The original Halo Wars was a very pleasant surprise when it released back in 2009 in how it truly felt like a Halo game, while still offering drastically different gameplay. In the time since, Bungie handed the reins of the main franchise over to 343 Industries, who enlisted RTS veteran developer Creative Assembly to help work on a follow-up with Halo Wars 2.
Halo Wars 2 picks up 28 years after the events of the first game, which puts it taking place after Halo 5: Guardians. The original Halo Wars took place prior to Halo: Combat Evolved, so it’s interesting to see so much space between the two entries. For anyone that played through the first one though, you will remember how it ended with the team aboard the Spirit of Fire entering into cryonic sleep, and Halo Wars 2 starts off with them waking up to a very different world.
The story follows the returning Captain Cutter and crew, who have no idea what has occurred in the years they were sleeping. Upon getting a beacon on a nearby planet, they go and investigate and end up discovering a new race of enemies known as the Banished, who are led by the villainous Atriox. The Halo franchise has definitely introduced a number of different factions over the years, but the Banished definitely fit in quite well by feeling both familiar in some ways through unique redesigns, while also introducing completely new combat situations as well.
Similar to the first game, the story is surprisingly very thrilling to experience for a game that many people may write off as just a side story. This is helped by absolutely stunning cutscenes that put even those in Halo 5: Guardians to shame. The introductory cutscene of Atriox in the game is downright scary and perfectly captures why you should be afraid of him. Sadly, they are limited to only seven lengthy cutscenes sequences, but they are well worth playing through just for those. You can even replay them after the fact in the campaign’s Theater option as well.
The cast of characters that play a major role in the story isn’t all that large, but the ones that do really manage to stand out quite well. Characters such as Cutter have a big presence, but the female characters are the real stars of the show in Halo Wars 2. The confident badass Alice takes out enemies on the ground, Professor Anders comes up with the behind the scenes scientific strategies, and even the Cortana-esque AI named Isabel plays a large role. This felt like a natural follow-up to the original that also had a strong team behind it as well, with you even being able to get playable Forge as DLC for those who miss him from the first game.
While Halo Wars 2 is a continuation of the first with the return of the Spirit of Fire, it works quite well without playing Halo Wars as well. Introducing a new enemy force that does not build off of the original’s story specifically works quite well in this regard. The only problem here is that the game feels more like a stepping stone for the future, rather than a standalone entry, as it lacks a real conclusion of sorts.
Every Halo game has a strong campaign that builds the story around a number of levels and missions and Halo Wars 2 is no different. Spread across 12 total missions, Halo Wars 2’s single player campaign clocks in around 8-10 hours or so. However, this is very much dependent on the strategy you employ while playing through the game, as the more careful players may focus on building their army up and strengthening their units before advancing through different areas, thus taking much longer.
For the most part, the missions themselves do a good job at mixing up the objectives throughout as you try to unite your separated forces and take down the Banished. Some of these are very straight forward in that you go from objective marker to objective marker taking down enemies, while others will require much more planning to be successful. This felt very similar to the first game, though it seemed like a few of these missions put you in much more dire situations than the first did. The various bosses thrown at you in during the campaign are genuinely difficult and make you feel accomplished for beating them as well. There are also a number of secondary objectives for you to try to complete, along with skulls to earn, so there’s plenty more to experience here across the four difficulty levels that are standard in the Halo franchise.
The RTS genre has typically found a home on PC for a reason, due to the ease of controls with a mouse and keyboard, but Halo Wars proved that it could be successfully done on a console as well. There might have been some concern that Creative Assembly and 343 Industries will try to change too much with the gameplay that could have made it less accessible on a console with a controller, but instead they have managed to refine the system from the first, along with making some very welcome changes.
Controlling your units feels streamlined even more so in Halo Wars 2, with shortcuts being employed to allow for quick access to the various groups you have. Halo Wars already had a solid foundation to build upon in this department, where you could highlight specific enemies units or highlight all available units at once. What is very helpful here though is the ability to select all units and then sort by unit type, such as Marine, Hellbringer, or Hornet. This provides you with more direct control of the individual units of your team, which is very necessary in the more difficult missions. You can also use the D-Pad to switch between your various groups and bases as well.
The scale of Halo Wars 2 is even bigger than its predecessor, which already felt pretty big on its own. The base building feels even much involved and customizable, with so many units available that you will rarely manage to use all of them in one single mission. Boss battles also help with this, as they really feel very intense and difficult whenever they pop up. The large scale battles, especially towards of the end of the campaign could have been plagued by slowdown or performance issues due to the number of people on screen at once, but the game manages to avoid this almost entirely. The battles feel incredibly smooth and rarely suffer from any technical problems, though the game did have a few buggy issues.
Scale of Halo Wars 2 is even bigger than its predecessor
Even though the load times in the menus before a mission or match were already a little long, there were a number of times where the menu would just keep spooling and spooling, without the ability to press A to continue. This would require a full reset of the game, which got pretty old after the first few times happening. The other issue that kept popping up was that the secondary objective success or failure banners would carry over into the start of the next mission in campaign for some reason. This wasn’t a hindrance at all, but just was very noticeable when it happened numerous times.
Like any Halo game, multiplayer is also a big part of the experience and Halo Wars 2 offers a few different options to choose from. The game offers two different variations on Deathmatch, one where you take on another player by yourself, and another where you work with a team to take down the opposing team. There are also two different 3v3 modes, one where you and two other players online take on three AI opponents and one with you team up with two other players online to face a team of three live players. Rumble is especially fun, as it gives you unlimited resources and all upgrades to work with, so anything is on the table. Team Objective is your typical capture the point scenario, though this one can be hard to pull off without full team coordination.
The brand new addition to Halo Wars 2 is that of Blitz mode, though there is no question it takes a lot of inspiration from Halo 5: Guardian’s Warzone. In place of REQ Packs though are Blitz Card packs that you can earn in-game or purchase outright with real currency. Using these Blitz Cards in your constructed deck allow you to summon specific units or fire missiles and such. The mode can be done either online or offline, with offline even having a Firefight variation. There is no question that Blitz is a lot of fun, but it may not be for the Halo Wars purists that would prefer the more classic style gameplay and avoid any sort of microtransactions to get ahead.
As far as gameplay and performance goes, Creative Assembly has nailed both of them in Halo Wars 2 as a successor to the previous game. Fans that sunk of ton of time into the original’s online modes will notice some huge differences, mainly in the control of the leaders, but the gameplay is much deeper this time around. Each of the distinct leaders have more unique powers at their disposal and it makes for some truly great multiplayer matches. Base building and asset allocation play a bigger role. The introduction of a new form of power currency changes the dynamic of the game, making it feel more akin to the Starcraft series than its predecessor did. There are a ton of ways to build for any specific multiplayer match and the learning curve is steeper than the previous game due to the number of powers and unique units that each hero character has. On the performance side, there hasn’t been much to complain about during the Ultimate Edition access period. While we noticed a couple of incidents where the game has frozen and dropped players from a multiplayer match, it’s been few and far between. Connecting with other players, partying up and playing the game with friends has been smooth and fast, regardless of the game mode or party size.
Halo Wars 2 feels like its going to have the same type of longievity that the previous game did. It definitely scratches that multiplayer RTS itch for console players who have very few options to play strategy titles. Hopefully Creative Assembly gives it the type of balancing and careful additions that we see from other popular RTS titles.
Halo Wars 2 is the best RTS you can play on consoles today. Whether you’re a Halo lore junky looking to toy around with the campaign or a competitive RTS player looking for intense multiplayer matches, you can’t do much better than this. Creative Assembly definitely stuck the landing with Halo Wars 2, pleasing fans of the original, bringing new players into the fold, and delivering a worthy successor to Ensemble’s 2009 cult classic.