Halo Wars 2 Review – Against Overwhelming Odds
Halo Wars 221st February, 2017
Bringing on the experience of developers Creative Assembly (Total War) for Halo Wars 2 was a big move by Microsoft. When released, 2009's Halo Wars was the biggest selling RTS game on consoles ever. Despite this reception, the closure of developers Ensemble made the attempt at spinning Halo off look like it had finished at the start line. It's a surprise, then, that eight years later we've got a sequel. Alongside this sequel also comes a remastered version of the original Halo Wars (review link).
Halo Wars 2 is a strange beast. Despite also being a PC title, the console origins of the series shows through a number of strange decisions. These include basic problems like menus designed with a controller in mind or downright obscure controls and key bindings. Other, more important concerns, include a shallow story and the decision to include microtransactions and pay-to-win aspects in a triple A title.
Taking place 28 years after the first game and less than a year after Halo 5, Halo Wars 2 brings a brand new enemy to the series. The Banished started as a group of Brutes, led by Atriox, who broke away from the Covenant. Following countless battles against the Covenant, The Banished have become a dangerous force, killing anybody who opposes them. It just so happens that the USNC Spirit of Fire, awakening from cryosleep, have happened upon The Banished on the Lesser Ark.
It's a self-contained story that doesn't really offer anything in the grand scheme of things. Though, I’ll be perfectly honest, I've never been sold on the merits of Halo's story. Style over substance has always been the trend and it continues here. What a great amount of style it's got though. The cutscenes are some of the best you're ever likely to see in a strategy game and, aesthetically, Halo Wars 2 is fantastic. The visuals are crisp, clear and very colourful.
I have to wonder, then, why Creative Assembly didn't decide to spend that bit more time on the PC version. The game is clearly designed for the Xbox One. Large, garish markers taking up an overwhelming amount of the screen. Just how close the game is zoomed in, even after you drop into the settings and zoom out, is claustrophobic at best. There's little doubt that the focus of design was on somebody sat at distance from the screen. How much effort would be required to modify the PC version that little bit, I'm not sure.
The problem is, these decisions permeate through the game as a whole. It's a painful experience even going through the menus. A normal game would just let you use the mouse wheel and fluidly scroll down the list. Here, they're divided into tabs and moving to the next tab hits a delay. Small delays seem to run through the game as a whole. Click the minimap, it'll respond a second later. Adding to your build queue? Hold your horses. It's not too unresponsive, but it's certainly noticeable.
Much like the first game, Halo Wars 2 is designed as a slow-paced alternative to usual RTS titles. What makes that a little more disappointing is that the campaign is a relatively short 12 missions, lasting roughly 7 to 10 hours depending on your ability. As a showcase of strategy, the campaign is fairly weak. Nothing turns out to be as spectacular, memorable or character building as the Cascade Falls mission from World in Conflict. Honestly, the only exception to this comes with Isabel. She's an AI but also the only character that shows growth; starting as afraid,
What strength the campaign does have comes from borrowing from set-pieces you'd find in the core games. The initial mission ends with a Warthog chase. Other missions give you a Spartan on a behind-enemy-lines missions and you'll get a typical last-stand style mission which could have dropped right out of Halo: Reach. Following on from the first game, each level also has a number of side objectives that, on completion, offer both points towards your final level ranking and can unlock skulls. These skulls then unlock extra features to use in the game.
Shallow, but serviceable. That's the best way I could describe Halo Wars 2, and the rest of the franchise at that. Even the end of the game is, at best, a nonentity. Resolving nothing and ending on a cliffhanger, the insufferable nature of Halo storytelling lives on where it doesn't need to. Either this is a set-up for upcoming story DLC, or it's just another case of bad writing.
It's a shame because the actual gameplay is better than the original. The calibre of Creative Assembly shines through. Units have a bit more nuance and variety and while the rock-paper-scissors trinity lives on, there are exceptions to the rule. Special units can dominate the battlefield, taking out whatever gets in their way. Other units have time-based abilities like the Warthog's ram or the Spartan's leap which help add a little extra to the battle. The only thing that has stayed much the same is base building and unit quantities. Bases are limited to set points on the map, though mini-bases with limited build slots now make a feature. It's a shame that the unit limitations are still there, with a prohibitive unit cap still in place.
What really matters is that there's a fine balance that runs through the game. Each and every game mode has been meticulously designed. From the campaign, to the skirmish which features three regular game modes; Deathmatch just pits you into an all-out war of destruction. Domination sees you contesting over control towers within the game. Strongholds sees you competing over the number of bases you can hold.
Multiplayer is where the real strength of Halo Wars 2 shines through. Partly this feels like it's where the real focus has gone in. The campaign leaves the game open for multiplayer and the skirmish modes all building into it. The five options available in online all boil into the three aforementioned game types where you either face against other people or group up as a team. So far, so regular.
Where multiplayer really shines is with Blitz. However, this is also the most annoying and disappointing aspect of the game. The gameplay is solid and by far the most compelling part of the game. You're first tasked with building a deck of cards, which can be levelled up as more are opened from packs. This deck you build is taken into battle in either the standard Blitz game, putting you against others to capture three locations, or last stand where either solo, or co-op, you defend three points against increasingly more difficult waves of enemies. Throughout both modes you slowly gain more energy as well as pick up drops at random areas of the map to allow you to use more cards.
It's the buying of these packs using real money that proves to be my major concern. This isn't a cosmetic item, these packs directly impact the strength of the units you take into battle. Despite all protests to the negative, it's impossible to not call this pay to win as well as money grabbing in what is already a premium priced title.
I can't help but admire the sheer beauty of the game; from the brilliant level and unit design, to the outstanding cutscenes. It's also hard to ignore the dichotomy of great characterisation for one AI character (Isabel) to all of the other boring and shallow characters that permeate a story prone to both cheesy and, ultimately, bad writing. Halo Wars 2 is a mixed bag that has relied a little too much on multiplayer.
Honestly, I find Halo Wars 2 strange. The gameplay is solid and without any real faults which shows a real dedication to the craft. At the same time, the UI, clunky menus and unresponsiveness indicates a little more care and attention could have gone into the PC version. There's little doubting that Halo Wars 2 is a good game. It's a step-up from the original, but not a huge step up.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by publisher.
Halo Wars 2 is an ideal strategy game for beginners. There's little doubting that the action is solid and it looks fantastic, but other strange choices mar what would be a great title. From downright bad writing, to the inclusion of pay to win microtransactions in a premium game, there are some absolutely perplexing decisions.
- Outstanding visuals with great level and unit design make the game look fantastic.
- Strong core gameplay that builds enough on the regular rock, paper, scissors style
- Blitz mode offers an interesting twist on multiplayer, adding a strategic layer of card building
- However, pay to win microtransactions damage what would be an excellent mode in Blitz
- The story campaign is simply bad, offering no resolution or any real development outside of Isabel
- Perplexing choices in design and even the menus show a little less attention has gone into the PC version