I dug the original Halo Wars. A lot. I thought it had a better storyline than the main games releasing at the time, I thought Ensemble killed it with console-based RTS design and I actually enjoyed playing the game with my roommates.
I also assumed that, once Ensemble Studios was shut down in 2009 (literally right after Halo Wars released) that we'd never see another game in this particular offshoot of the franchise. I was bummed, but I counted my blessings regarding what we had and moved on.
When Microsoft announced that Creative Assembly was working on Halo Wars 2 back in 2015, I was psyched. Creative Assembly has been at the RTS genre for more than 15 years. They're the ones behind the enormous Total War series. If any developer could make this work for Microsoft, it would be Creative Assembly.
So, here we are with Halo Wars 2, a game that I think fires fairly well on the story front while delivering a genuinely enjoyable RTS experience both on the Xbox One and Windows 10 platforms. Yes, I liked it.
A campaign worth fighting for
The Halo Wars 2 campaign features a solid story with an absolutely outstanding villain. The game takes place on the Ark, and it features the missing Spirit of Fire ship and its crew. The Ark was revealed to players in Halo 3 as the facility built by the Forerunners that could actually produce the Halo rings themselves. It's an enormous, environment-holding facility.
Now, if you have read my stuff here before on TechnoBuffalo, you know me and spoilers. I hate them. So I'm not really going to detail the twists and turns of the campaign. Just know that it features the aforementioned cast of characters and lots of interesting in-game moments.
This is all supported by cutscene work done by Blur. Blur is the studio that's responsible for the great looking computer-generated trailers and cutscenes that come from this game. Here's one example.
Right, they look fantastic. The thing is that the game doesn't use these cutscenes for every narrative moment. I don't know if it boils down to the budget it takes to get Blur to make the cutscenes or the space required to actually store them in order to get the game to a reasonable size. I understand that video takes up a huge portion of a video game's install size, so developers and publishers try to keep that down in order to actually ship their game. Whatever the case may be, the cutscenes done by the folks at Blur are miles above the in-game cutscenes that actually come from Creative Assembly. It is what it is, in this instance, and there's nothing that can really be done about it. But, don't be surprised by the jump in quality between moments as it moves from the gorgeous Blur work to the in-game stuff. When it happens, it's disappointing. Creative Assembly did a pretty good job of knowing when to use Blur cinematics versus the in-game stuff.
Halo Wars 2 features a new ship AI in the form of Isabel. A lot like Cortana, she takes on a holographic body and has a character that's way more interesting than one would assume any AI could actually be. Isabel's cool and she's easily the best character on the UNSC side of the equation. Cutter, in charge of the Spirit of Fire, is a little bit too flat during the campaign itself and he's a character that I don't really think I'll ever wind up caring as much about as others in the Halo universe.
The best character in this game is Atriox. Atriox is a brute, he used to be a member of the Covenant, and now he runs the Banished. He's awesome. You'll meet him early on in the game and whenever he's around the tension is elevated by a lot.
Put simply, Halo Wars 2 has a great campaign for Halo fans. You'll get lots of nods and references to things that already existed in this franchise. However, Halo Wars 2 doesn't necessarily require having played any game in the Halo series before to understand it. This is huge for players who maybe like the concept of a console-based RTS but don't necessarily enjoy the Halo franchise with its other main games. No, you don't even need to have played Halo Wars in order to enjoy this sequel. It's a sequel, seemingly, in name only.
RTS play that feels good on console, again
Cards on the table, I played Halo Wars 2 in a demo back at E3 this year. At that demo, I actually found that the game didn't perform very well on the Xbox One. It was slow, framerate stutters happened too often and I found myself frustrated with the controller lag. I don't know if this was an instance of me just being in front of a bad demo unit, but I was disheartened by what I saw at E3.
Flash-forward to this review, and you have the only time I played it since. Reviewing this game, I went in expecting perhaps a relatively laggy experience. Not the case. The game looks decent on the Xbox One, losing some detail when you actually zoom in and try to take a look at each individual character or some of the surface textures, but it runs well. Sitting back on your couch with the controller in your hand, playing this RTS will be a good-looking experience. It runs just fine on the Xbox One.
The original Halo Wars was sort of a revolution because Ensemble managed to get RTS controls working on a console controller. RTS games are famously more complicated to operate than other titles. You need to navigate a full map, control whole platoons of units at one time and actually use your keyboard to its full potential to properly manage an army and win games. Halo Wars managed to take that RTS experience and boil it down enough to work on a console thanks to action wheels and modular base building. Creative Assembly continues that development style. All of the menus in this game are on radials, and the base building is still modular.
It works fine on the console, but I still prefer the PC experience for this game. The Xbox One does not support keyboard and mouse right now, but that's something that they've been flirting with. Having played Halo Wars 2 on both the Xbox One and a little bit on the PC, I think that the keyboard and mouse style of control is what most players should experience. If Microsoft actually updates the Xbox One to support a keyboard and mouse, and you have space in your living room or cables long enough to make this happen, I recommend playing the game that way.
That said, the Xbox One controller does a fine job handling the actual gameplay. The button layout makes complete sense, and you will be able to do a fairly good job of managing squads and taking on the enemy. I find it frustrating when maps ramp up the difficulty and I wish that I could more easily navigate and control my characters. The controller does no favors when that stuff actually happens, and as the game wears on I found myself wanting more precise control of the battlefield in order to overcome its difficulty. This doesn't happen so often or to such a degree that it hindered my enjoyment of Halo Wars 2.
Are you ready for the good news? Halo Wars 2 is an Xbox Play Anywhere title. That means that buying it once digitally gets you access to the game on the Xbox one and the Windows 10 platform. Yes, it sucks that this only works for digital copies, but that's the marketplace we live in. If you have both an Xbox one and a Windows 10 PC, you're going to be happy with how Halo Wars 2 feels. This RTS gives you the ability to chill out on your couch and play with a controller and hand, and that's fun. But, when you want to get in there and manage the game with a keyboard and mouse, the way most RTS games feel best, you can do that.
It's gotta have a card game
Halo Wars 2 features multiplayer modes. I don't enjoy multiplayer RTS games. That's just a point of preference for me. The games move way too fast for my liking, and I actually like the slow, methodical play that I have when I'm playing against AI. Human players are just too good. But, I completely understand that some people live and die by the multiplayer RTS genre. Creative Assembly did a good job packing this game with unique modes that will actually make these types of players happy. I'm not sure if Halo Wars 2 will ever stand against the RTS titans like StarCraft II, but if you're on the Xbox One and want to get your multiplayer RTS fix from your console, Halo Wars 2 will do a good job.
There are four fairly typical online multiplayer modes in Halo Wars 2. Skirmish is simply your mode to either solo queue or roll with friends against one another or in co-op. It's the open multiplayer mode that we're all accustomed to. There's a deathmatch mode, where you'll need to take on your enemies and destroy their bases in order to win. And then there are capture and hold modes, Strongholds and Domination, where you'll need to take down bases and control objectives in order to win.
Of course, every modern multiplayer game needs a card collection and deck building system, so that's here with Halo Wars 2. That mode is called Blitz, and it requires you build an army out of cards earned in the game in order to either take on opponents online or play cooperatively. Me? I hate when games have these card modes. I totally get that some players love managing cards and unlocking stuff and building decks, but that's not just for me. I don't enjoy it. But, if you do, and nice card modes help you get way, way, way into a game, have at it.
Welcome to the battlefield, Halo Wars 2
Like I said in the introduction to this review, I found myself simply thankful that Halo Wars 2 was even announced. I was convinced that the Halo Wars series died once Microsoft closed Ensemble Studios.
Yet, here we are with work from Creative Assembly that's actually fun. I won't suggest that it revolutionizes the RTs genre the way that the original Halo Wars did. That game managed to make RTS titles fun on console, something that I didn't even think I wanted until I actually had it in my hands. Creative Assembly further innovates on that already revolutionary formula.
The characters that they introduce, the stories they tell, the hero powers they bring to the table and the new modes they deliver are all fun. Even if you just want to play the campaign, I'd say that Halo Wars 2 is worth your time.
For me? I'll stick to offline skirmish or online co-op for my multiplayer play. It's still really fun, and as a more casual RTS fan, this is exactly what I'm looking for, especially on the console. Halo Wars 2 is a solid game.
Disclaimer: We received a code to download Halo Wars 2 from Microsoft for this review.