I recently had the pleasure of travelling to Seattle to visit 343 Industries. For those unaware, 343 is the new overseer of all things Halo, inheriting the franchise from Bungie after the latter company finished development on Halo: Reach. While Halo 4 and 5 didn’t make their way to PC, Microsoft is looking to rectify that with Halo Wars 2, which is part of the Play Anywhere program and will be playable on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs early next year.
Here’s my list of eight reasons why Halo Wars 2 is an RTS that has the potential to attract genre newcomers and hardcore fans alike.
Heavier on macro than micro
Games like Command & Conquer and StarCraft ask players to balance both macro (economy and base building) and micro (controlling armies and individual units) considerations. Halo Wars 2, like the game that preceded it, borrows from The Battle for Middle-earth playbook in that macro is a whole lot more streamlined. Bases can only be built in fixed positions, with a limited number of expansion points for structures, and managing your economy is as simple as building and upgrading two types of resource-collecting structures. This means more of the focus is on controlling your armies, map dominance and the ensuing battles, which makes the learning curve a whole lot shallower than RTS games with a heavier emphasis on macro and micro.
Creative Assembly is involved
While 343 was reluctant to talk about how involved Creative Assembly is in the development of Halo Wars 2, it became apparent during my interviews that the heralded strategy developer is doing most of the heavy lifting. It makes sense that Creative Assembly is lead developer on Halo Wars 2. For its Total War series, macro and micro considerations are separated: macro in the turn-based region overview sections, and micro for the real-time strategy battles (assuming you don’t auto-resolve them). This means that Total War’s RTS sections aren’t as hardcore when stacked next to the likes of StarCraft or Company of Heroes, but it also means that a renowned strategy developer is behind the wheel (much like Ensemble Studios was with the original Halo Wars). In addition, the fact that it’s a multiplatform development across PC and console means Creative Assembly has had to refine the RTS experience down to its essential elements, given the literal control limitations of the Xbox One’s controller.
Hero units and faction abilities
Like Warcraft III, Halo Wars 2 uses powerful hero units to help turn the tide of battle in a way that’s reminiscent of what Relic is doing with Dawn of War III. These hero units also allow for leader abilities between the two factions: USNC and Banished (a Brute-led version of the Covenant). While optional to use, these abilities can offer defensive buffs such as healing, or offensive capabilities such as orbital bombardments, or the option to lay a minefield at a choke point. Hero units aren’t so powerful that they can be left alone, but they’re strong enough that they require different tactics to take down.
The campaign acts as multiplayer training
Like any good solo experience in a game that has a strong emphasis on multiplayer, Halo Wars 2’s campaign plays out in such a way that it acts as multiplayer training. It also helps that the Blur-created cinematics are top-notch and make for compelling storytelling. Of course, if you’re a proficient RTS player who isn’t invested in the Halo universe—which is understandable given the sporadic releases of the series on PC—you can jump straight into multiplayer. That said, the campaign will teach you the unit/faction/ability specifics of this particular strategy title. But if Halo Wars 2 is your first strategy title, campaign is the best place to start for a gradual learning curve of game mechanics.
It’s a honed, action-heavy experience
There’s a big emphasis on armies, battles and explosions in Halo Wars 2, which means that the ‘boring bits’ of RTS are left by the wayside. Whether you’re playing in the campaign or in a number of multiplayer modes, the best type of defence in Halo Wars 2 is a solid offence. Outside of some base turrets, there’s no other way to defend your base, except by leaving a standing army or using leader abilities. In this respect, players are incentivised to be on the offensive at all times, which not only makes for exciting gameplay possibilities, it also means it’s an exciting game to watch (and therefore learn more about via watching replays of skilled players).
The blob is only effective at first
As far as RTS on console goes, Halo Wars 2 is poised to be the best instance yet. Naturally, this doesn’t mean you should plug a controller into your PC to play, as keyboard and mouse is still the best way to play. That said, newbie RTS tactics like selecting your entire army and sending the militant ‘blob’ out to achieve victory works at first, both in campaign and certain multiplayer modes. For instance, when you’re playing in Blitz Firefight (a solo and unlimited horde mode), you’ll quickly learn that having two or three separate armies attacking and defending points won’t get you too far beyond wave 10. The idea of these modes is to entice players of varying levels of strategy skill in, then subtly teach them the kind of tactics and multitasking skills that are required to achieve dominance.
Different modes for different skill levels
Halo Wars 2 offers a variety of multiplayer modes: Skirmish (solo and online co-op), Strongholds, Domination, Deathmatch, and Blitz (solo and online versus). For the newer strategy player that’s just finished the campaign, Skirmish or Blitz is a great place to start alone (or cooperatively with a friend in Skirmish), learning the kind of skills that are required when playing competitively online. For more competent players who don’t have the patience for 45-minute matches, Strongholds sets a 15-minute timer and puts the emphasis firmly on battling over several points for map dominance. For the higher-skilled strategy players, Domination and Deathmatch ditch the time limits and let players duke it out for map dominance or total annihilation in a way that’s more like traditional RTS multiplayer modes.
Blitz is a genre-changing multiplayer mode
Blitz was unveiled in all its glory at the event, and it has the potential to receive a lot of attention when Halo Wars 2 launches next year. It combines a digital card game (like Hearthstone) with a stripped-back RTS. Players build their deck of 12 before starting (or they can pick from presets), and the order of those cards is randomly determined from the outset, with four cards available to play at a time, provided you have the requisite energy. Energy must be collected from the map to play those cards, but when you meet the energy requirement, you can play a card (that represents a unit or special ability) instantaneously, either at your base with full health, or on the battlefield with a health penalty. The real goal is to control a majority of three points, which cap instantly, unless contested by enemy players. There’s also a 12-minute timer if the 200-point score limit isn’t met. It’s easy to learn, especially with the offline Firefight variant. Given there are different types and rarities of cards across commanders, and the way that cards can be combined across players in 2v2 or 3v3 matches, there’s also an incredible amount of depth on offer in a mode that’s so easy to learn.
Halo Wars 2 launches on the 21st of February, 2017, and if you purchase it digitally via the Windows Store, you can own it on Xbox One and Windows 10. For those still bummed about missing out on the original Halo Wars, there’s also a more expensive special edition that ships with a remastered version of the original Halo Wars.
Microsoft paid for my flights, food and accommodation on this Halo Wars 2 trip.