Available February 21 on Xbox One (version tested) and Windows 10
Real-time strategy is one of the few genres yet to migrate en masse to consoles. The gamepad is capable of many feats, but the dexterity afforded by a mouse and keyboard has kept most RTS titles wedded firmly to the PC. After all, it’s a fiddly old business being commander-in-chief.
With Halo Wars 2, Microsoft is taking another stab at pushing the genre out on console. The first game’s developer, Ensemble Studios, once produced the venerable Age of Empires series on PC, but Halo Wars proved to be its final project before closing. For the sequel, Total War veteran Creative Assembly sits at the helm. Two developers whose strategic pedigree are above question will now have provided input to the console-first RTS franchise. Great expectations indeed.
But even though I'm someone who's spent a great deal of time with Creative Assembly’s previous games, I failed to notice the studio’s sculpting hand during my time with Halo Wars 2. A Total War makeover this most definitely is not. This is a strategy game with its foot firmly in the StarCraft camp, and for which use on console remains top priority, in spite of a simultaneous release planned on PC.
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The basics will be familiar to those acquainted with old-school strategy. Resource collection, army construction, and unit-type countering are the game’s highest priorities. HW2 isn’t concerned with positioning, height, and the minutiae of army formations like the Total War series is. Composition and competent micro are what matter most. The result is a series of fast-paced skirmishes which will have a welcoming familiarity for those who once dabbled in Command and Conquer and Total Annihilation many moons ago.
This was my experience of the game’s team deathmatch mode: a kind of minimalist Supreme Commander in which aggressive expansion is rewarded and the pursuit of super-units encouraged. The hallmarks of the genre on PC are here. Multiple sites are available for players to construct new bases. Upgrading existing bases unlocks higher tech trees and more advanced units. Players must choose between striking early at the cost of long-term economic benefits or holding back in the hope that their opponent won’t strike first.
However, certain elements, as in the original Halo Wars, remain pared down. Bases are built in a fixed formation, unburdening players of town-planning responsibility. Biological units are created in easy-to-select squads. The pace is deliberately slower than StarCraft 2, with most units, even aerial ones, travelling at a trackable pace.
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The result is a multiplayer mode which feels functional on console. As a PC stalwart I was surprised at how the Xbox controller rose to the occasion. Playing using the controller even allowed for the odd piece of micro magic. Peeling units backward to keep them alive is entirely possible, albeit without the flair of performing a similar task using a mouse and keyboard. Every inch of the controller does something useful, which is, of course, by complete necessity.
Inevitably, a player’s force grows larger, and the task of management grows with it. The latter stages of my multiplayer forays were a messy combination of selecting tech trees, controlling production, and attempting to select a whole army alongside my giant scarab. Without the use of control groups, this can be frustrating. PC controls allow players to become the tentacular octopus general; the Xbox controller allows for but a single prehensile arm.
One answer to the inevitable messiness of controlling sprawling forces and dealing with base management is the all-new Blitz Mode. The new competitive mode is part CTG, part RTS, and has a little MOBA thrown in for good measure. Blitz divests itself of bases and resource management, leaving players to focus on controlling and deploying their forces. The variant I sampled asked both sides to capture three control points on a map – if your team owns the majority then it’s awarded victory points. The first team to reach a certain total of victory points wins the day.
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Units are deployed via the use of cards, four of which are in a player’s hand at any given time. Each time a player uses a card, it is replaced by another which is randomly selected from their deck. Some pertain to ODST, or tanks, or super units, and when dragged and dropped on screen the appropriate unit will drop onto the battlefield. Other cards are single-use, firing special abilities such as cruise missiles or orbital lasers.
The cleverness of Blitz lies in its deferral of certain tactical decisions to between matches. Players must construct the decks they take into battle, choosing which units will potentially form synergistic combinations. This way tactical decision making (in terms of composition) is retained, but focus on the action is also maximised. Removing the need to produce units, manage bases, and scan around the map defending multiple emplacements, is a clever move for the console audience of Halo Wars 2. Macromanagement is a challenge, even on PC, and Blitz allows players to focus on the task of micromanagement instead.
The most significant problem I encountered with Blitz mode was the tendency to deploy as many cards in my hand as possible. When enough energy is accrued to deploy a heavy tank, there seems little benefit in holding it back when it could be reinforcing an objective or attacking. In the two-versus-two battles I played, it was usually the team with the largest roaming force that dominated a given match. This could, however, be a case of simple balancing: a few extra, low-cost ability cards added to the mix could easily see the benefits of holding back units increase drastically.
By comparison, the campaign feels by the numbers in strategy terms. “Ascension” tasked my UNSC forces with establishing a base, taking down a number of enemy factories, and then holding certain control points until my mission objective was achieved. What else Creative Assembly has in store for later missions remains unclear, but this unremarkable introduction wasn’t what I’d call blood pumping. Then again, it’s unfair to sully a whole campaign on the basis of its early phases.
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Halo Wars 2 is included in Microsoft’s new Xbox Play Anywhere program, allowing players to easily move between PC and Xbox copies of the game, but cross-play between platforms won’t be enabled. After trying the game with both gamepad and mouse and keyboard, it’s easy to understand why: PC players would have a definitive advantage.
Halo Wars 2 is very much a console-first product. From base building, to unit selection, to game modes, this title is set up to make Xbox One users as comfortable as possible. PC tacticians may find the on-rails experience frustrating.
My biggest concern for Halo Wars 2 is that, much like its shooter brethren, it’s encompassed in an anodyne aura. Whilst it’s great that console players are gaining access to another true RTS, there was little to make it stand out in the clamour of more interesting strategy experiences available elsewhere. An upgraded sequel it may be, but in translation to console, the genre begins to feel less articulate. Hopefully Creative Assembly’s years of experience will bear fruit later in the campaign, and let Halo Wars 2 shine in the areas it can best succeed.