Real-time strategy games on console are relatively hard to come by. The nature of this genre generally lends itself better to the precision and accuracy afforded to PC gamers. Being able to tactically divide up your units and wage war on a few different fronts is a huge plus in any RTS, and Halo Wars 2 is no different. With a variety of game modes for you to sink your teeth into, it’s a well-fleshed out game and even with microtransactions included, is by no means a money grabber.
Halo Wars 2 features a full campaign, which is interlaced and linked together by stunning, dare I say photorealistic (well, if anyone has actually ever taken a photo of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, I guess it’d look like it), pre-rendered cutscenes. There are 12 missions in total, allowing you to wage war on Atriox and the Banished – a rebel Covenant faction. Fighting familiar enemies, contextualised in a new way, is really clever and it makes the standard grunts, brutes, and other covenant forces that you will be facing feel fresh.
The story told in Halo Wars 2 is set three decades after the events of the original Halo Wars, and takes place chronologically after Halo 5: Guardians. The story is an offshoot of Halo’s main storyline; it’s a different enemy, a different threat. This means that if you’re a Halo fan who really hates RTS games, you can avoid Halo Wars 2 without being left in the dark too much. The feeling of decimating an enemy’s army and base is so satisfying, especially since you can hear your foe’s reaction over the comms channel.
While many missions have a similar sort of objective: Go here, kill those guys, take out that base, control this point, they are varied enough to not get boring, and are interesting enough so long as you pay attention to the context behind the actions. Tuning out and not paying attention to the story might make the gameplay itself a little dull, but it all depends on what kind of player you are. I’d recommend loading into Skirmish or Blitz if you want more mindless fun. But it’s the kind of mindless fun you still have to pay attention to…if that makes sense.
A gripe I have with Halo Wars 2 is in the control scheme. It’s a sharp learning curve to grasp the controls and select the right units you want. There is the ability to set up presets, but being able to do so first time without pausing to think takes a while…but then maybe my grey matter just isn’t as responsive as it used to be. I don’t often think this while playing games, but a mouse and keyboard would be so beneficial for Halo Wars 2.
Lucky then, that Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title. Obviously the difference in ease of play is apparent to even the devs, as cross-platform play is not allowed. It would probably be a massacre if a PC player played against someone on Xbox One.
As RTS games go, Halo Wars 2 isn’t the most sophisticated. While there are a plethora of tactics and strategies available to you, more often than not I found myself just throwing my entire population at base after base, because selecting anti-infantry units to go and fight the infantry and doing the same for vehicles and aircraft was too difficult. Don’t get me wrong, sending in your entire military to overrun a boss or a base is hilariously fun, but it’s just not the most tactically… tactical.
Blitz is a new card-game variant of the standard Halo Wars experience. Blitz does away with the base building and resource-hoarding, and replaces them with a deck of cards. You will have five cards available to you at a time, and each will cost energy to play. This energy sporadically drops into the map, as well as being a reward for controlling zones. Cards that cost the most energy are the most devastating, such as the ultra-units like the Scarab for the Banished or the Condor for the UNSC.
With all that in mind, you might have guessed where Blitz is heading. Yep, microtransactions in the form of card packs. You will have to open packs to acquire new cards for each playable leader (including Sgt. Forge, a DLC Leader). Finding duplicate cards will grant bonus levels to the unit that it corresponds to. For example, if you have three grunt cards, that unit will become level one, and get a boost to HP and damage. You can purchase packs with money, or earn them through play: by completing missions, objectives etc.
The problem arises, when you have a player who has spent a lot of money on these packs, has a fully kitted out deck and can demolish you and your poxy deck in mere minutes. I’m sure there are balances in place to ensure this doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t bode well when you can essentially pay to win. Luckily if you’re looking to avoid online altogether, you can play offline blitz either solo or via local co-op.
The sheer amount of game options for Halo Wars 2 means that you won’t really get tired of playing it unless you don’t like the game itself. Now, that may sound redundant, but what I mean is that the Campaign has a totally different feel to Blitz, which in itself is different to both Skirmish and Firefight.
Skirmish is the place to go to try out your new tactics. It’s essentially solo or cooperative play against AI on the maps you’ll find on multiplayer. This is really going to be an invaluable tool for developing new strategies, trying things out on different enemy leaders to see what works, and what doesn’t.
Firefight meanwhile sees you face increasingly difficult waves of enemies in the Blitz game mode. This can either be done solo, or cooperatively. Energy won’t replenish as in the standard Blitz game mode in Firefight, so is left to you to collect energy drops from around the map in order to call in more units.
Daily and Weekly challenges also encourage playing different modes and as different leaders, and it encourages you to step outside your comfort zone and learn different tactics. Also adding to replayability of Halo Wars 2 are the optional bonus objectives in story mode missions. You might miss them first time around, but they are varied and fun, ranging from not taking more than 50% damage to a unit, to killing enemies with a specific unit. Completing bonus objectives and collecting Phoenix Logs (collectible lore notes) will unlock skulls which, as always, modify game behaviour to either your advantage or disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the game is not free from bugs – both physical and technical. The attention to detail in the maps is amazing, as flies swarm around corpses. On the technical side, I have encountered a few bugs which have thrown me out of the game completely, losing my progress. I have no idea why this happens, and can only think that the game itself isn’t as stable as perhaps it should be. Though, saying that, only when I launched full on assaults and spammed attacks did I notice any frame rate drops, so that’s always nice to know.
In summary, Halo Wars 2 is somewhere between a Halo game for RTS fans and a RTS game for Halo fans, never going too in depth into either category so as to put people off. The gameplay itself is off the mark a little, since the console controls don’t lend themselves well to this genre of game, leading to sending in your entire army out of a lack of an easy way to do the smarter thing. Halo Wars 2 irons out any issues that the original game had, and provides more of the same, but with a bit more polish. Whilst fans of the series will be glad to play this sequel, newcomers to the RTS scene might have a harder time.