Review: Halo Wars 2 is a jack of all trades RTS
The story is the only thing it masters
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Developer: 343 Industries, Creative Assembly
In order to appreciate Halo Wars 2 fully, we first must travel back to the year 2009. Xbox was on top of the world as the Xbox 360 was the clear winner, at least in the States, of that generation’s console wars. Its flagship series was still basking in glory from the release of Halo 3 two years prior and fans were hungry for more. It’d be another year before the critically acclaimed Halo: Reach would release, so Microsoft made a bold decision: they’d produce a non-FPS Halo game. And even bolder, it’d be an RTS; a genre that historically flounders on consoles due to controls lending themselves heavily to keyboards. But Halo Wars overcame those issues and bolstered a compelling story with fluid controls for consoles.
Fast forward to now, and things are a lot different. Despite their best efforts, Microsoft’s current console is lagging behind the PlayStation 4 in terms of both sales and critical opinion. Even worse, its first party lineup has fallen from grace, with titles such as Halo 5 underperforming in multiple categories and cancellations of major exclusives such as Scalebound. The future isn’t necessarily looking bleak, but I don’t think anyone could argue that Microsoft doesn’t need to step up to the plate. Its first major exclusive of 2017, Halo Wars 2, is up to bat first. Unfortunately, it isn’t a home run.
The presentation of Halo Wars 2 is its best aspect
The game’s greatest strength is its production. Aside from a few minor bugs, the game runs smoothly and boasts quality. The same care taken with the main Halo series has been applied here, evident in its gorgeous cutscenes and storytelling. The rise of Atriox and the return of the UNSC Warship Spirt of Fire is a compelling tale and will please fans of both the original game and original Halo trilogy. The crew of the Spirit of Fire has been in cryosleep and awakens still believing the war with the covenant to be raging across the galaxy. They must prevent a war of their own, however, as the powerful Brute Atriox has created his own army to fight humans and the Covenant alike. During the 12 mission campaign, I was enjoying the game most when watching the beautifully animated cutscenes.
The campaign leaves a lot to be desired
But for a video game, having the time between gameplay be its strongest aspect is a major problem. Whilst the story is great, the actual story missions are pretty plodding and don’t really feel like an actual campaign. In fact, it feels more like a tutorial for the multiplayer. With each mission I kept being taught new aspects of the gameplay, only understanding the full myriad of moves by the final act of the game. This would be somewhat acceptable if there were multiple strategic controls and a variety of mission types to become acquainted with, but there aren’t. Once again, the controls for Halo Wars 2 are the best RTS console controls out there, but with that comes the cost of any depth. Missions are consistently requiring you to spawn more squads and then throw them at the enemy with very little actual strategy. Maps are far too small for any real tactical maneuvers, and squad diversity could use some improvement. The satisfaction of winning a hard earned battle is almost nonexistent, as it usually boils down to you having enough supplies to create enough units to wear down the enemy to the point of defeat. Some missions which switch up the formula to a more tower defense style game are the highlights of the campaign, and I certainly wish the game had leaned more toward these mission types.
The multiplayer improves upon the gameplay
Adding the human element into the combat definitely helps with the mundane nature of Halo Wars 2’s gameplay. I wish I had more time with it, but I definitely felt myself enjoying the game more from the onset by sticking to the multiplayer. The maps also open up, which really helps with applying actual strategy to the battlefield. Blitz Mode is the highlight of multiplayer and in turn the highlight of the game. It inserts a card game into the mix, with those cards deciding which units and powers you can play. This again helps with the game feeling like an actual strategy title. It, unfortunately, comes with a strong caveat: micro transactions. You get a bevy of cards for completing the campaign, but past that, you’ll have to use some real world money to get more booster packs. And whilst Blitz Mode is fun, it definitely isn’t enjoyable enough to get me to start doing that.
Don’t bother with the PC version
Halo Wars 2 is a Play Anywhere title, which means if you bought the game on Xbox One you also have it for your Windows 10 PC. The syncing between the two works very well, but you’re not going to want to spend much time with the PC version past testing it out. The game’s lack of depth is, even more, glaring with a keyboard and mouse, and in some instances, the controller is the desired input for moving across the map and controlling the camera. And with a wealth of vastly superior RTS titles on the PC, the gap in quality becomes glaringly apparent.
This game is worth playing for yourself
Whilst I’m rather critical of the game, I do feel like it’s a title worth spending time with to decide for yourself. If you’re a fan of the first game or a die hard Halo fan, it’s worth picking up for the story alone which may be one of my favorite in the series. However, if you only have a cursory interest in the title then I’d honestly consider putting your money into something else. I was a massive fan of the original Halo Wars, and whilst the sequel is an improvement it isn’t the advancement the spin-off series needed and doesn’t feel nearly as revolutionary as its predecessor. With Sony releasing strong exclusives such as Nioh and Horizon Zero Dawn this month, Xbox’s offering is severely lacking.