Halo Wars was a rare beast, a console RTS which not only worked, but was actually really good – how does its successor handle that pressure?
The gameplay is almost identical to Halo Wars, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could be a barrier for new potential fans.
You control the UNSC forces on board the ship Sprit of Fire, which has been lost in space for 28 years since the events of Halo Wars.
The ship is transported to a large Halo-like structure in space called Installation 00 where they face The Banished, members of The Covenant who didn’t stop fighting the humans like the Covenant from Halo 3.
The story is surprisingly good, although it’s hard to feel invested in it simply due to the nature of the game. A real-time strategy game doesn’t lend itself too well to becoming immersed in the world, considering you’re acting like omnipotent god floating above the action.
Where the story really shines is in the absolutely gorgeous cut scenes, which are so good I would pay to watch a feature length Halo film made the same way. They were spectacular in Halo Wars and are even better here in Halo Wars 2. If anything, the cut scenes give you a bit of drive to finish each mission, simply to hope you get to watch another.
When you’re finished with the campaign, there’s a classic skirmish mode in which you can face off against the AI, the new Blitz mode which is kind of like a free-to-play game, and a large swath of multiplayer modes to duke it out in with other players.
Multiplayer works well, I could find games relatively quickly and aside from players quitting or disconnecting mid game, it worked perfectly. It would be nice if the game replaced players who quit with AI however.
Blitz mode is a big addition to the series and it’s basically a slimmed down, quicker version of the game, designed for maximum action at a much faster pace than the other modes in the game.
Each player has a deck of cards, each card allowing you to play certain unit or use a certain item/boost, depending on how much energy you have available to spend.
You’ve got to capture control points to build energy, so speed and aggression is rewarded in Blitz, making it fast-paced version of Halo Wars 2 if you’re strapped for time. You can earn card packs as you level up, giving you better cards to play in future games.
It’s a nice addition to the game and a type of game you may not have expected to find in a strategy game, but a welcome one to be sure.
If you’re looking for stunning visuals however, prepare to be slightly disappointed. It doesn’t look bad as such, but textures, character models and the overall colour palette of the game isn’t much to look at, on PC or on Xbox One.
Sound is much better thankfully, with all of the weapon and vehicle noises you love from other Halo games portrayed perfectly, and solid voice acting both in the cut scenes and in-game.
Of course, it can have lovely cut scenes, great sound and a good story, but without solid gameplay, that can all count for nothing and it’s a mixed bag to be honest.
The core gameplay of building a base, sending units out to fight and capture points, upgrading your base and units are core elements of most RTS games, and they work well here, but unfortunately that’s about as deep as it goes.
I wasn’t expecting Total War levels of strategy, but the fact that it’s impossible to organise units into any type of formation whatsoever is baffling, forcing you to simply tell your units where to go and they’ll head sort of close enough to where you clicked, and do so in a big blob.
There are no options to order units to hold position, or set them to be defensive or aggressive etc. I may place a group of Marines at a chokepoint to defend it, but they’ll see a lone enemy Ghost even just barely graze their line of sight and they’ll run off after it, leaving the chokepoint empty, without my input whatsoever.
This tends to lead to less strategic plays than would be preferred, as I found myself not bothering with unit groups or tactical positioning, and instead just gathering all of my units and sending them towards the enemy at once, letting them destroy whatever comes close.
You do get a small level of in-depth control when it comes to special unit powers, such as telling your Spartan to hijack an enemy vehicle or your Scorpion tank to use its extra-powerful shell, but in the heat of a messy battle, it seems to devolve into just mashing the button, hoping all your units would use their powers at the same time.
If you’re looking for a strategy game to play on your PC, there are a lot of more in depth, better looking, and cheaper options out there and it’s clear from the menus and UI that this game was designed purely for the Xbox One.
Halo Wars 2 is a ‘Play Anywhere’ title meaning whether you buy it on Windows 10 or on Xbox One, you can download and play it on the other platform. Sadly though, there’s no cross-play for multiplayer, so Xbox players can’t play with PC players and vice versa.
This is doubly strange considering how console-friendly the PC controls are, it’s not as if a PC player would be playing with an advantage as they would in a first person shooter.
Halo Wars 2 is the best strategy game available for the Xbox One, but there are of course very few options to choose from. If you loved the original Halo Wars, you should feel right at home here, it’s more of the same with some added polish and of course, more amazing cut-scenes.
If you absolutely need to play a strategy game (Halo or otherwise) and have played the original game to death, well then Halo Wars 2 is probably the only thing that will satisfy you, quirks and all.