Review: Halo Wars 2
Halo Wars 2 is More Halo Wars, and That's Not a Bad Thing
Halo Wars 2's announcement caught people off guard in 2015, and now its release is doing the same in 2017. No one was ever expecting to see such a spinoff series get a second chance, despite doing well the first time, but Microsoft decided to provide some excellent fan service by green lighting a sequel to 2009's initial Halo RTS. The result is essentially more of the same, but with slight twists and new additions that don't necessarily help this good game stand out in 2017's more sophisticated and dynamic market.
WAKE UP SPARTAN
Halo Wars 2 takes place shortly after the events of Halo 5: Guardians, though little about that game's story is needed to understand anything of value in Halo Wars 2. You follow Captain Cutter and Professor Anders who are woken from cryogenic sleep after being stranded on the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire for years. Does this synopsis sound familiar?
Anyway, in an attempt to make contact with the UNSC, Cutter sends a few forgettable jockey Spartans on a planet only to discover the uprising of Atriox, a banished Brute soldier who has proven to be both a rebel and badass. Atriox and his team, known simply as the Banished, prove to be quite a threat to you and your limited fleet, but after a generic war movie speech from Captain Cutt Butt, you're sent into battle against this new fierce league of enemies.
Aside from the game's stunning cutscenes, masterfully done by Blur Studios, the first thing that really stood out to me was what an intimidating antagonist Atriox is. He's menacing, terrifying, threatening, and he looks like he eats Marines for breakfast. Unfortunately Halo Wars 2 makes the mistake of giving us a lot of Atroix in the beginning and the end, but a stunning lack of Atriox everywhere in between. By mid-game, I had nearly forgot all about the real threat to my team and felt like I was just fighting typical Halo enemies for the hell of it.
Despite the huge drop off of all things Atriox throughout the game's second act (and the heavy reliance on load screen mission briefings to progress the story) I felt that the narrative ran smooth overall. The story is nothing groundbreaking, but I was interested during my entire eight hour playthrough. Perhaps I was still gripped by the story, if only because Isabel, Halo Wars 2's Cortana like A.I., who is wonderfully animated both through writing and delivery. Isabel plays a huge role in Halo Wars 2, and reminds me that not all secondary characters in the Halo universe have to be generic jar heads.
VIDEO GAME COMFORT FOOD
Halo Wars 2 has very standard Real-Time Strategy mechanics, which is not necessarily a knock on the game. If anything, I'm quite impressed with the game overall. While I may not be the worlds most seasoned RTS player, I sure do know how cumbersome controlling one can become. Halo Wars 2 does an excellent job of taking the complex controls of RTS games and simplifying it for consoles. I played on Xbox One for the entirety of my twelve hours spent with the game and never felt like some functions was missing, or any action was difficult to execute. However, Ensemble Studios proved this could be done in 2009 when they released the original Halo Wars. Halo Wars 2 developer Creative Assembly has done an excellent job of also nailing the controls, but they haven't done much else to make Halo Wars feel like the series has evolved.
A sequel does not always require an evolution to be good, but in the case of Halo Wars 2, being just like the original makes the game feel like its a decade old. I'm not quite sure what exactly has changed in the gaming industry since 2009, but it sure makes games like Halo Wars 2 feel somewhat lackluster. The game controls well, the objectives are fun and varied, and the difficulty progressively trains players to really think strategically as an RTS should in order to claim victory throughout the matches. With that said, the game just still feels like an Xbox 360 game, while not inherently a bad thing, it certainly doesn't carve out a big spot for itself to shine. Still, Halo Wars 2 evokes a sense of comfort food gaming, something that perhaps we don't see quite as often anymore.
Going back to the mission structure, Halo Wars 2 does an excellent job of keeping the gameplay fresh throughout its twelve missions. In some missions you are creating a base and destroying an enemies, some missions have you capturing and holding objectives, others have you defending structures. There is enough variety that the game naturally leads players to set up their armies and try structuring differently, which furthers the understanding of the game's many moving parts.
DEATH RODE A HOG
The units in Halo Wars 2 will be very familiar to fans of the series, which helps lower the learning curve. Anyone who's played a Halo game before has an idea of what a Warthog or Scorpion will do on the battlefield. As a very familiar Halo player myself, I was able to quickly adapt to all the units and begin figuring out the optimal way to strategize with my army. There are so many moving parts to Halo Wars 2 that it feels you'll never really know how a battle is going to play out.
In addition to building a base and maintaining armies, players are also given Leader Points, which are obtained through reaching certain milestones during a battle. These Leader Points make it easier to get yourself out of a tight spot. Say you're about to lose your last few units, well just burn a Leader Point and send in a group of aggressive Sentinels to take out the enemies and you'll likely be saved. I can recall a handful of times using these special power moves got me out of a jam and helped turn the tide of a battle. I found this to be quite a nice feature, especially when playing on a harder difficulty.
Battles often get intense, especially in later missions, and call for some creative strategies. Deciding how to break units into groups and where to move units can be overwhelming, but the game makes it easy by allowing players to build bases in multiple locations. Although Halo Wars 2 relies on building bases in designated spaces, there are always alternative bases to be discovered, which rewards players willing to explore outside the set path on the map. After learning a map well, I found myself able to create multiple armies all over the map, making me feel less nervous about leaving my main base exposed.
Halo Wars 2 offers a few unique features that make the overall experience more action packed and cool, although not necessarily making it better. I loved being able to throw troops like projectiles at enemy vehicles, thus allowing them to hijack the enemy, similar to a staple feature found in FPS Halo games. Other great moments include using specific unit's unique abilities to overcome obstacles, like have infantry units traverse tight environments, or have tanks destroy energy shields. The little things add up to make the overall experience more memorable and entertaining.
HALO: CE INSPIRED
Halo Wars 2 looks an awful lot like classic Halo, and I mean the Halo: Combat Evolved for the original Xbox. This shouldn't come as a surprise seeing as the team behind the game took inspiration from the original Halo design. You won't see a lot of Forerunner anything in this game, and Spartans may remind you of everyone's favorite Master Chief, and perhaps it's intentional. What maybe isn't intentional is the game's less that impressive visuals. Perhaps the reduced visuals are a way to keep the game running smooth, but I occasionally experienced short pauses in gameplay when too much was going on. Halo Wars 2 looks like an early Xbox 360 game. Units lack detail, and environments are basic and slightly muddled in textures. While RTS games are generally not well known for their stunning visuals, I couldn't help but feel like Halo Wars 2 looked a little dull for a 2017 release.
However the game's sound design is a whole other story. Halo Wars 2 features wonderful sound design, making unit movements and gunfire crisp and clear. The game has a good soundtrack too. While not the emotional score that fans may remember from Halo 2 or 3, Halo Wars 2 certainly features a nice soundtrack that is quite fitting to the experience. My only real gripe with the game's audio is the redundant responses from units. Command the same action more than once and you'll go insane hearing your Marines and Spartans talk themselves to death with the same three phrases. While this is a pretty common occurrence in RTS games, it is a huge peeve of mine in Halo Wars 2.
BLITZ, BLITZ, BLITZ (AND OTHER MULTIPLAYER)
The majority of the marketing surrounding Halo Wars 2 has been all about the new multiplayer mode, Blitz. Essentially, players face off in 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 battles and fight to control objectives. The catch is that rather than build and maintain a base, you use Blitz Cards to call in units from wherever you are. Cards can be won and unlocked to modify and build decks, but ultimately Blitz just feels like a game about luck. I played a few hours of Blitz and while I found it to be quite enjoyable, I constantly got the feeling that the winner was usually the one that got the best cards to show up in their deck. It's a fun casual mode, but I'd be surprised to see it become the killer mode that Microsoft is marketing it to be.
If you want to enjoy the novelty of Blitz but in a more fair and fun environment, I recommend Blitz Firefight. This is exactly what it sounds like, the combination of Blitz with Halo's popular Firefight mode. Here you can either play alone or cooperatively to take down increasingly difficult waves of enemies while being bound to the card mechanics of Blitz. This mode is fun and frantic, and a much better use of the Blitz mechanic overall.
Of course Halo Wars 2 offers traditional competitive multiplayer in the variety of 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3. This is where true RTS veterans can test their skills online. Currently only unranked matches are available, but ranked is on the way. This mode is exactly what you'd expect, and it's fun. While I tend to be pretty bad at RTS games I actually found myself winning more matches in competitive multiplayer than I did in Blitz. Being able to boil battles down to nothing but skill and strategy makes for a fair and frantic battle all on its own, and that's when Halo Wars 2 is at its best.
After completing matches, players can unlock or purchase Blitz card packs. The system works identically to Halo 5's REQ Pack system. This means yes, you can use real money to buy things, but it is not mandatory. However, buying Blitz cards does provide a little more of an edge in Blitz matches, whereas Halo 5's REQ cards never change the outcome of a match. Luckily these don't affect true competitive multiplayer, but either way, micro transactions in full retail games just rubs me the wrong way.
Halo Wars 2 is a worthy successor to 2009's original Halo Wars. It's fun, easy to pick up and play, and offers a gaming experience that isn't common on consoles. While it may not bring too much new to the table, it does serve nicely as gaming comfort food of sorts. It's not the next groundbreaking platform exclusive, but it fits nicely in the Xbox One's lineup. The story is average, but well told and introduces the franchise to new and welcome characters. While visually the game does very little to impress, classic Halo fans will appreciate the throwback in design and art style. Halo Wars 2 also brings a fun and robust multiplayer experience that has a little something for everyone. While Blitz may not be revolutionary, it is something new and it indirectly introduced me to a new way to play a classic Halo mode I adore. All together Halo Wars 2 is a good game. It's not a must play, but fans of the Halo series should find enjoyment in a well made sequel to a beloved spinoff.