The Halo games have a tendency to explore multiple sides to a story, but it’s not always gone down too well. From Halo 2’s iconic and rather polarising shift to have you play as the Arbiter through to the way that Halo 5: Guardians jumped back and forth between between Master Chief and Spartan: Locke it’s never quite hit the mark for fans of the iconic series. For Halo Wars 2, it’s a much more straightforward and appealing proposition, with the one story told by the main game that was released earlier this year, and now a major DLC expansion to explore the Banished side of the story in Awakening the Nightmare, where you take control of two of Atriox’s lieutenants, Veridus and Pavium, as they battle the Ark’s Sentinels, encounter pockets of humans and eventually battle the returning Flood.
Veridus and Pavium are an exercise in creating contrasting characters, as they’re built around their battlefield archetypes. Pavium is the defensively minded leader, great for building up a strong defence and then counter-attacking, and so his character is naturally quite conservative and pragmatic, while Veridus is the polar opposite and will recklessly rush in with units whose attacks have been boosted even further. The two of them vie for Atriox’s attentions and approval and have been tasked with finding and capturing High Charity on the Ark.
That’s easier said than done, and the first mission in the expansion shows the Ark’s defensive Sentinels working overtime to try and keep them out. Controlling Pavium, you push forward to try and establish a base so that you can counter this threat and slow the stream of Sentinel ships coming out of their spawn points, making use of a disruption emitter to freeze them in place and get a foothold with your forces and AA turrets. It’s only when Veridus intervenes that you get to make any real progress, as he brings a Scarab up that can help crash through the barriers.
As first levels go, it’s fairly full on compared the start of the main game’s campaign and it shows where this expansion is placed in relation to this. There’s not much handholding here to walk you through the controls – you’re expected to know these from the off – and you’ll have to try and keep an eye on a number of defensive fronts as your resources are stretched as you bring more expansion bases online in different parts of the map and have to contend with increasing numbers of Sentinal spawn points.
There’s more to this expansion than just a single player campaign. Pavium and Veridus will naturally join the now sprawling roster of leaders to choose from online – Creative Assembly tell us there are still plenty more characters for them to adapt for the RTS – and all players will be treated to a pair of new maps for multiplayer.
This expansion also adds a new and cooperative mode to play, riffing off the Firefight mode in the Halo shooters in Terminus Firefight, and can be played with any of the leaders in the game, with the maps dynamically scaling in size for up to three players. Essentially, it’s a wave-based defensive game mode in which you have to try and hold the attackers back from the Terminus building at the centre of the map.
You’re informed prior to its arrival what a wave will include and the direction that it will come from, so you might be inclined to push forward and meet them further away from the Terminus building, especially as there will be additional power cores and expansion bases to grab across the map that boost your score multiplier, but you could just as easily try to stay packed in around the Terminus to make use of its healing aura. That aura shrinks as its power cores are destroyed, and chances are players will spread out early on before slowly being pushed back to the centre.
Keeping you on your toes, the faction you face switches up every five waves, while also boosting the damage they deal and their health. Thankfully, you’ll occasionally be given a respite with a bonus wave that brings reinforcements, veterancy and lets you catch your breath for a few moments.
Naturally all of this looks fantastic on Xbox One X, boosted to 4K and with the HDR colour space that was added to the game a few months after launch. As Creative Assembly demo the expansion, they’re keen to highlight what HDR actually means for the gameplay. It’s not an earth shattering revelation, but an added layer of intuition as you’re stuck in the middle of the action. Various attacks and abilities pop more visually making them easier to identify, and when you’re having to try and calculate quickly in your head what units you need to build or which ability you need to try and use to counter them, being able to better understand what’s coming at you can help.
Awakening the Nightmare is a surprisingly traditional form of expansion though, in this day and age. Releasing next week, it exists outside of the season pass that was released alongside the game, which is sure to put a few noses out of joint, though hopefully the price should hopefully be justified by the major new game mode and a sweeping new campaign that offers up a different angle on the Banished and their struggle for power.