Thursday, February 16, 2017

Halo Wars 2 Review (XONE)

There was some fear when it was announced that because the beloved developer of the original Halo Wars and other RTS classics, Ensemble Studios, no longer exists, that Halo Wars 2 would be too different and stray too far from what made the original enjoyable with a new developer at the helm.  It turns out that those worries were unfounded and, in fact, the opposite has happened.  Halo Wars 2 is such a safe and by the numbers sequel that it is actually a bit disappointing how little has changed.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still fun and is dripping with Halo presentation and polish from every orifice, but it is also overly simple and can be kind of boring for anyone with a minimum of experience with RTS games.  See our full Halo Wars 2 review for all of the details. 

Game Details

  • Publisher: Microsoft
  • Developer: 343 Industries, Creative Assembly
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: Real-Time-Strategy
  • Pros: Looks and sounds great; accessible gameplay; plenty of content; Blitz mode
  • Cons: Not a big change from HW1; still baby’s first RTS
  • MSRP: $60

Halo Wars 2 continues the story of the Spirit of Fire, the ship from the first Halo Wars, 28-years after the events of the first game.  The crew has been asleep all that time and awakens to find themselves isolated from the UNSC and outnumbered by a new enemy – the Banished.  The Banished are a group led by an incredibly intelligent Brute that has splintered away from the Covenant and have found themselves their own ancient galaxy-killing weapon, which, conveniently, the Spirit of Fire stumbled upon.  You can guess where the story goes from here.

The story campaign features 12 missions and takes around 10-hours to finish and can be played solo or in co-op.  There is some decent variety to the missions where you only have limited resources and units, too, so it isn’t all just army building and rushing the enemy.  In addition to the story campaign there are also multiplayer modes, either online or against A.I., and there are a lot of match types and maps to play on and a wealth of options to customize things like upgrade speed, starting resources, and more. 

Those are all fairly typical RTS modes, but Halo Wars 2 also has a fresh new spin on things in the form of Blitz mode.  Blitz plays out more like a collectible card game where, instead of building bases and producing units, you instead have a deck of cards that give you new units and abilities when you play a card.  You still move your army around and fight like in the normal modes, but the card game aspect adds a fascinating layer of strategy as well as randomness to the proceedings.  You earn new packs of cards by playing any of the modes in the game normally, but you can also buy packs of cards for real money if you choose, which gives the mode a bit of a “Pay to Win” feel since, obviously, having more cards to start with gives you a higher chance of getting good cards more often.  The developers have promised that the mode will be balanced so that a whale (someone that spends a lot on microtransactions) can’t just overpower other players, but we’ll have to wait and see how things actually play out.  The Blitz mode itself is a blast to play, though, as it is very fast paced and unique.

It is in the more traditional gameplay modes that Halo Wars 2 stumbles a bit.  Traditional real-time-strategy games revolve around resource gathering and management, base building, unit production, and then moving your units around the map to attack the enemy and you have a wide range of tactics and strategies to use.  All of these things are simplified and streamlined to a fairly extreme degree in Halo Wars 2 (and Halo Wars 1, for that matter), which makes the game kind of boring for RTS vets.  Base building means building on pre-set spots (you can have more than one base, thankfully) and then only being able to build a set number of production structures – power generators, supply platforms, barracks for soldiers, garage for vehicles, airfield for flying units.  You then build units or research upgrades by selecting the appropriate building, which opens a radial menu that gives you all of your current options for that unit.  There is some strategy in what buildings you choose to build and what order you research things, I suppose, but it is about as deep as a puddle.

Actually moving units around the battlefield is similarly straightforward – partially by design and partially because the controls are somewhat fiddly.  The game uses a rock-paper-scissors formula where air units, vehicles, and infantry all counter each other.  The idea is to use specific units to fight specific enemy types, but actually selecting the units you want and moving them around the battlefield is kind of a pain.  And it isn’t really worth it, either, when you can just select all units (either all units onscreen or your entire army) with the tap of the right bumper and rush the enemy with every unit you have and let the rock-paper-scissors sort itself out in the heat of battle because the A.I. automatically attacks whoever they’re strongest against anyway.  High-end tactical play may evolve into more nuanced unit management, but I think the vast majority of casual players will resort to all out rushes more often than not.

Now, I don’t mean to make it sound like any of this is bad, because it isn’t.  In fact, it is extremely accessible and smartly designed and a great way for newcomers to the RTS genre to get their feet wet.  My problem is that I had all of the same complaints about Halo Wars 1 back in 2009 and had hoped the game would have evolved a bit since then.  We had three very good Command & Conquer games on the Xbox 360 that didn’t sacrifice depth and strategy simply because they were on consoles and played with a controller, so I don’t see why Halo Wars has to dumb things down so much.  I was fine with the way Halo Wars 1 played when it released because it was fresh and new and I assumed it would get more fleshed out in the sequel (though I didn’t expect it would take 8 years for a sequel to come out …).  That didn’t happen, so I’m sorry if I’m a little disappointed.  If you never played Halo Wars 1, or haven’t played many RTS games at all, Halo Wars 2 will be much more appealing to you.

One area of Halo Wars 2 I have few complaints with is the presentation.  The game is great looking and runs fairly smoothly.  Buildings are detailed, units are easily recognizable, and the maps you play on have a fantastic variety of settings and locations and they all look great.  The sound is also fantastic with great Halo sound effects and an awesome soundtrack.  The story cinematics were done by the incomparable Blur Studio, so they look insanely great.  My one slight issue with the visuals is that the game is very zoomed in close to the action.  You do have some camera control to move it in or out a bit, but it is always zoomed in pretty close.  I assume it is so zoomed in to maintain performance, which as I mentioned is rock solid, but I would have liked to be able to see just a bit more of the battlefield. 

All in all, Halo Wars 2 is a very solid, but disappointingly safe, sequel to the original Halo Wars.  If you thought Halo Wars 1 was too simplistic and streamlined you’ll find Halo Wars 2 to be much the same.  With that said, there is still definitely an appeal to Halo Wars’ style of streamlined and accessible RTS gameplay that makes it great to pick up and play and just have fairly mindless fun with that most hardcore RTS games don’t really offer.  I also can’t deny the overwhelming appeal of the fact that this is indeed a Halo game and that alone makes it compelling and greater than the sum of its parts.  It definitely worked on me, at least, as I still love Halo a lot.  Cranky RTS vets won’t find a lot of depth here, but Halo Wars 2 is a good game that Halo fans and casual RTS fans will have a great time with  and should definitely check it out.
Disclosure:  A review code was provided by Microsoft