The futuristic world of Halo isn’t too far removed from our own. Sure, there’s some superficial differences, such as the huge circular weapon worlds that float through space – well, until proven otherwise – but the conflict, the distrust, the rallying against evil, these are things we understand. Halo Wars 2 gives us the opportunity to return to that distant future, and experience the conflict on a larger scale than the Master Chief-fronted mainline entries, this time with RTS specialists Creative Assembly at the helm.
Continuing on from the first game – arguably the first truly successful attempt to bring the RTS to console – you’re placed once more in command of the crew of the Spirit of Fire, led by Captain Cutter, who’ve been in cryosleep for the past few decades. They are led in somewhat mysterious circumstances to The Ark, a hub world created by the Forerunners that features twelve different habitats. This time, though it’s not directly the Covenant you’re going up against, but rather a faction called The Banished, led by a rogue Brute named Atriox.
As an RTS, gameplay revolves around building your base, gaining resources, constructing an army, and then putting it to work. In order to make everything flow as well as is humanly possible, just as in the first game, the controls are mapped exceptionally well to the controller, giving you full control of your army at the push of a button. A few tweaks have been made since the original, most notably opening up the ability to create command groups, letting you marshal larger armies on multiple fronts.
You have to balance the dual resources of power and supplies, gained via constructing generators or supply pads, or alternatively by finding them in buildings or as capture points scattered across the maps. Supply generally covers the cost of units and buildings, while power is used to purchase upgrades, or help towards high-level units.
Each unit’s effectiveness is governed by a classic damage triangle, whereby vehicles are effective against infantry, air units are effective against vehicles, and infantry are effective against air. This isn’t the be-all and end-all mind you, but a good rule of thumb. Some specialised units throw these rules out of the window, so you have to be constantly aware of both your army’s make-up and abilities as well as those of your enemy.
The campaign itself is a classic Halo romp on this alien habitable construst, and while it’s a great deal of fun, it isn’t the best showcase for the game’s tactical elements. There can be a lot of pressing X as you lead your army around by the nose, taking them from one glowing points on the map to another, or following the giant translucent arrow to an objective. Still, when it all clicks into place there can be some huge and tense showdowns, while you hope that your leader power – which ranging from healing your units to releasing a swathe of explosive rockets – will refresh just in time. Sadly it’s also not the longest campaign in the world, but there’s plenty of longevity to be found in the game’s multiplayer modes.
There are the relatively standard RTS options for playing against others to be found in Rumble, while you can also play in a Skirmish against the computer. There are additional daily and weekly challenges built into the multiplayer modes that are designed to keep you playing, such as offering XP for completing twenty matches, or promote trying out different leaders and factions. Largely it all works very well, and if you like the gameplay, there’s should be plenty to keep you coming back.
It’s the Blitz mode that really tries to do something new with the genre, mixing in card packs – and sadly microtransactions – and melding them with the RTS gameplay. You can gain new cards by playing through the campaign or levelling up your profile, as well as spending some of your own cold, hard cash if you so desire, though I personally found that there was more than enough going on purely with the cards I gained without throwing extra money at it.
Either going solo or in teams of up to three, your aim is to hold more control zones than your opponent, which in turn earns you points. Hitting 200 points will win you the match, but there’s a constant push and pull between you and your opponents as you lose and gain ground. Your hand of four cards sits at the bottom of the screen, with each featuring a specific unit or power from the twelve cards that are in your customisable deck. You use resources to play the units on your cards and try to trump whatever your opponent is using. It’s a lot of fun, and battles are zippy and action-packed. Constructing your own deck adds a nice level of depth, and I can see myself tinkering around with my deck’s balance for many months to come.
The whole game sure looks and sounds like Halo, and there’s been a pleasing jump in the visuals over the first game, especially if you play on PC and ramp the settings up. Having recently come from playing the Definitive Edition on Xbox One, there’s much more variety and colour employed here which really adds to the visual experience. Likewise, the soundtrack matches up with the world perfectly, taking in militaristic themes with pounding drums before segueing into synth-led futuristic melancholy.
The production values overall are fantastic, from the high-class cutscenes through to the convincing voice acting. Watching your miniature army traverse the alien landscape is great, and you can easily swoop in to take a closer look at all of them, though it’s perhaps best not to try and make it through too many encounters like that.
Having said that, Halo Wars 2 isn’t without a few technical issues at launch, whether it’s the long loading times – though they’re somewhat alleviated by the voiced mission briefings that run alongside them – the laggy menu system, or how the game’s pop ups on PC don’t take into account when you play with a keyboard. It does take a bit of the shine off what is otherwise an excellently presented piece of software.
Halo Wars 2 is an excellent and long overdue return for the console RTS, doing everything that can be expected of a sequel. Bigger, better and fresher, the Blitz mode is a welcome addition to an already solid package, and while fans of the mainline Halo games may find the transition too hard to bear, this is a worthy addition to any Xbox One owner’s collection.
Version Tested: Xbox One