Halo Wars is heralded as a pioneer in bringing Real-Time Strategy games to the console platforms. It got some undeserved but expected flak considering it was trying something new and understandably didn’t have all the kinks worked out.
Halo Wars 2 however does. You rejoin the crew of The Spirit of Fire 28 years after the events of Halo Wars. The Spirit is now floating in space just above the Ark, lacking the AI Serina and without a clue as to where they are. Being in cyro for the events of Halo 3, the Spirit awakens completely unaware of the events that have transpired, a point that Captain Cutter emphasises in the opening cinematic.
Anyways without going into things too much and releasing a bunch of spoilers, the war they knew is over, sure, but they wake up and have to start a brand new one against The Banished. Lead by the Brute warlord Atriox, the Banished army is composed of ex-Covenant fighters who were sick of fighting and dying for the Covenant. They unified under Atriox’s leadership and rebelled.
Not only are you trying to figure out what you missed and why the portal to the Ark closed, but you’re also trying to stop Atriox and his Banished from taking over the Ark and the galaxy. After a rousing speech from Captain Cutter you begin taking the fight to him and beating back the banished.
So, onto the main body of the review. Halo Wars 2 starts of great. The Halo franchise have always had incredible cinematics, especially in the newest additions to the series. Halo Wars 2 continues the tradition, coupling close to real looking visuals with an incredible orchestral score, they send shivers down the spine.
Gameplay wise the game starts off pretty easy, getting you back into the swing of things as expected. Things begin heating up as the battles progress, however there are very few situations that can’t be solved with brute force alone. You need to carefully manage resources at the start, mainly power, but once you’ve captured a Forerunner energy pylon things begin to get a bit simpler. Spend some time researching and beating back the occasional skirmish, then build up an army (Hornets, lots of Hornets) and go blast whatever gets in the way. Usually overwhelming force will win through.
That being said as the levels progress, alterations to tactics are obviously required. Throwing an army of dudes at a base is a great way to annihilate that base, but when the objectives start changing and pressures increasing you’re going to need to be a bit more careful. It’s good to see, overwhelming force is easy but boring, so the use of evolving tactics is nice and refreshing.
Graphically the game is spectacular. Cutscenes are absolutely gorgeous with brilliant lighting effects and character design. The in-game style is incredible too. The environment detail is fantastic and the effects are amazing. Zooming the camera in allows a great view of the character detail and combat effects. Hellbringers especially. Watching them unleash a torrent of flame upon a bunch of grunts in blistering detail never gets old. The cutscenes really steal the show however, which is a shame but the gameplay is fun and more than makes up for it.
Controlling the camera in game for me felt slow and clunky. You can’t zoom the camera out far enough to get a good overview of the terrain, but equally you can’t zoom in all that close to admire the character models and design. The camera panning is slow and can’t really be sped up to traverse large areas of the map, so if you’re engaged on multiple fronts you can often miss things or arrive too late to help change an outcome while panning across. There are quick cycle buttons that allow you to swap between bases, units, combat and heroes which is useful, however cycling through units can be annoying when you have a group of Kodiaks providing artillery cover miles away from the heart of the action. Aside from that the radial menu interactions are great and units are quick to respond to orders BUT they take forever to get anywhere.
Personally I couldn’t figure out how to group units, I’m not sure if that’s my failing or the game’s. It’s annoying if you’re trying to leave a group defending an area but want to select them remotely and move them but can’t as the mechanism is either not present or non-functioning. It could just be me, but it was kind of disappointing. Having to rely on global or local quick selects and scrolling slowly across the map becomes tiresome.
Musically, again Halo Wars 2 continues the franchise tradition of a beautiful orchestral score. It’s utilised perfectly within cutscenes, building tension flawlessly. One cutscene in particular always sends shivers down my spine thanks to the soundtrack. I’ve always been a sucker for a good soundtrack, not to mention a good orchestral one, Halo Wars 2‘s soundtrack is outstanding. Everyone remembers the iconic Halo theme for a reason, right?
Now it’s time to tackle the story. Obviously I can’t say much without spoilers, so I will be brief. The story is great. Really it is. It picks up the story of The Spirit and meshes it with the existing story of the Halo series brilliantly. It incorporates and acknowledges the main series plot and events yet allows The Spirit to lead their own story. Fleshing out the back story of the Banished enough to make you appreciate them, but not so much as to be overwhelming and forced.
The tips of the hat to the main series are great and hint towards there being further interactions and integrations of the two stories further down the line. I will say this much, if they do not make a Halo Wars 3 I for one will be bitterly disappointed. I am dying to know how this develops and continues. The story does a great job of drawing you in and getting you invested then leaving you wanting more. All things a great story should do.
I have purposely left out mentioning Blitz and the other multiplayer aspects and features from this review and for good reason. Due to the fact the game hasn’t been released yet, the online servers are populated only by reviewers and I don’t feel it would be a fair representation of the interactions. Fret not as a review of both will be following shortly after the full launch of the game!
All in all I would highly recommend Halo War 2 based purely on it’s single player campaign mode. It’s got everything you want and expect from a Halo game. It does have it’s short comings but again, they may have just been down to my grasp of the controls rather than the game’s fault.
The review is based on the Xbox One version of the game. Halo Wars 2 will be released on Xbox One and PC, Feb 21.