Halo Wars 2 is a game that plays it safe, and in doing so, drastically limits its own potential as an extension of the universe. While Creative Assembly and 343 Industries manage to deliver on the expectations of a Halo Wars sequel, the overall package fails to capture the spirit of the original.
The original Halo Wars was something of a black sheep in Microsoft’s favorite franchise for developers and fans alike, being a different style of game, with different characters, and made by a different developer. In fact, the game wasn’t originally intended to be a Halo game at all, but was developed first and foremost to bring PC style RTS to consoles. Early in development, Microsoft, worried about the possible risks, requested that Ensemble Studios make use of the Halo brand in order to push the game. Thus the game was re-worked into the original Halo Wars, and Ensemble Studios, with the help of 343 Industries and Blur Studios, built a solid console RTS with a story and aesthetic that, while somewhat generic, remained faithful to the source material and delivered the feel and polish expected of the series.
Overall the reception was positive. It was a well-made game that found a generally appreciative audience. Unfortunately it didn’t quite have what it took to sell RTS to mainstream console players, and Ensemble Studios was shut down for good shortly after release.
Yet here we are, eight years later and Halo Wars 2 hits store shelves, promising to bring The Spirit of Fire and all its crew back for another long awaited adventure. This time with Creative Assembly at the helm and a new vision for its role in the universe, with 343 Industries, now in full control of the franchise, believing that all Halo media should be given equal footing.
It was a brilliant opportunity to not only give people something to play while they wait for Halo 6, but to build bridges with the original fanbase who were turned off by the latest releases. By bringing in a cast of characters from the Bungie era of Halo, 343 Industries had the chance to show fans that they understood and respected Bungie’s original vision, and that they could still provide an experience that would scratch that same itch.
But that’s not quite what happened.
To begin the actual ‘review’ part of this review, let’s discuss the most prominent aspect of the game: multiplayer. It’s clear that the game was designed with multiplayer as a major priority. When you open the game the most obvious button is the one that gives you a quick matchup, with the other large icons are all based around other online features. Of course the issue with that is the fact that as I write this review, a mere four months after the game’s launch, the multiplayer community seems to be drying up. Playing on Xbox One, some playlists have unbearably long wait times when not searching during peak hours, and even when matches are found, there doesn’t seem to be enough players for any sort of skill ranking to matter. I was frequently matched up against players of wildly varying skill and rank, regardless of when I was playing. On PC, things seem even more dismal, and while I have only tested the PC matchmaking a few times, I was never able to get into a match in a reasonable amount of time, and many others are reporting similar population issues.
Obviously, without a reliable player base, multiplayer may as well not exist, which is a shame, because when you can find a match, the game is actually quite fun. The most noteworthy mode is blitz, which involves each player choosing a “deck” of different units that can be spawned in by spending energy that slowly regenerates over time. At its core the objective is fairly simple, capture and hold three different locations on the map that help your team score points. Once you have enough points, you win. There’s a lot of room for variety in the types of units you can play, and the maps are designed in a way that lets you take different approaches and employ meaningful strategies. Blitz is, in essence, a stripped down version of an RTS, skipping the base building and resource gathering and getting straight into the action, which I imagine many gamers will appreciate. I even enjoyed building decks of different units and trying them out, even if the whole card system feels like a cynical way to push the game’s micro-transactions, especially with card leveling, which gives higher level cards a straight up advantage in health and damage, therefore providing an edge to those who buy more card packs.
(Deck building is an engaging addition to the game, even if it exists to push micro-transactions)
There are also modes available for those who want a more traditional RTS experience. Deathmatch is the simplest: build up your bases and destroy the other team. It’s fun enough as a time waster, but it suffers from the same problem as its predecessor, in that it almost always feels lacking in strategy. Winning a deathmatch game nearly always boils down to building a bigger army, and then steamrolling everyone else on the map. As players spread out in the early game, competing for resources, strategic moves are rewarded, and countering the enemy correctly can be invaluable, but in the late game things will typically come down to one massive push that overwhelms either side and then proceeds to move from base to base, destroying everything. Losing a base often snowballs quickly into losing the entire match, without the time or ability to recover in any meaningful way.
Domination is another more interesting mode. Players build up their armies in the usual way, and then try to capture and hold various control points on the map. Like blitz this mode has a little more room for tactical plays, though I found it difficult to get in a match due to low population, so I can’t say I have much experience with it.
(Hero selection is quite impressive, with each having unique units and powers)
Perhaps my favorite mode was strongholds, in which players are given infinite resources and simply have to build and hold various mini bases around the map to win. It’s similar to Domination but distinct enough to have it’s own form of strategy. In this mode, each Stronghold you own also functions as a small base, where you can build units, which gives you a strategic area to hold and bolster your own armies. I found that unlike Domination, Strongholds actually encourages players to keep moving and attacking, instead of sitting around guarding a point. Mini bases are weak and easily destroyed, so there will typically be a lot of pull and push that keeps the game exciting, and there’s no real incentive to sitting around protecting your strongholds when you could be destroying your opponent’s or taking on their army. One of my proudest moments in the game mode was a last-ditch effort to turn the tides of a losing battle by destroying one of the other player’s main bases, therefore taking them out of the game entirely. The rush was enough to surprise and overwhelm them, and with the match having suddenly become two versus three, we were able to make a concentrated push and snatch victory from what seemed like a hopeless situation. So while traditional RTS fans might dislike the way Strongholds glosses over the base building aspect, I found it to be quite exhilarating, and one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences on offer.
[Before I move on, it’s worth noting that the season pass available for this game primarily consists of new leaders for the multiplayer mode. While the new leaders are interesting and fairly well balanced, the low player population may ultimately mean they are not worth picking up. On top of that, recent announcements have revealed that the “expansion” for single player will consist of two new missions, and that the upcoming expansion, Awakening the Nightmare, will not be included in the season pass. With all that on the table, I personally found the season pass to not be worth the money, and you’ll likely be better off picking and choosing which individual pieces of content you really want.]
Multiplayer is all well and good of course, but it’s single player that will ultimately last, and is likely the main draw for fans of the original, so how does the campaign mode stack up?
(Isabel serves as the Spirit of Fire‘s new AI)
Unfortunately the most apt word for it is ‘disappointing’. Starting with first impressions, the game, or at least the cutscenes, are as beautiful as ever. Blur Studios knocks it out of the park yet again, offering a good handful of lovingly crafted, and exquisitely detailed cinematics that leave me wishing 343 Industries would just pay them to make a full movie already. The one drawback is that this time around they seem to be fewer, and further between. While they seem to be about the same runtime overall, instead of placing one after every mission like its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 instead opts to have longer cutscenes that occur after a handful of missions, conveying mission details and basic premises through dialogue and the occasional in-engine animation, which are obviously less impressive, but get the job done well enough. Whether or not this will bother you is a matter of personal taste, but personally I found that the length of time between cutscenes was draining, and seeing as they were my favorite part of the original, it became a slog of grinding through an unknown number of missions in order to get the next visual spectacle.
(The cut-scenes really are very pretty)
And “slog” is exactly the word for it. Unlike the original game, Halo Wars 2 has a severe drought of variety and objectives in its missions. Almost every mission is “reach this location by fighting through the enemy,” “go break some things by fighting through the enemy,” or “hold this position by fighting through the enemy.” It’s exhausting, it’s bland, and more importantly it’s completely forgettable. Thinking back, I can remember almost every mission of the original Halo Wars, because they were varied and memorable. Evacuating civilians on Arcadia, or using a forerunner defense system to clean your ship of the Flood, or dodging between cover to take out an experimental Scarab super weapon. In contrast I can barely remember a handful of moments from the Halo Wars 2 campaign, despite having just finished it a few days ago.
In truth however, maybe it’s better I don’t remember most of it, because the plot itself is about as threadbare as the actual missions. The Spirit of Fire reactivates after many years of drifting through space to discover they have arrived at the Ark from Halo 3. They discover a new enemy in the form of Atriox, a brute who rebelled against the Covenant and is now attempting to build a new Halo ring to threaten the galaxy once again. First things first, you might notice that Captain Cutter and Professor Anders look different this time around, despite the fact that they quite literally should not have aged a day since the end of the original due to their time in cryosleep. Once again we see character redesigns that exist for no real reason, it’s not that they were particularly brilliant characters to begin with, but it’s frustrating to see perfectly fine character’s overhauled just so they can be a slightly different brand of generic. Cutter is more of the ‘Inspirational captain’ than the ‘old but dogged commanding officer,’ and while professor Ander’s personality is largely intact, her appearance is radically different in a way that at first actually had me wondering if she was a new character.
(This is what Anders looks like now, cryo-sleep really does wonders for your complexion)
Not to mention the fact that these people have essentially been in comas for 28 years and should have no idea what the Ark does, what happened during the war, or even what a Halo ring is. You’d think that this disconnect would provide an interesting way to tie together older Halo sensibilities with 343’s new take on the series, or at least be addressed in some way in dialogue or attitudes. Instead this “fish out of water” scenario is completely ignored with one or two throwaway lines and then everyone acts like they know exactly what’s going on all the time. No one seems impressed by the Forerunner technology at hand, or the sheer scale of the Ark, and the game never takes the opportunity to revisit old areas from Halo 3 or even really attempt to tie things into the older games, instead providing generic metal structures and uninteresting terrain over and over again.
The most interesting aspect of the new arc is The Banished and their leader Atriox, whose backstory is perhaps the most engaging part of the story. Unfortunately they mostly get used as the generic enemy trying to do generic enemy stuff, and there’s no real sense of character or personality to them outside of Atriox and another brute named Decimus, who serves as the game’s one and only boss fight.
(This is the game’s only boss fight, it’s decent enough)
Worst of all however, the game doesn’t even bother trying to provide a satisfying ending. While the last mission is a pretty enjoyable clash where you get to use pretty much everything the game has to offer, the actual ending is essentially “ the bad guys are still out there, here’s your sequel hook, to be continued.” The game doesn’t even bother to give you a showdown with the main antagonist, he just taunts you over the radio for a bit before the final mission and then at the end he pouts a little bit while he gets ready for the next game. I mean, the least he could’ve done is show up and then run away before you killed him, the game already does that the first time you fight Decimus, and it would’ve at least made Atriox feel more like an actual threat. Instead the game hypes him up by having him beat some Spartans in a cutscene and that’s pretty much the peak of his involvement.
(Atriox really is a pretty awesome villain, he deserves more screen time)
Ultimately Halo Wars 2 is a game of many little disappointments that add up to one big letdown. I have to admit, that many of my critiques are nitpicky, and some may come off as overblown. While the game left something of a sour taste in my mouth, the actual gameplay is as solid as ever, and if you don’t care about the story, or you’re just an RTS fan, you may find it to be a worthwhile investment. I don’t regret my purchase, but as a fan of original Halo Wars and as something of a Halo enthusiast, I wish Halo Wars 2 had that spark that made the universe feel alive and magical. But it just doesn’t. And the inclusion of microtransactions on top of a seriously underwhelming season pass has only left me with further distaste for the overall package. All that being said, Halo Wars 2 isn’t particularly offensive, just bland, and I do hope that in future we get another Halo Wars game with a little more energy, and a little less fluff.