Not so long ago, I revisited the original Halo Wars, which had been ported to Windows 10. I was a fan of that game when I played it on Xbox 360 (as much as one can be a fan of an RTS on console), but it hasn’t aged particularly well. It wasn’t just that Halo Wars still had terrible unit pathfinding, it was also that some of the levels were particularly bland (especially the Flood ones), and it just wasn’t as great as I remembered.
Fast-forward to Halo Wars 2 and the collaboration between 343 Industries and Creative Assembly has forged a strategy title that’s well worth a look. I’d intended on playing the first few missions and writing up a ‘First Thoughts’ article, but I was compelled to go back for more and finished the campaign. On Normal difficulty, there’s an easy learning curve in the initial levels that does a great job of not overloading you with too many units or abilities (granted, that’s an RTS standard).
In the middle of the campaign, some of the missions are genuinely challenging, and by the time you hit the end, you’ll want to have solid control over your groups and a great understanding of your units to come out on top (except for the last mission, which was surprisingly simple). Despite the clear emphasis on accessibility—this is, after all, a game that’s light on macro and has fixed bases—I was genuinely surprised at the level of challenging in some of the missions.
Unit veterancy helps you to become attached to your higher-level units, and those typical filler RTS missions that involve limited units and no base building transition into the proper open-approach-style strategy levels at the halfway point. As a fan of the Halo series, I feared my love of the franchised had been irreparably damaged after the heartbreaking disappointment of Halo 5, but Halo Wars 2 has me interested in the franchise again.
Hell, in many respects, Halo Wars 2 is more a Halo game than Halo 5, most notably in the strategic choices that are presented to the player that weren’t as prevalent in the last core FPS entry. I fully intend on playing through the campaign again cooperatively on a higher difficulty.
It’s good to know that my rig can run the game on Ultra settings (at 1080p with a GTX 980). For the most part, it was a smooth experience, but jumping around the map (instead of panning) resulted in noticeable frame drops. Certain bigger explosions had the same impact, and there were a couple of odd moments where the frame rate completely died. Another odd bug was the game not registering any keystrokes or mouse clicks at the title screen, but that was fixed by restarting the game, and will hopefully be fixed in a patch.
Outside of these moments, Halo Wars 2 was a bug-free experience. It’s a pretty strategy title, and the clear design logic makes it easy to keep track of what’s going on in the heat of battle. I also have to rave about the sound design because it’s best-in-class for RTS games as far as I’m concerned. There are little touches, like the multiple lines per unit or different-inflection takes used that help to stop the unit selection/ordering dialogue responses from becoming overly monotonous. On top of this, the units have contextual responses to certain orders, which increases the dialogue diversity.
There’s also a dynamic music system that seamlessly rises and withdraws based on what’s happening in the game. Quiet base-building moments are complemented by a chilled soundtrack, but as the conflict rises, so too does the score to match what’s happening. The sacrifice of that system is iconic tracks—something that Halo has been renowned for in the past—but it works so well to match the emotion of what’s happening on screen that you actually have to pay attention to it to notice how great it is.
Then there’s the reality that Halo Wars 2 has the best-in-series unit sounds. The devs went out and recorded live samples—tanks, guns, even flamethrowers—and the result is a grounded soundscape that adds weight to the conflict. Familiar weapons still sound ‘right’ for those who’ve played previous games, they just sound a whole lot bigger and better.
Speaking of new stuff, Halo Wars 2’s Blitz mode is great. Outside of the murky debate about microtransactions tied to randomised card packs (I’m not a fan of that), Blitz is easy to learn but has a great sense of depth thanks to the combination of a digital card game with an RTS. You have to pick your deck of 12 unit/ability cards, and those are the only units you have access to for the entirety of the round (no bases).
To play a card, you need to have a certain amount of energy, though, and the higher-level cards cost more energy to play. Playing a card on the battlefield can result in a damage debuff if they’re attacked straight away, so it’s usually best to spawn them at your base, but that takes time to deploy them to where they’re needed. The goal is to control a majority (or all) of three points that capture instantly. Energy is slowly earned over time, but you can also destroy randomised canister drops to recoup energy faster.
I’ve only tried the offline Firefight mode at this stage, which I’m convinced is impossible to win (from memory, it’s designed to be endless), especially considering how the difficulty spikes with each successive wave. I made it up to one of the higher tiers, and they were sending multiple armies of units at me, which made it impossible to hold a majority of the points. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and gets quite frantic when you’re managing the various rock-paper-scissor unit counters.
I’d previously played Halo Wars 2, so I knew that 343 Industries and Creative Assembly were onto something, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. If you’re a Halo fan, this is a no-brainer. It’s great for RTS newcomers, too, and I’d wager that even fans of traditional RTS games (especially those that long for another Battle for Middle-earth-style RTS) will get a kick out of it, too.