Guerrillas in the mist
Strategy games were never meant for consoles. The ability to command vast armies, dedicate resources towards base construction and assign specific units to specific roles was always thought to be the exclusive domain of PC gaming. Or at least the only platform capable of nailing it properly. But then along came Halo Wars in 2009 from Ensemble Studios.
Not only did it somehow manage to translate mouse and keyboard controls to a more limited Xbox 360 controller, it did so brilliantly. Eight years later, and Ensemble is no more. In comes strategy game heavyweight developer Creative Assembly, the studio behind various Total War games that feature thousands of troops clashing at any given time on the PC battlefield.
Halo Wars 2 however, feels like the complete opposite. A smaller scale, fewer controls and the attitude of a scrappy underdog. Which translates to a brilliant game that is typically Halo-ey.
Creative Assembly’s smartest move for the sequel was to build on what had come before. To keep the action constrained but focused. To tinker with the control scheme and introduce tweaks where necessary. The end result is a faster version of strategy on console, where players focus more on smaller and varied armies with tight controls.
There’s an undeniable creep of influence from the likes of StarCraft 2 or Dawn of War in the construct of Halo Wars 2, but you’d have to squint to notice it. Halo Wars 2 is a Halo game through and through, one step removed from being a sequel to Starship Troopers as it brings an OORAH attitude to the tale of the UNSC Spirit of Fire and its ongoing battles to keep the threat of The Banished from reaching our solar system.
Halo built a franchise on first-person action, an idea which has shaped the campaign of Halo Wars 2. It’s not about building the biggest army in any of the 12 missions available, but rather surviving long enough to see the next stage as an unrelenting force closes down on you while your Spartan heroes pull off acrobatic feats of circus carnage in any warzone. Typical fist-pumping Halo action, a strength and a weakness.
Halo Wars 2’s dozen missions are easily finished within six to eight hours, but at least Creative Assembly was cognizant of this and added levels of replayability to them. Skulls being one of the key modifiers here as per any Halo game, with various text logs and other bonus objectives lengthening any mission with a few extra parameters should you have enough skill to accomplish them. OOORAH!
Halo from the other side
While the Halo Wars 2 campaign may be on the short side, it’s still a terrifically memorable one. Missions vary, as Creative Assembly have crafted levels where you have to rely on the innate skills of your team and a mixed roster to see success in battle, as the odds are never in your favour. Blur Studios once again prove why they’re one of the best damn CGI teams around, with a selection of in-game cinematics that are gorgeous to watch unfold as the cast and crew of the Spirit of Fire fulfil the usual typecast roles that you’d expect from Halo.
At least the Isabelle AI is a treat, a character who carries more emotional turmoil and personality than you’d expect without needing to wear binary code a thong to get a reaction from fans. But all of this is anchored by a sublime control scheme. It takes some getting used to, but after some hands-on time (heh), snapping between battalions and directing units to make use of their special abilities begins to feel like second nature.
Leader powers add further to this system, a quick tap of the left trigger that brings in a radial menu filled with deliciously devastating options that give armchair commanders options to help buff their troops, buy new passive powers and call in for reinforncements. Or lay down a beacon for an orbital strike on some Banished asses that will turn any terrestrial surface into a glass landscape filled with the scattered remains of burning tanks and the ashes of troopers. f it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just tweak it slightly instead.
Beyond the short campaign, is the real meat and potatoes of Halo Wars 2: Blitz. Similar to how Halo 5: Guardians put an emphasis on REQ cards for its multiplayer, comes a mixture of Hearthstone and Horde mode gameplay within Blitz. The concept itself is simple enough: Players forego any base-building as they seek to prevent enemy forces from recovering three control points, instead calling for back-up with a selection of cards that draw from a pool of energy.
Easy enough on paper, devastatingly difficult to control when the waves start throwing entire legions at your ragtag militia and you find yourself outgunned and outnumbered in a catastrophic sense. It’s Halo Wars 2 at its best, a concentrated dosage of strategy that you know that you can’t win. But at least it’s fun with friends, while the deck-building aspect of cards earned from missions gives the tactical pursuit a new flavour.
Sure, typical strategy game modes of deathmatch and dominion may be present but it’s clear that Blitz will demand the most attention for the long run, with Creative Assembly having run a lengthy beta for this particular mode since last year. But it has paid off, and I’m dying to see the deck recipes that’ll be present when players really sink their teeth into it.
Halo…is it me you’re looking for?
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Halo Wars 2 is going to have, is finding the middle-ground between console and PC strategy. Finding that balance between a fanbase who want to be able to play from their couch and gamers who live for more advanced options to help stretch their grey matter further. I can’t honestly answer that as I’ve played exclusively on Xbox One so far, but I’d be hard-pressed to want to use a mouse and keyboard if I switched platforms.
Both versions are apparently the same according to Creative Assembly, with PC gamers only benefiting from more options in the control scheme of things. Two diverse audiences for two different platforms. But playing with a controller just feels better. There’s still a level of tension in the air, but it doesn’t feel overbearing. Halo Wars 2 is fun, it’s enduring and it’s the most Halo game on the market right now.