No one expected much from Halo Wars eight years ago, but it was actually pretty great. And you can kind of say the same for Halo Wars 2.
Expanding the series from the first-person perspective of a single, super-powered soldier to the top-down view of entire battlefields helps to properly showcase an immense scale of warfare, while this long-awaited sequel is further proof that a real-time strategy experience can be built from the ground up for a console and controller. Halo Wars 2 builds upon that FPS-gone-RTS design, bringing in new enemies, new units, and a cool and compact new spin on genre multiplayer.
The initial novelty of the original game might be missing here as the series hits the Xbox One (and Windows 10, too), but what's left is still a sharp strategy experience.
RTS on your TV
Despite a totally new developer – genre stalwarts Creative Assembly, replacing the shuttered Ensemble Studios – and the better part of a decade lapsed, Halo Wars 2 is surprisingly similar to the original game in look, feel, and execution.
Granted, it's fair bit more detailed than the Xbox 360 original (albeit weirdly prone to freeze up here and there), but the interface feels familiar, as do the mechanics. As before, Halo Wars streamlines and condenses the strategy experience without totally losing the sensation of engaging in massive battles for sci-fi supremacy.
Building onto and upgrading your base is a breeze, and there are controller shortcuts for selecting large groups of units for all-out assaults… or retreats. You'll also find shortcuts for bouncing between bases and groups of units, which saves some of the hassle of manually coaxing the camera around a sizeable map in the heat of the action.
Directing individual units and small groups can be a bit more laborious, which is probably why I was prone to sending my entire army towards destinations at times, but it's feasible. And that still feels like a feat: real-time strategy wasn't conceived for a controller, but Halo Wars makes it work pretty well.
Unfortunately, the campaign takes a while to get going, and can't seem to let go of your hand through about half of the dozen narrative-led missions.
In those early bits, you're always pointed in the right direction, told exactly what to do, and have little chance of failing or making meaningful mistakes. Imparting the basics is key, especially for a genre that isn't hugely prolific on consoles, but Halo Wars 2 takes hours to get particularly interesting.
Luckily, once it does, the back end of the campaign packs a bit more excitement. The missions begin showing some teeth, there's more variety in terrain, objectives, and starting situations between them, and you're left more to your own devices to work up strategies and face the myriad threats. The sleepy start is hard to ignore, but it ultimately pays off with some nicely challenging and consistently tense moments.
Like the first entry, Halo Wars 2 does an admirable job of transferring the heroes, villains, ships, and environments of the Halo universe into an RTS setting, whether you're battling off a gargantuan Scarab robot (or three of them at once), dropping in a squad of ODST soldiers at a key moment, or launching a Spartan through the air to hijack an enemy ship.
That said, despite the shift in timeline to taking place shortly after Halo 5: Guardians, the storyline here just doesn't seem all that critical to the series lore – at least for the average, non-hardcore fan.
The big new enemy force, the Banished, are essentially just Covenant forces with a different name and colour scheme, and although mentioned by name, Master Chief doesn't appear. The campaign has a couple of exciting, dramatic moments with its own set of of characters, yet it largely feels like another inessential side story. It's hard to believe that anyone will be lost when starting up Halo 6 if they skip this one.
Bit by Blitz
Of course, multiplayer is where RTS fans are likely to pour their time after whipping through the 7-8 hour campaign, and anyone looking for drawn-out, 30-to-60-minute battles can certainly find them here.
Whether in 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 arrangements, Halo Wars 2 offers a handful of competitive modes, whether you're trying to wipe out the opposing force entirely or battle for control of points on the map. If you can stomach the drawn-out process of these oft-extended skirmishes, then real competition is certainly better than the A.I. play.
If that just seems exhausting, on the other hand, Halo Wars 2 introduces a new mode that's better suited for fans of 10-minute fragfests or mobile game showdowns. Blitz mode is a smart new spin on RTS multiplayer, keeping a strong competitive edge while tightening up matches and implementing card mechanics.
Collectible card games are all the rage on mobile, from Hearthstone to Clash Royale, as the cards themselves add strategy while being simply and easy to understand, and the hunt of obtaining new cards and building a prime deck is absolutely enthralling. Halo Wars 2 taps into all of this for Blitz, and it works pretty splendidly.
You'll build a deck of unit cards, earned by playing campaign missions, leveling up your player profile, or buying in-game packs with real money, and then enter battle to try and spend the most time in control of three points on the condensed map. Casting new cards requires energy, which drips in slowly unless you claim pods that drop into the map – so there's a constant tug-of-war between defending your points, amassing energy, and deciding when to pull the trigger on casting a devastating card.
It's addictive and clever, and with matches that can last a handful of minutes instead of potentially an hour, it's a real game-changer for RTS action. Kudos to Creative Assembly for bringing a bit of mobile mentality into Halo Wars 2 and coming up with something more approachable for casual players, while still being intensely competitive and fun.
Halo Wars 2 verdict
Blitz helps nudge Halo Wars 2 from being a solid continuation of the eight-year-old design to being something I can actually see myself returning to again and again.
The campaign gets off to an uninspiring start that continues on for a few hours as it dutifully guides your path, but it thankfully lets loose on the back end and justifies the experience – even if the story itself seems minor in the Halo canon.
But Halo still works very well as a real-time strategy experience, and whether you're battling back the Banished in those campaign missions, taking on a foe in an extended online showdown, or zipping through Blitz matches, Halo Wars 2 proves once again that this RTS detour isn't a half-hearted or half-baked attempt to extend the brand. It's a legitimately strong console strategy game.