When the original Halo Wars released, I was hooked. An accessible, simple RTS with an IP I loved on a console. This was the time when only the excellent Tropico was your only option if you weren’t in the PC master race. Now with me having the Macbook primarily for RTS gaming, Halo Wars 2 was never going to hook me the same. So is it nostalgia or does the game offer something worthwhile on Xbox one and Windows 10 play anywhere?
The campaign of these games always appeals to me and Halo Wars 2 has come up with a cracking story. Focussing on a previously unheard of race of brutes who defied the Covenant led by a huge Brute called Atriox. The first mission after the lengthy and frankly boring tutorials, has you leading a team of Spartans on a Warthog to a distress signal. Here you meet the Cortana equivalent A.I., Isabel and get attacked by Atriox and his faction, the Banished. It is a nice way to expand the Halo universe and one description of the Banished is particularly good. The game says that while the force of the Covenant nearly wiped out humanity, it never came close to defeating the Banished. After watching this excellent cut scene you are more hyped to play an actual Halo shooter than the RTS.
Unfortunately, this is a feeling that pervades the whole game. It has some of the best cutscenes and story beats of the entire Halo franchise, that frankly leave you wanting more. What you get after these scenes is always a change of pace. Being a strategy game, levels begin at a slower pace. So you get this amazing cut scene but are then are jolted into the base building or small force attacking stage, so common at the beginning of these levels. Luckily the basic strategy game holds up.
Halo Wars 2, borrows heavily from a number of other strategy titles. When I played the first game, I hadn’t had the exposure to RTS games like Starcraft, Civilisation and the Dawn Of War Series, my experiences were with Command and Conquer Generals, Cannon Fodder, Stronghold, Black and White, Total War and the underrated Command and Conquer 64. Because I feel Halo Wars borrows from Dawn of War, Starcraft and Civ, I thought Halo Wars was a bit more unique than it actually was. But despite this, the core gameplay is competent if not spectacular. Bases are built and then buildings can be placed only in specific tiles around the base, like an early Civ. You need to upgrade your base to get more tiles and better units. Unfortunately despite saying your men will gather resources when near them, they really don’t and you will notice this from the tutorial. The group of marines will literally stand near resources and not collect them until you walk over them. Once your base is upgraded you have access to defence turrets and all the vehicles of the Halo Universe. Despite not being free-form base building this does have the effect of keeping your base nice and tidy, a must with no mouse and keyboard on a console.
The movement of troops is more similar to the Dawn Of War series, often there are lengthy gunfights nicely animated between your forces and the Banished, especially if your troops are garrisoned. While garrisoning doesn’t play as large a part as it does in Dawn of War it still serves the same purpose. When you introduce vehicles to the mix everything takes on a more Starcraft feel. Marines are good against airborne vehicles but poor against ground vehicles. Airborne vehicles can take out land ones easily and the last piece of the rock, paper scissors are the land vehicles taking out inventory. The theme of the game seems to be to keep things simple for everyone but allow players to use advanced tactics like groups and rally points if they think it will help them. Personally, in a game as simple as this, I don’t see the benefit of them but having advanced controls there is welcomed if a little cumbersome on the gamepad.
There is the usual suite of multiplayer options after the campaign is over but unless you devote serious study into the game you will suffer badly online, especially against anyone playing with a mouse and keyboard. It just feels more natural and allows them to get things done quicker meaning they are always a step ahead. It almost makes you wish this wasn’t available on Windows 10 as well if only to keep the playing field level. Never will this be as noticeable as in the new mode Blitz.
Blitz, is a welcome mash up of MOBA and card collecting game. It features two base areas and three control points similar to Heroes Of The Storm or other MOBAS, yet incorporates a collectable deck building game into it as well.It seems to be trying to do too much for too many people. Despite only spending a short time with this mode, the huge amount of variables and options available are staggering. There are a number of hero characters you can select and then use either their standard deck or custom decks you build for them. After you have built your deck it is onto the battlefield where you have to accumulate your power to use your cards. You can get random power drops or control the points. The overall point score to win is 200 and you only begin scoring points when you have control of more points than your enemy. It would be a great game locally but in the hostile online MOBA world, I can see this mode getting very competitive and unapproachable, very quickly. Some people will welcome this, but as advertised it should be a simple, quick alternative to a full match, yet is more complicated and takes more time to set up than any other mode.
Maybe a MOBA expert could assess this area of the game better than me but until then you just need to know that Halo Wars 2 is more of what made Halo Wars enjoyable. It has amazing cutscenes and a Halo quality storyline. Unfortunately, the base game has not really evolved from the first and the multiplayer modes, steep learning curves will put many players off.