately adding nothing to the series’ canon, but the cutscenes are breathtaking with their high quality presentation and performances captured.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Halo Wars 2’s story missions. They frequently task players to build a base or rescue units and end up feeling like more of an oversight rather than a reason to play. The majority of the objectives are glorified defense missions, setting you up to build and defend your base until the timer runs out. There are one or two missions that try to change this up having players control a small infantry, tasked to take out a base or rescue stranded units. These missions are reminiscent of older Halo games but don’t change up the structure enough to make the objectives more than a passing thought. While these sections are fun, they don’t add much to the genre or spark an interest to play the campaign a second time.
In addition to the RTS gameplay, Halo Wars 2 introduces “Leader abilities.” These are tactical skills that allow you to heal/repair units, call down ODST units, air support, missile strikes, mines, and a lot more. These abilities are leveled up as you progress through each mission and can drastically turn the tide of battle. These abilities are an excellent addition to game mechanics and add a layer of depth to the already intricate RTS combat. Despite the story mission’s inability to capture the player’s attention, it never overstays it’s welcome or becomes tedious as it clocks in at just under 8-hours.
Halo Wars 2, may not be the most visually impressive game on the market (aside from the gorgeous cutscenes) but the unit animations more than make up for it. Scorpion tanks and Hunters move with a terrifying sense of purpose, and Grunts have their fun wobbling run. All of your units will look like miniature or toy versions of characters we typically see in the Halo series, although zooming in will show off a lack of character detail or satisfying visual fidelity. This in no way detracts from the overall enjoyment of the game, but the stark contrast between the cutscenes and the in-game engine is often more jarring than subtle. In 2015’s Halo 5, 343 studio’s added new characters, visuals, and colors to the Halo universe. These additions would have been welcome, but like thestory, Creative Assembly takes no risks with the game’s aesthetics.
After you’ve made your way through the campaign, you can test your skill in the multiplayer section. The game modes divide into three categories: Rumble, Skirmish, and Blitz. Rumble and Skirmish task the player, either in a team or solo, to build bases, train units, and take out the opposing fortresses.
Blitz adds a much more interesting dynamic, allowing you to build decks and customize your starting units in a faster paced head-to-head style match. Players will start by opening the blitz packs they’ve unlocked through leveling up in the game’s story or by purchasing them from the in-game store. Cards are classified into four separate categories: common, uncommon, rare, and legendary. After the cards are unlocked, players will be required to build a deck and will have to customize these decks in order stay competitive. There are seven unique factions, each one with Leaders to choose from, and they are based on the main characters of Halo Wars 2’s campaign. While it does seem like there is a lot of customization and depth here, in my time with the game, I noticed players shift to only two of the leaders; Captain Cutter and Decimus. These two leaders are quite obviously stronger than the others and building a deck without them will just put players at a disadvantage. I don’t doubt this will change with patches and updates, but as it stands the deck building funnels you in a particular direction while giving the illusion of freedom.
After building the deck, players will set off to either 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 matches. Players will begin with their starting units and a hand of four cards. Cards in your hand can be swapped throughout the game and will replace themselves when used. These cards are used to create units, buff your team, or call down devastating air strikes. Players will be ultimately tasked to capture three zones and the first team to 200 points wins. These fast-paced matches usually never exceed 5-10 minutes and are incredibly engaging and addicting. While the option to complete your decks with in-game purchases might seem nice, this will give players a slight advantage and makes the starter decks completely obsolete, giving progression a level of Pay-To-Win. It should be stated that buying in-game packs is not mandatory and players can grind out story missions to unlock a good majority of the cards. Although, unlocking packs will drastically slow down after you beat the main game and players will find themselves pressured to make in-game purchases.
Halo Wars 2 does not necessarily add anything new, but its formulaic approach to RTS games is a breath of fresh air for console owners. A bland story, mixed with incredibly realized cutscenes, fun yet repetitive mission structure, and fast-paced competitive multiplayer creates a full package that is definitely worth your time.