If you haven’t picked up a new Xbox One game in a while, Halo Wars 2 is a good one to try. It debuted on February 21 on the Xbox One and Windows, and it finally satisfies the thirst of fans who want to play real-time strategy on consoles.
The Creative Assembly, Sega’s real-time strategy studio that has made games like the Total War series for years on the PC, built this strategy gem (Microsoft and 343 Industries usually work on Halo). To make this game, the developers had to figure out how to make RTS work with console controls.
The title is surprisingly accessible, even though it’s still far easier to play an RTS on the PC with a keyboard and mouse. Scrolling around a big map is still a chore with a console controller, but I found that the single-player campaign was full of some intense moments in some fairly massive battles. The story also lives up to the tales that have made the Halo universe so popular and unforgettable.
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“We wanted to bring Halo back into the RTS space, and we wanted to make an RTS for everyone,” said David Nicholson, the executive producer for Halo Wars 2 at Creative Assembly, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We wanted to get Halo fans interested in an RTS, and we wanted to expose RTS fans to the fantastic story behind Halo.”
What you’ll like
Immersion in a new Halo story
The story held my attention in the way that Halo games usually do. At the start, crew members of the UNSC capital ship Spirit of Fire awake decades after they were declared lost. They are above an ancient Forerunner haven known as the Ark. The captain and his crew have to face off against the Banished, a faction led by an unbeatable Brute warrior named Atriox. You have to develop your troops and your own leaders to take on Atriox’s forces, which seem to be everywhere at once.
You never feel like you’ve got the advantage, and that’s standard in Halo stories, where humanity itself is an underdog on the edge of extinction. It uses cinematics sparingly but with good effect. The voice acting is good, and for once, the A.I. character Isabel looks like a normal woman, rather than a sex symbol meant to please men.
Even the battle chatter helps immerse you in the story. The soldiers shout at you, “I’m under fire from ground troops.” Again, that’s a useful cue that you have to take action, but it also makes the action more dramatic. All of this is far better cinematic support than most RTS games have.
Reasonably good RTS controls
The original Halo Wars, which came out in 2009, also had a good control scheme on a controller. You could press the right bumper to select local units or those that are within your field of view. If you hold the bumper down, you can select all of your units on the map.
That makes controlling units easier. But that older game had a fairly limited field of view and you couldn’t get that many units on the screen at once. With Halo Wars 2, the maps are much more expansive, and you can get 80 soldiers on the screen. Of course, some of those units are a part of groups, so you can’t actually control all 80 units at once, as you can in typical PC RTS games. So naturally, some compromises had to be made to make the console game more accessible and easier to control.
The Creative Assembly added nice touches, like shortcuts on the D-pad, which are customizable. You can add units to the D-pad directional controls and easily switch to them. That takes a lot of brain cycles to remember, but it could be worth it for the time it saves in a pitched battle.
But one of the best things they added was leader powers, which gives you a wheel of choices when you pull the left trigger. You can wreak havoc with those powers and keep the focus in one place, so that you don’t have to go scrolling all over the map so much.
Leader powers save the day
The good thing about close combat is that you can also invoke your leader’s powers, getting help from the commander up in the UNSC capital ship. You can use some of your resources to issue commands that can have a huge tactical effect. For instance, you can heal all of the troops in a particular area for a short time. That could give them enough stamina to overcome enemy forces or break into a fort.
You can also rain down missiles or disrupt the enemy’s electronic communications. I found I had to keep a close eye on resources while I did this, though, because it can use a lot of your available resources when you invoke the leader powers.
Of all of the moments when I was fighting, the best were when I could invoke the leader powers. I rained missiles down on the enemy’s turrets and then healed my troops when the enemy counterattacked. It was an unfair advantage, for sure, but it was a sweet moment.
The campaign starts out easy and gets more complex
The first mission includes a tutorial that teaches you how to play. I had to get used to moving around the screen without clicking on a mini map with a mouse. But I managed to get around fast enough. It helps to be able to select all of the available local units with a single button push (by hitting the right bumper once). Then you can move the cursor to a spot and hit X to either move the units there or make them attack that position.
The single-player campaign throws enemies at you piecemeal as you explore the area around you. Rather than just start a giant battle, you have to complete missions with limited numbers of forces at first. I played the mission One Three Zero Below, where a single Spartan supersoldier must liberate a bunch of prisoners. The latter part of the missions are concentrated and intense.
New ways to play multiplayer
I enjoy matching wits with other players in 2-versus-2 matches or 3-versus-3. You have a variety of modes to choose from. But the basic tasks is to build faster and smarter than your rivals. You can choose to go for a fast win or a slow encirclement. In one game, I grabbed multiple base sites and so did my ally. Between us, we had eight bases to just three for the enemy. The enemy, meanwhile, leveled up a base to the max and created some heavy-duty air power with powerful Vultures. But we had so many bases, the enemy didn’t know which one to hit. So we built up enough firepower to blow the Vultures out of the sky, and then we had endless resources coming in through the multiple bases. That clinched our victory.
Those matches might take 40 minutes or more. But you can also play quick Blitz matches, such as a 2-versus-2 match where the object is to grab victory points and hold them against enemy assault. You start with a little bit of resources, and you build them up over time. You can use them to play various cards that get you units to play on the battlefield. Blitz matches take around 15 minutes, and they’re all about speed.
So many units
The Halo universe is rich with weapons, vehicles, soldiers, and creatures. Halo Wars 2 has Spartans, UNSC marines, Elites, Brutes, ODSTs, Grunts, Hellbringers, Hunters, Warthogs, Cyclops, Scorpions, Jack Rabbits, Kodiaks, Ghosts, Hornets, Nightingales, and Wraiths. Each unit has a counter, like the usual rock-paper-scissors game designs. Making sure you have a diverse army is the way to win.
With all of these units, Halo Wars 2 offers something for every Halo fan. I enjoyed using the Spartans, who had the ability to leap into enemy vehicle — even a giant Scarab — and take it over. That kind of heroic action is enough to change the course of a battle.
What you won’t like
It’s still tough to control
OK, I didn’t pay enough attention in the tutorial, but I have to say it still isn’t easy to grab the units you want in a big bunch and send just those units off to deal with a particular threat. You can do it, but it’s a bit complicated. After playing the whole campaign, I still don’t know how to do it.
It’s also hard to get from one part of the battle to another, since the maps are so big. You can scroll using the analog sticks, and it takes a while. You can press the D-pad to move to the action quickly, but sometimes it’s not the part of the battle you want to go. In one of the last missions, I had to send units to about four or five locations at once, and that was hard to do. With a mouse, it would have been easy.
Halo Wars 2 crashed on me a few times. In real-time strategy, that can be disastrous, particularly if you are winning a long battle. It also takes a while to reload the level that crashed. In fact, it even bugged out once while I was reloading it after it crashed.
Many times nothing happened when I pressed a button to plant a rally flag or build a unit. It also failed to respond when I was selecting leader powers. It wasted precious seconds, and you just don’t have that kind of time in an RTS game.
The battles can be a mess
When you’ve got yourself into a tough battle and you’re losing, it is pretty hard to extract your troops safely. You can do it quickly by hitting the right bumper and moving them to someplace safe. But the troops don’t move that fast, and you lose a lot of them in the process.
When you lose these battles, it’s tempting to restart the level. I just wish I had more control and more precision in the game, but I guess that’s war.
Fighting the battles was harder than I expected, in part because of the glitches I mentioned. It’s scenario balance is good. I had to fight as hard as I could against the A.I. in the campaign. Some missions I had to try over and over. One time, I lost by 15 seconds in a timed battle where I was supposed to hold out for a number of minutes.
And when I had to replay the missions, I enjoyed it. I had to sharpen my plans and move faster. An RTS game has to be challenging to be fun, and that’s definitely true of this game. I’m glad that this RTS is a success, from my point of view, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of this kind of game in the future.
Halo Wars 2 came out on February 21 for the Xbox One and Windows. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy for this review.