We recently got some quality time with Halo Wars 2 during a visit to 343 Industries.
Real-time strategy on console? Does the concept make you squirm a bit? You're not alone. A joypad simply can't mimic the speed and precision of mouse and keyboard. In came Halo Wars and showed us that there are ways to create an accomplished RTS on console. Seven years have passed and the eagerly awaited sequel is now also heading to PC. Can 343 Industries and The Creative Assembly breathe life into the genre once more? When we visited 343 Industries in Redmond, we had a first chance to take in the new campaign, see the new Blitz mode, while absorbing as much Halo atmosphere as we possibly could.
When it was revealed that it was The Creative Assembly that would develop Halo Wars 2, there was some hesitation. Not that the Total War series is somehow bad (rather the opposite), but because the thrill of the first Halo Wars came from its focused design and sharp mechanics. While the Total War series certainly belongs to the same genre, it is something entirely different. But as soon as the first beta for Halo Wars 2 was over and done, it was clear that rather than bringing the series to Total War, they had built on top what was there in the predecessor.
Much focus at the event was on the story and what the team wanted to achieve with it. 28 years have passed since the first game and Captain Cutter and crew of the Spirit of Fire have all been tucked away in cryo-sleep. During that time the war broke out properly, Cortana was created, Reach fell. Mankind is not in very good shape when Cutter and his remaining crew wakes up. 343's Dan Ayoub tells us that Halo Wars 2 delivers a story with a main villain as strong as the hero. Atriox is portrayed as a very large and mean Brute who is thoroughly intelligent and creates his own outfit, The Banished, as he stands up against the Covenant. For the first time Brutes alone will play the main role of opposition, and Atriox is described a bit like Darth Vader, which tells you that we'll get to learn plenty about his background during the game (and perhaps even root for him?).
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Another important component of the story will be Isabel, a new artificial intelligence that is markedly different from Cortana and Ariana from past games. She will get the crew of The Spirit of Fire up to speed on what happened during the time they where sleeping and what they need to know about The Banished. As in Halo Wars, most of the narrative is told via cutscenes developed by the industry leader, Blur. These are needless to say incredibly impressive. There is such an eye for detail that it's hard to describe. We were blown away and can't wait to see more.
We played an early mission from the campaign, where we set down in a place that will be familiar for old Halo players, namely the Ark. For those who know their history, the Ark was destroyed by Master Cheif during his hardships in Halo: Combat Evolved, but has since been repaired. During the mission, however, there is talk of these events, and John-117 is referenced. The mission itself lets us assume control of a bunch of Marines, a Warthog and soldiers armed with flamethrowers. The basic mechanics are intact, if you've played Halo Wars before, you will feel right at home. As we move across the map, there are bonus objectives to earn extra points, or new units as we clear away the Banished. We're in constant contact with our allies at The Spirit of Fire and also with a Brute who likes to interrupt us. We get to build a base, gather our forces to make a final attack on the enemy, and we're introduced to what can be best described as a boss battle.
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The above mentioned Brute is gigantic and our ultimate goal in the mission. We throw everything we have at him and look on horrified when our units fall like bowling pins. We continue to pump units at him with the mentality of "the more the merrier" and after a long and sweaty battle, we finally came out victorious. The mission felt dynamic and explosive with good pacing and plenty to explore to the sides. The campaign can be enjoyed both solo or with a friend.
The ambition for Halo Wars 2 is really high and this is obvious throughout. We got to talk with Paul Lipson, responsible for the sound and music, and he provided us with some insight into the work behind the audio. The sound team went out into the countryside and looked at various different old armoured vehicles, and hoisted them up in the air to capture the purest possible sound from its various parts. They spent nearly a week recording as much noise as possible from the vehicles (and a flamethrower). Impressive work that comes through in the end product.
Lipson also talked about the game's new, dynamic sound mix that adjusts the tone of the music depending on the situation. When you're in your base and building units, the music is calm and melodic, but it will increase in intensity as you venture out on to the battlefield. Even your units have different vocal levels depending on what is happening and whether the situation is critical for them. You'll hear it in their voices as they respond to your orders. Again, incredibly ambitious, but it creates a sense of authenticity and adds immersion as your Marines tell you they're in trouble. The music tracks were recorded at Skywalker Sound with some of Hollywood's foremost musicians, and sounds sweet with the 7.1 mix. In short, the presentation in Halo Wars 2 leaves nothing to be desired, and given that there is still some time until release there is even time to polish it up even more.
Once the campaign is completed there is also a robust multiplayer component to conquer. Expect classic multiplayer much like in its predecessor, with regular matches one against one, two against two or three against three. There is also a mode called Domination where you have to control certain zones. If you or your team holds two or more zones longer than the opposition, then you win the match.
A brand new game mode is introduced, Blitz, which shakes the game to its very foundation. In Blitz there is no base building, no traditional resource gathering, just pure combat. This at a pace unlike what you find in other strategy games. Blitz is based entirely on cards. You have a deck of 12 cards in total, of which four are on hand. By playing the cards you release your units directly onto the battlefield, with no construction times or cooldowns. The only resource is the energy that occasionally can be found at various locations on the map. Different cards will cost different amounts of energy where the more powerful cards, like Scarabs, are more expensive than ordinary Grunts. We got to play a bunch of 2v2 games and it became obvious that it was important to try and balance your cards with your fellow player to have as broad an arsenal as possible. You start with a predetermined cards but as you increase in level, you unlock new units and upgrades to existing ones and you will thus become more and more powerful.
There are a few different strategies to take into consideration when building your deck. Do you want to be able to pump out units fast, but do not do as much damage, or do you want strong units more infrequently? Everything is going to be about balance and if you play with someone, you can complement each other's strengths and weaknesses by selecting cards with care, and create great synergies together. We had a great time with Blitz and its fast-paced, addictive gameplay.
Halo Wars 2 looks to expand, refine, evolve and, above all, ensure that strategy is once again right at home on console. It's an ambitious project where everything from the campaign, the story, and the multiplayer, comes across as well crafted. With the game also coming to PC this time, more players have the opportunity to enjoy Halo Wars 2. It's worth noting that there will be an Ultimate Edition edition where the first Halo Wars (a Definitive Edition of it, no less) is playable on both PC and Xbox One. Come February Halo will once again return to the world of real-time strategy.