Halo Wars was a very pleasant surprise when it released back in 2009. One of the first console RTS to truly capture the genre and translate the experience from keyboard and mouse to a controller, the addition of the hugely recognisable unit types from the Halo series galvanised it as a welcome entry point to the genre, and a change of pace for the franchise.
And so it is that we find ourselves beckoned back to Halo Wars 2, with our first hands on coming via the current multiplayer beta. Matched up with another player on your team, you begin each multiplayer round by selecting a commander, with two available to you in the beta; Captain James Cutter of the UNSC and Atriox of The Banished, a fierce Brute faction. Your choice of commander dictates which commander powers you have at your disposal, with Cutter able to call in powerful orbital strikes while Atriox can make his units temporarily invulnerable.
Base building is robust and largely unchanged from the first game. Starting with your central command post you begin with five slots available to you to place resource and power generators, which in turn provide you with resources to build and buy further buildings and units. This is where one of the few obvious changes has been made, as you now need two forms of resources to manufacture, creating an extra tactical wrinkle.
Everything is still controlled via radial menus which flow seamlessly, though in this build there was occasionally a bit of disconnect when selecting your units, part of which could be remedied simply by having a more audible confirmation noise when you’re performing tasks. There’s plenty of units on offer, from Jackrabbits to Warthogs, and the expected levelling up of your base and units is all achieved very easily via the intuitive controls.
The combat builds on a classic rock-paper-scissors approach, with air units beaten by infantry, infantry by vehicles, and vehicles by air. There are however some specialist counter units which break the cycle, and can help you turn the tide against the enemy.
The mode on offer in the beta is Domination, where you and your teammate attempt to capture and hold various key locations around the map, while building your base and your army. Both teams start with 5000 tickets, and holding key locations starts to reduce the tickets belonging to your opponents.
If you played the original, there’s little new on show for the sequel, thus far. What it does do is refine the experience, with the whole thing running very smoothly barring a few hiccups when it’s trying to connect to other players.
My only real problem during the beta was being paired with other players who didn’t really seem to know what they had to do, sitting there with a hugely expanded army while our team’s ticket count dwindled away. As with any multiplayer game you’re going to want to join up with friends to get the most out of it, and people will learn the dynamics the more they play, and from playing the final game’s single player.
One missed opportunity with the final game could be the lack of cross-platform play against PC players, especially when more games are beginning to offer it. The argument that they’d have an input advantage could well be moot if Microsoft follow through on their promise to enable mouse and keyboard support on Xbox One, but it’s always a shame to split the user base.
Of course, you can’t judge Halo Wars 2 on this beta alone, as we’re still a number of months away from its completion. Getting to see all of the new units and army types is likely to greatly enliven proceedings, as well as experiencing the offline combat and the brand new Halo story that’s set directly after Halo 5: Guardians which ties it all together. It’s likely that fans of the original will enjoy it no matter what, but thus far there’s nothing here that’s likely to bring players flocking to the console RTS. Hopefully Creative Assembly still have some tricks up their Spartan armour’s sleeve.