Many, many years ago I got a glimpse of my first Real Time Strategy game in the form of Command and Conquer: Red Alert on the PlayStation. It was game that very much pushed the boundaries for strategy games on console — my excitement later turned to intrigue, confusion and frustration as I struggled with the enormity of the tasks and abilities laid out in front of me. Granted, I was only about seven-years-old at the time, but as I got older, I would soon realise why RTS franchises like Starcraft and Civilization found a home on PC, while I left them alone. The little details, the significant amount of keys needed and wide array of options and features — all these ideas just couldn’t be executed in the same way on a console controller or game, and it became frustrating to deal with.
Halo Wars 2, as a follow-on of sorts from the highest-selling RTS game on consoles, looks to change that perception. With the first game’s developer Ensemble Studios now closed, the sequel here has been picked up by Creative Assembly, the studio behind the ever-popular Total War franchise. Clearly, the link between CA and current Halo owners 343 Studios has been put to good use, as the deep and complex lore of the Halo universe hasn’t been diminished or unloved here. Right from the word “go” in Halo Wars 2, there’s still that particular Halo aura — the UI, main menu and even the opening theme all bring back wonderful memories of the series.
But of course, there’s no first-person, guns-blazing raids here. You’ve got to put your thinking cap on from the moment you start the game up, and for someone like me, who isn’t the first to grab an RTS titles, it can be struggle to get yourself into that mindset. To its credit, Halo Wars 2 does this to perfection, placing the focus on base construction, resource collection and small-scale army attacks, similar to that of the Command and Conquer series. It would be foolish to say the game dumbs down the strategy aspect of what makes RTS games so unique; it’s just more of a streamlined approach, which may entice the casual audience.
The Campaign should be your first port of call in Halo Wars 2, and to be honest, Creative Assembly have done a pretty solid job easing players into the action. The first couple of levels, unlike those in other RTS titles, are more story-based and are excellent refreshers for those like myself who may not have played the original on the Xbox 360. Set a whopping 28 years after the events of the first Halo Wars, Captain Cutter, Professor Anders and the UNSC’s Spirit of Fire wake up after entering cryonic sleep with wars having been won and lost in their absence. Patrols on the surface of the Ark, a Forerunner base responsible for the Halo rings, reveal the emergence of a new threat: The Banished. Led by the cunning brute Atriox, this offshoot of the Covenant becomes the newest threat to humanity, as the Spirit of Fire takes on its toughest challenge yet.
It’s a compelling story — one with plenty of intrigue, drama and action — but thankfully, it doesn’t feel like it strays too far away from the Halo lore and what makes it great. There are plenty of references to previous games and characters, including good ol’ Master Chief himself, but the story here is so engrossing, you’ll find yourself growing fond of these characters anyway.
When playing any game mode in Halo Wars 2 — as previously discussed — the Xbox One controller feels like an adequate means of surveying the landscape. Much of your squad’s selections and movements are mapped to a single button, meaning you’re not overly straining yourself trying to select a particular infantry cluster or bunch of Warthogs. Engaging the enemy happens automatically when you’re in range, which takes care of extra controls to worry about, while other skills and capabilities are also mapped to a wheel, which cleans up and improves your efficiency in battle. It’s also very reassuring to know that rally points and particular units can be selected with minimal button combinations, as this is so crucial for forgetful dummies like myself.
Base building, while very rigid and straightforward, eliminates the need for obscene amounts of town-planning or crazy organisational skills; simply pop a main base on the field of play, and your sub-plots (for resources, energy and a barracks) are mapped out on all sides. I found out the hard way to make sure you have all four slots on your base fully built after ambushes, so keeping an eye on your resources and infantry is extremely important.
While the Campaign, Multiplayer and Deathmatch modes are perhaps the more traditional and tactical types to immerse yourself in, the new Blitz mode, however, may well be the most fun I’ve had playing an RTS game. Enhanced by the selection of captains, who are unlocked as you progress through the game, your abilities or skills change based on who you select. For instance, selecting Captain Cutter may offer your team more speed and ammo capabilities, while choosing Professor Anders could provide more defensive capabilities. In addition to this, the game mode focuses on the proper playing of cards and strategic deck placement. t’s so rewarding when a finely-timed Warthog spawn or a special ability air-raid create openings to claim zones, but playing them at the wrong times can also spell disaster. It does prove a little frustrating when you’re unable to play a deployment card due to lack of space, but this is a small gripe in what is an otherwise entertaining mode.
Combining these traditional RTS elements with frantic zone control — where capturing the majority of the zones earns your side points towards victory — you’ll find yourself second-guessing when to collect the energy pods that drop periodically. While you may want to go straight to attacking the zones, you can only spawn more troops and specialised vehicles when you collect these energy pods. It’s a do-or-die scenario that dominates much of the Blitz mode and makes the cat-and-mouse strategy so important. It offers a unique perspective on RTS games without removing the excitement from traditional gameplay, and combines a ton of fresh and innovative ideas in one mode. Playing the other game modes rewards you with new cards, so there’s always plenty of incentive to stack the deck (no pun intended). While I’m certainly not an RTS expert, I found my journey into Halo Wars 2 an interesting and compelling experience. With new and unique ways to freshen up the strategic gameplay which made its predecessor such a wholly popular title, Creative Assembly have made sure the game is a breeze to play on console. Ease of access for upgrades and skills, as well as simple selection tools, make managing your squad a lot easier than you would expect. While it may be a little too simple for those well-versed in the strategy genre, it still holds up in plenty of other areas. The Campaign is great and will keep you engrossed for a significant amount of time, while Blitz is definitely the star attraction here; be prepared to lose hours to those excruciating decisions over whether to attack or replenish.
Whatever takes your fancy, Halo Wars 2 manages to flesh out a lot of admirable ideas and allows them to flourish. With sleek and streamlined interfaces during gameplay, it’s a wholly impressive product that can easily entice both casual and experienced RTS fans alike. In an ever-expanding Halo universe, it’s yet another fantastic release, and one I thoroughly recommend.
Platform: Xbox One