Halo Wars 2 Review (Xbox One)
In the Halo universe, it's been nearly 30 years since the events of the original Halo Wars. Thankfully we didn't have to wait nearly as long for a sequel. Given that the original development studio was shuttered after completing Halo Wars, that's nothing short of a miracle. Though Ensemble Studios is no longer at the helm, Microsoft and 343 Industries partnered with the proficient real-time strategy gurus at Creative Assembly to continue the story of the Spirit of Fire and her crew that began in the first game. It's thanks to that prowess that Halo Wars 2 is a terrific successor that manages to be everything you could hope for in a console RTS.
The crew of the UNSC ship Spirit of Fire may have begun their fight against the Covenant decades before Master Chief arrived on the scene to even the playing field, but for the last 28 years that heroic crew has been drifting aimlessly through space. It's not until the Spirit of Fire happens across an Ark --- one of the massive Forerunner installations you may recall from Halo 5 --- that the crew awakens from cryosleep to learn they've missed out on a majority of the war.
An emergency beacon calls to them from the surface, so a small crew is sent to investigate what's happened to UNSC forces way out in the middle of nowhere. At the research site, the expedition team discovers a devastated base, and encounters the source of all the destruction, the Banished. After snapping up the artificial intelligence Isabel, the team is forced to flee when the Banished leader, Atriox, summons all his forces to remove the UNSC threat.
The secrets of the Ark and Atriox's Banished are uncovered as you progress through Halo Wars 2's campaign, adding to the rich and oft-confusing tapestry that has become Halo lore. Fortunately, Halo Wars 2 doesn't stretch beyond itself for the most part, keeping all the action and narrative elements contained on the Ark. There aren't very many quiet moments for exposition, with Halo Wars 2 going in on combat full bore from the first true mission onward. A half-dozen rendered cinematics do the heavy lifting when called upon, and they're as strong as any Halo game before them. That said, the campaign can go by rather quickly, leaving you to either replay it on a harder difficulty or explore the various multiplayer modes.
The campaign isn't open-ended like many other RTS games, instead giving you a clear mission every chapter to complete. Along those lines, it does do an excellent job relaying how to play the game against a fair escalating difficulty curve. It certainly makes sense to play through the brief tutorials offered outside the campaign itself, but you'll learn almost everything you need to know to be successful after a few story missions. The resources never change, but you will earn new assets in accordance to the challenge each chapter presents. Early on you may only start with a few UNSC Marine units, a Spartan and some Warthogs, but you'll eventually work your way up to multiple ground troops, including Cyclops units and Wolverines, and air units like Nightingales and Hornets.
On the other end, the Banished will also get more assets in their ongoing escalation with the Spirit of Fire's forces. Keeping one step ahead of the ousted Covenant forces is a bit of a challenge at first, but once you learn the ins and outs of the rock-paper-scissor combat system, things start falling into place fast. Ground troops are proficient against air units, ground vehicles are great against foot soldiers, and air battalions can wreak havoc on anything with wheels and treads. Spartans are just great against everything, so make sure to keep them alive. If you ever lose track, each unit does have a key indicating strengths and weaknesses before you build it.
The slow build to larger forces certainly helps you become accustomed to the controls, which are incredibly intuitive for a console RTS. Managing everything with a single eight-button controller could have been an unmitigated disaster. Creative Assembly smartly built on the foundation laid by Ensemble in the first Halo Wars to give players a simple way to enjoy all the aspects of more complex PC titles with an Xbox One controller. There's never a sense of being overwhelmed at all. The controls are explained progressively, merely adding to your knowledge rather than dumping everything on you at once and hoping you can remember later. By the time you're done with the campaign, you'll have a knowledge core to take with you into Halo Wars 2's other modes where you can master them.
Multiplayer is where the Halo Wars 2 long game is likely to be, and Creative Assembly has included a handful of modes to sate your RTS palate. Skirmish returns from the original Halo Wars, and offers a fairly rudimentary versus mode for players to continue to hone their skills alone or with a friend. Deathmatch pits you on your own against one or more foes, each of you vying to be the last one standing. Again, it's a fairly rudimentary mode, but one that adds the twist that you're up against multiple human opponents.
Stronghold and Domination both present slightly different control point variants, each ending when you hit a point threshold. In Stronghold, you have a virtually unlimited amount of resources to build up your army, but must contend for about a dozen critical points on the map. You do have a limit on how many troops you can have on the field at any point, so you've got to think about holding a few points with larger groups, or spreading yourself so thin the enemy can pick you apart point by point. Domination is a more straightforward three-point map, with more traditional asset management. The battles can be incredibly intense if you are savvy enough to build up competent defenses on all your fronts.
Blitz is Halo Wars 2's most unique multiplayer mode, but it also may become the most controversial given its reliance on card packs. Like Halo 5's Requisition packs for Warzone, Blitz requires cards earned through playing the campaign and leveling up in other modes to enjoy. Packs can also be bought with actual currency to flesh out your collection. There are common, uncommon, rare and legendary cards to unlock, all of which bring something slightly different to the battle. There are three character decks each for the UNSC and Banished to build, with certain cards only compatible within those character decks. The commons are interchangeable, and will make up a large part of any and all of your decks until you level up quite a bit.
There's also only one map available to start with for Blitz. That's not such a bad thing for anyone learning the ropes of the mode, but the lack of additional play spaces here when each other multiplayer mode has more than enough is a bit questionable. You don't have to worry about building a base, as managing resources comes from energy drops you have to fight for throughout the match. During the 10-minute squabble, multiple drops will happen, so you'll have to wager on holding your potential capture point or rushing off to gather that valuable juice. You see, energy is how you play cards, and every card has a different cost. It's very much like a traditional collectible card game in that sense.
Matches in Blitz do go quickly even with more incomplete decks, but if one player happens to have any number of rare or legendary cards, the battle will be swayed to their side all too quickly. The balance between decks is created by offering each character some slight bonuses in deployment, cost or unit health, but it can be offset greatly by a good to above average opposing deck. Unlike most other CCGs however, there is at least one small advantage in getting multiples of the same card. Common and uncommon cards actually level up the more of them you draw out of packs. It's a clever conceit, but one that will definitely benefit people willing to part with money to get out to a fast lead on the competition early on.
Console real-time strategy games are few and far between, but when they're as good as Halo Wars 2 the wait is clearly worth it. Though the campaign might feel a bit short to RTS die-hards, it's a strong and enjoyable effort for the console audience. The clear paths to victory make it more manageable in short bursts too. The multiplayer offerings give Halo Wars 2 plenty of replayability, but Blitz mode needs more maps soon to make more of a lasting impression. Even with that in mind, it's hard to find much fault with Halo Wars 2 as it adds onto everything the original game presented, including expanding on the ongoing narrative of the Halo universe.
This review was completed with a digital download of Halo Wars 2 provided by the publisher for Xbox One.