Microsoft’s Halo franchise, now under the control of 343 Industries is a juggernaut, spawning mobile twin-stick shooters and real-time strategy options in addition to the first-person shooter it so humbly began as. The latest in the ever-expanding Halo universe is Halo Wars 2, an Xbox Play Anywhere RTS on Windows PC and Xbox One that leverages the talents of The Creative Assembly, a studio known for the popular Total War franchise. Microsoft ‘s decision to let the genre champion take on their child was a great one, gripping me almost immediately unlike the original Halo Wars.
Halo Wars 2 centres around the crew of the UNSC’s Spirit of Fire, a warship that finds itself in a remote corner of the galaxy after 28 years of cryosleep. Far removed from the events of Halo 5: Guardians, the crew finds itself face-to-face with the Banished, a group of Covenant-but-not, and their Brute leader, Atriox. Fighting for control of an Ark, an installation used to create the franchise’s titular halos, the fate of the galaxy (of course) rests in your hands.
Developed for both of Microsoft’s main platforms, controls are intuitive and suit a controller or keyboard and mouse setup, with the latter of course benefiting just that little bit extra. After all, RTSes are practically made for PCs, right? Using a controller is as easy as it was with Firaxis’ Civilization Revolution, so those unaccustomed to the genre will feel right at home. While controls adapt well to mouse and keyboard as well, die-hard genre fans might think the game a tad too easy on normal difficulties; it’s a bit easier than a standard RTS just because of the simplifications made to suit us console folk. After all, PC users can grab units with a simple click-and-drag, while us console types will either have to grab all units, all on the screen, or rely on the A button and the right trigger to group units individually.
Halo Wars 2 features a 12 mission single-player campaign, exposing players to the different units, vehicles, special abilities, base elements and upgrades really needed to excel in a variety of multiplayer modes. With 343 clearly in control of the story, The Creative Assembly has done a tremendous job of bringing all of Halo’s elements into the RTS format while staying true to source material. Special moves are usually accompanied by flavour soundbites, capturing the essence of Halo itself – always keep an ear out for a Grunt’s latest lament. Hero Spartan characters also have special abilities as introduced into the shooter’s multiplayer of late, and seamlessly at that.
Cinematics are especially jaw-dropping between campaign missions, offering the same level of quality as seen in Halo 5: Guardians or with Halo 2’s remaster inside The Master Chief Collection. While they play smoothly on my standard Xbox One and 1080p television, the cutscenes strangely suffer from framerate drops on my Xbox One S and 1080p television. Nonetheless, they – like the campaign missions themselves – feature identifiable, likeable characters both in NPC form and playable Spartan Heroes, set in an epic science fiction romp.
The campaign will most certainly prepare you for multiplayer, with a variety of playlists and modes on offer. Deathmatch exists in 2v2 and 3v3 configurations, both against humans or AI. You can also allow with 3-5 other players to work towards a cooperative Domination win, completing objectives, capping points and slaughtering enemies as you do so. Finally, Strongholds unshackles players, offering up unlimited resources and all available upgrades to really do some damage.
Despite a rich pool of content, Microsoft really wants you to ditch most multiplayer modes for the new, card-based mode called Blitz. The focus of its recent beta, Blitz offers up bittersweet fun. Starting at your main base, you’re charged with taking over three points on a map; you’ll only start scoring – or preventing your opponent from doing so – when you’ve more points than your enemy.
Units, vehicles and special abilities are all locked behind cards, with each requiring a certain amount of power to do use. You’ll regenerate power over time, but can also add to your pool by destroying generators that pop up across the map. The pleasure in Blitz, as with most modes really, comes from the micromanagement of your possessions: knowing how to split your troops, where to deploy them and when to use new resources to bolster your army. In combat against another player or solo inside Blitz’s Firefight mode, it’s all joyous – until you realise you’ve exhausted your deck and either have to go back into campaign to earn more, or, worse yet, pay real-world money for more cards.
Worst yet, the wait to open each individual pack you have, or even to skip past most of the spectacle, is long and tiresome.
Halo Wars 2 has a lot to offer, but it’s clear Microsoft wants you to spend big inside it. That’s a tremendous shame, especially when you could easily see how Blitz could have been tweaked to provide a certain amount of resources – for free – tasking you with certain objectives. It would have been an utter delight in this form, with players working that same type of strategic management in order to best their foes. Microtransactions are what they are, and those savvy and patient enough to bypass them certainly can.
This is a solid, Creative Assembly-driven RTS, well-suited for those who love the genre and also for those who are into science fiction; if you’re a fan of both, even better. Simple to understand, fun to play and challenging on higher difficulties, it’s hard to go wrong with Halo Wars 2.
Halo Wars 2 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One and Windows PC, as provided by the publisher. Our primary platform for review was Xbox One. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.