Consoles and real-time strategy games aren't exactly a match made in heaven. Even if the genre has its origins on console (Herzog Zwei on Mega Drive), it made PC its home in the early '90s and it wasn't really until Halo Wars arrived and we got a game designed from scratch for controllers that the genre worked fully on console. It wasn't perfect, but with some adjustments and concessions we got a great real-time strategy game at the time. Fast forward eight years and there is no Ensemble Studios anymore and Bungie has abandoned Halo. Instead the new stewards of Microsoft's second most important franchise (sorry Halo, Minecraft takes top spot now), 343 industries, turned to The Creative Assembly for assistance. To be perfectly honest it is hard to tell, as the new developers have used the original as a blueprint they they have tweaked and further optimised for an audience of console players and Halo fans. Sure, the game is coming to PC, but everything from game design to mechanics and levels has been crafted with console in mind.
Mapping all the mechanics a deep real-time strategy game needs to the Xbox One controller is no easy task, but The Creative Assembly has done a good job, even if not all is perfect. The use of the d-pad for instance is great as it lets you shift camera views between different units or your bases, and with the right trigger pressed you'll be able to organise your units into four groups. The latter option is great for keeping certain vulnerable units from getting smashed even if you're moving with one big army, but also allows for multi-tasking. You'll also likely make use of the right button, as you tap it once to select all units on screen, and twice for all units under your command (not units garrisoned).
Mastery of these mechanics is going to be key online as there isn't perhaps that many surprises to spring on each other from a strategic perspective, and this is where Halo Wars 2 keeps things fairly traditional with its rock-paper-scissors approach. It does feel like The Creative Assembly ran out of buttons with the leader powers. These smartbomb-like abilities has you press the left trigger to open a radial dial, you then pick a power with the left stick and select with A. Now you pick where to deploy it and press A. These powers would have been so much more potent had you been able to map to say the d-pad (even if the d-pad is used to great effect). They can still turn the tide of a battle, but selecting them feels like it takes you out of the management of your troops a little too long.
Halo Wars 2 offers a three-pronged assault on players. First off, you've got the campaign that spans three acts and a dozen missions. It starts out slow and without much room for strategic variation, but ramps up later on and offers some truly well designed and memorable missions. There is a mix of maps where you need to be on the attack and where you need to build defences and turtle up, as well as missions that are more focused on a hero and a few select units without much in terms of resource management and base building. We particularly enjoyed a mission halfway through the campaign where you had to defend a particle cannon. Designed much like a tower defence scenario you could set up turrets along the paths where your enemy would creep up on you. There was even a light bridge you could switch on and off sending unsuspecting enemies into the abyss. This map is also a good example of how bonus objectives and high score chasing make for longevity. Add to that those hard-to-find staples of the franchise, skulls, and there is much to return to, with a friend or on your own.
Secondly there is traditional multiplayer with base building. Four modes (Deathmatch, Skirmish, Domination, and Strongholds) are available and the game has clearly been set up with competitive and ranked matches in mind. Many of the various daily and weekly challenges must be achieved through match-made games. Halo fans will recognise the structure and it's clear that the developers looked at what this community craves. In many ways this is where all the depth and mechanics come fully into play. The campaign keeps things more contained and focused and you don't have as much freedom to craft your own strategies. Of course, there are optimal ways to set up your economy, and there are routes you'll want to take to quickly be able to build certain units. But these paths are not as elaborate as you'd find in say Starcraft II. It's more old school, more arcadey if you will, more immediate and thus more fitting to the controller. There are options to play duels, 2v2, or 3v3 here and playing with coordinated teammates is very rewarding.
It should be said that we haven't been able to fully test the multiplayer as the servers have been underpopulated prior to launch, so we'll return with more impressions of how the servers are coping and how well the matchmaking works.
Thirdly, and for some of us most importantly, there is Blitz. A stripped down version of the multiplayer where base building has been ripped out in favour of a card system. The objective is to hold down three capture points that are positioned in the middle of the map with lanes coming to down from three or four directions. You'll pick a hero and collect cards (representing units or leader powers) through earning (or buying) packs. The cards can have specific perks (some may drop in with full strength whereas normal units need a little time after dropping to get full health and do max damage), and naturally they have different degrees of rarity. You then organise these cards into decks, either balanced ones or ones designed to counter a specific opponent.
There is both PvP and PvE (Blitz Firefight), and we found playing the later cooperatively to be a ton of fun as the strategies and tactics that come into play are a lot deeper than what you'd find at first. Placing your Kodiaks in the right spots. Getting those Nightingales up to heal your units. Using that Jackrabbit to collect the energy you need to use more cards (silos with energy drop down between waves). Do you divide the capture points between you or do you specialise in certain areas (anti-air, anti-infantry, powerful leader powers, etc)?
The big problem is that there is only one map to play in Blitz mode, The Proving Grounds. And while there's plenty of tactics and strategy to be employed through the decks and your hero, we would have loved to have seen at least a couple more at launch. Of course, this feedback was noted by the developers during the beta, and hopefully some alternative maps will roll out post-launch for this mode as it is highly addictive and well designed. It's not that the one map is poor by any means, but given the focus this mode has been getting and that Microsoft expects players to spend money buying packs, there needs to be more variation here. As it stands Blitz may be pure bliss, but we want more of it.
Halo Wars 2 isn't the most visually stunning game you will have seen on Xbox One. It sort of comes with the territory and it's also understandable once you've seen the massive armies as you reach levels 25 and upwards in Blitz Firefight, you'll understand why they've had to hold back a little in the visuals department. That said the iconic Halo design is intact and impresses as much today as it did 15 years ago. The Blur-crafted cinematics are a joy to behold and we only wished there were more of them (there's six in total) to sit back and take in. The story itself is well told, and while it very much feels like a side story, it is nicely tied together with the wider narrative of the franchise and in doing so feels inviting to both longtime Halo fans and newcomers. Dozens upon dozens of Phoenix Logs supply those needing background via lots of reading in between missions. And Atriox is a brilliant villain, he's anarchy and defiance personified.
While the game itself has been very entertaining, apart from a few of the early campaign missions, we've also experienced some issues with the game. The main design flaw is the menus. How you're not able to access deck building directly inside Blitz is just weird, and it's also strange to note that continuing on your latest save in the campaign is not the primary first option inside the campaign menu. Sure, it's a game with a ton of content and there is a lot that needs to fit into these menus, but it feels like it could have done with some more thought. We do appreciate the level of customisation when it comes to the camera that you've got, however. And as you'd expect in a Halo game, your career stats and accomplishments are nicely kept. Loading times are too long, and we've also experienced infinite loading (or a very, very, very long load, we didn't wait to find out). This also happened once as we tried to restart a mission. These issues might very well be taken care of with the imminent day one patch, but as we tested the game they were there and while they didn't take away our enjoyment of the game, they did prove annoying.
Halo Wars 2 isn't really pushing the boundaries of the genre, outside of Blitz which seems like a great combination of arena gameplay, deck building and the fast, arcade style of the game itself, but that's perhaps not expected either. Players are treated to a great package that offers plenty to both fans of competitive multiplayer, the Halo universe, and co-operative play. Some blemishes aside this is a worthy new entry in the storied franchise.
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