Brute by Brute
When Microsoft called Halo Wars the "best-selling console RTS of all time," I really had to stop and think of what other console RTS games even exist. StarCraft 64? I mean, Tom Clancy’s Endwar sort of worked because of the low unit count. Anyone remember Dune II on the Sega Genesis? Yeah, there's several examples, but you'd be hard-pressed to think of them on the spot.
Halo Wars 2 isn't going to really put them on the map either, but that's perfectly fine with me.
Halo Wars 2 (PC [Windows 10], Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: 343 Industries, Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: February 21, 2017
Halo Wars 2 makes an immediate impression after zoning into a skirmish. With great animations that set itself apart from other RTS games, it's amazing to watch swarms of enemies go at each other with tons of little combat nuances. There's something special about seeing an Elite gut an enemy with an energy sword, and base building has its own charm, as each individual piece gets airlifted and snaps into place like a LEGO set. The beautiful, almost haunting piano tunes of the soundtrack (which are on par with the rest of the series) fit too.
Appropriately, the story punched a reset button of sorts. Despite the peace with the Covenant, the co-development team needed to find a way for everyone to fight each other again, and they did it with a rogue faction called "The Banished," and by giving you control of more sort of Master Chief but not actually Master Chief Spartans. Convenient! While it's as rote as you'd expect (and you can expect lots of heroic speeches), it's peppered with some amazing cinematics, which are Blizzard quality at this point, and are almost bonuses after completing each campaign mission. It's polished, is what I'm saying.
But those rewards, while mighty, suffer from a weak script ("Where you see half a ship, I see family": is this Halo or Fast & Furious in space?), so don't expect to be wowed outside of the eye candy. The campaign is well-paced to be fair, as each of the 12 story missions tally up to roughly the same length as the first game (somewhere around 10 hours), with online co-op available. It's mostly a taster for multiplayer, but it never really has a dull moment outside of some of the routine damage sponge boss fights, which aren't agonizingly long or particularly difficult, just boring. They sidle you mechanics like "move out of area to avoid orbital bombardment," but when those moves are repeated, they lose their luster -- tactics in these instances mostly boil down to "converge."
As for the RTS bones, it's a serviceable little strategy romp built around a rock, paper, scissors design (air takes ground vehicles, infantry counters air, and ground vehicles counter infantry), wherein players have to learn to build a balanced squad and micro-manage counters with a limited unit count. It's surprisingly easy to control with an Xbox One remote, especially when you have so many shortcuts to instantly swap to bases, active squads, or the last key area with the d-pad. Pressing the A button to create an increasingly growing circle to select units takes some getting used to, but it's simple enough to pick up.
Base building is a cinch, too. Once you find an available lot (which are pre-determined) you just click the area, then more lots pop up for potential buildings, like a barracks or garage, as well as four spots for turrets (which you can customize to counter all three unit types), and you're set. Supply pads and generators allow for instant resource and power collection respectively, so all you really need to micromanage are the units since the base kind of takes care of itself.
Hero powers basically take this tried-and-true formula and spice it up. Some units like Warthogs have innate powers like ramming into infantry that are tied to a meter, and others like Spartans can Spartan Slam up hills or hijack vehicles. A lot of skirmishes mostly boil down to "target your counter and mash the Y button to use all your abilities," but again, they look cool and in smaller battles, help push seemingly dull fights over the edge and make them memorable.
All of these mechanics come together nicely both in solo and online play, and there are just enough modes to not split up the community too much (more on this in a moment). Stronghold provides players with unlimited resources, and tasks them to acquire as many bases as possible within a time limit. Deathmatch operates like a typical RTS, and Domination, what else, requires players to capture specific zones for points. There's a hard cap on six players in any given mode and you can bring up to five (formidable) AI along for the ride.
Halo Wars 2 also has a little something extra, almost like a console-oriented arcade spin on the RTS formula -- Blitz Mode. It's a lot like Domination in that it centers around area control, but the arcade elements come in because of a lack of a base and cards, which are used to warp units in instantly or call upon certain powers. It's fast, and something I can see queuing up from time to time having gotten my fill of the campaign. It also has a horde mode built in with co-op, which is a riot with the right crew.
So, this mode has microtransactions. Yeah, I know. I've wrestled with this over the past week, and weighed the pros and cons. It's its own mode, separate from the core gametypes, which are not impacted by the ability to buy more cards. That's a plus. You can also unlock more cards through normal play. That's good!
Yet, Microsoft claims it isn't pay-to-win, but this is roughly on the same level as Hearthstone here in that buying more gives you more opportunities -- except that game is free, and this one is $60. Those cards might be balanced, but paying is creating more opportunities at a faster rate than unlocking packs through normal play. The way they augment this is by having heroes with their own unique cards, while allowing everyone to draw from a general deck (like classes in Hearthstone).
I still enjoy Blitz but this concept will no doubt turn some people off. What really bothers me is the lack of Cross-Play between the Xbox One and Windows 10 versions. Given how intuitive the controls are and how low the unit count is, one could surmise that a controller could keep up with a mouse and keyboard somewhat. Microsoft has mused on the idea of possibly adding Cross-Play in later, but for now, it's not happening. At the end of my time with the game I found myself wishing for a longer campaign with more of an impact, and an expanded Blitz Mode with a quicker reward loop.
If you're craving an RTS on a console, or perhaps aren't particularly well-versed in the genre, Halo Wars 2 has you covered. It doesn't offer much that other games in the same space have given us over the past 10 years, but it's polished and fun to play.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Halo Wars 2 reviewed by Chris Carter
A solid game that definitely has an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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