We sent a Halo Wars veteran in to scout out the CA-crafted sequel.
The Halo Wars 2 beta kicked off soon after it was announced at Microsoft's E3 press conference. We've had to endure a long wait for this sequel, and it's with a fair amount of anticipation that we boot it up for the first time. Since Creative Assembly are the developers (supervised by 343 Industries) we thought we could expect a noticeably different game this time around. Turns out to that our assumption was wrong. From the opening cutscene onwards it feels authentic: it looks like Halo Wars... and it is Halo Wars. But that's far from a negative.
If you're not familiar with the previous game, here comes a crash course in how the Ensemble-crafted original functions and is structured. Base building is done on predetermined locations and you'll get a functional central base with four surrounding squares on which you can decide what you want to build. You're always limited to the given location but there are empty spaces on the map where you have the opportunity to build more, smaller bases. New for Halo Wars 2 is that the bases come with pre-installed defences (in the Domination mode), something that you had to administer yourself in the first game.
Resource management has you build dedicated buildings that provide a steady income of resources for you to then spend elsewhere. In Halo Wars 2 there's two different types to keep tabs on, and they're gained via a supply pad or a generator. Those resources are then, in turn, used to upgrade your base, develop new tech and, naturally, build new units for battle. There are resources scattered over the map and neutral generators to take control of, for a little extra dough in the vault - so to speak.
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Halo Wars 2 is based around a "rock, papers, scissors" structure which in practice means that different units are most effective against certain other things. The Scorpion tanks, for instance, are highly effective against buildings, but less so when pitted against infantry. There's also special units that specialise in certain tasks. There's a sniper that's extremely effective in putting down infantry but pretty much sucks at everything else.
Just like in the first game you play as a hero character, either from the human UNSC side or the Covenant. In the beta there are two to choose from, one from each faction, and even if they're played similarly - with the same types of buildings and units - there are aspects of them that make them distinctly unique. The Covenant excel at close range combat thanks to their ground units, and can spit out grunts as well as elites like there's no tomorrow, for example. All heroes have their own skill trees, attributes and abilities that can change the course of battle in an instant. Of course, the ability to drop down a group of ODSTs or heal an entire squad is supremely helpful in a precarious situation.
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The beta showcases one map and two modes (update: actually, after a mid-beta update, it looks like there's two maps), deathmatch and domination, and they're both played two on two. The new mode, domination, is all about taking and holding control points on the map. The goal is, as you'd imagine, to control more of the map than your opponents so that their points eventually run out. This creates a new dynamic for Halo Wars and with two or three bases per player there is, to put it mildly, a lot to keep an eye on if you don't want to be taken by surprise by the enemy or lose control points. If you've got a capable partner by your side you can develop advanced battle tactics and scare the bejeezus out of the opposition when you wreak havoc on four different parts of the map, all of a sudden, all at once.
Now, this is obviously a beta, an unfinished product, but it's worth noting that the technical side of things leaves a bit to be desired. The frame-rate is consistently choppy, the controls feel imprecise, and on top of that the graphics certainly don't call for songs of celebration - let's put it that way. Having said that, these are all things that are sure to be polished in time for release, so it would be a shame to hold the shortcomings of the beta against Halo Wars 2 too much.
All in all this feels like a refined Halo Wars, more so than it comes across as a sequel, at least to us. Again, this is just a small sample of the full game, and very little is known about the upcoming campaign and which multiplayer modes will be on offer come release. If you enjoyed the first game you'll most likely feel right at home even with this early build, and we're looking forward to seeing more when the title makes it to Xbox One and Windows 10 PC in February of next year.