I don’t know if I’d be so interested in Halo Wars 2 if I didn’t care about the lore. Would I still care if they retained the same design but changed all the graphics to something else entirely? From a war room perspective, making a real-time strategy (RTS) from Halo makes some amount of sense, but Microsoft couldn’t simply do so without releasing it for console.
Considering you can’t have a Halo game that isn’t on Xbox, that means designing the game with gamepads in mind. The creative attempts to remedy the controller conundrum have ranged from Stormrise’s perplexing close-camera unit switching (also made by Creative Assembly) to EndWar’s voice commands. Halo Wars’ solution was to remove the complexities that made RTS difficult on console, for a skeletal but functional experience. In that regard, Halo Wars 2 is a pureblood sequel.
If you expect anything from Halo, it's an imaginatively involving story. You find out rather quickly Halo Wars 2 isn’t very interested in telling a tale, but more interested in keeping up appearances. Excessively impressive cutscenes and emotionally-charged menus are supposed to get you in the Halo mood, leaving you none the wiser to a campaign disproportionately light on story.
Most if not all the narrative feels entirely made of production values. There’s an inane amount of talking during missions, but it doesn’t do anything more than detail objectives. The cutscenes are already sparse, so without dialogue that endears you to the world and characters, you’re left with the warm fuzzies of instructional text. Some may argue the RTS genre isn’t really the time and place for story, but this is Halo – a certain calibre of narrative is expected.
One advantage Halo Wars 2 does have in RTS is unit design. You immediately know what every unit is, because you know what an Elite is, you know what a Hunter looks like. Miniscule as that may sound, it’s something designers have to think about. Halo’s just lucky enough to already have uniquely crafted models.
Practically speaking, Halo Wars 2 is unchanged from its initiator eight years ago. This is a simple-serving RTS that stops at being functional and doesn’t endeavour for more, lest it become too complex. Technically the game is underpinned by a rock-paper-scissors paradigm for unit strengths and weaknesses, but again, practically speaking, you’ll select all units regardless of their stature in the RTS hierarchy and set your village mob on an anti-Covenant hunt that would put The Great Journey to shame.
Console-simplicity means base-building is still relegated to predetermined slots and areas. You still can’t play the campaign as the Covenant either, only UNSC. Though multiplayer does allow this, there’s still no Flood or Sentinels, only factions immediately relevant to the story of Halo Wars 2.
Co-op is a rather peculiar experience in campaign. Units are delegated to each player who would otherwise be under the control of one. There was no discernable increase in difficulty or enemy unit numbers, so co-op works out as an advantage, having two hands juggle multiple duties, particularly on legendary.
Recognising Halo War’s simplicity probably had a part to play in the creation of Blitz. Multiplayer matches often last a ways in RTS games, so the idea with Blitz is to be appropriately brief. Matches don’t last much more than 15 minutes (unless you’re playing firefight). Inherently it’s nothing new; two players or more try to capture and hold the majority of points. The differentiation is unit production. Each player has a deck of cards, representing a unit or ability they can deploy, and you always have four cards in your hand. Summoning said cards is contingent on you having enough energy, which you’ll have to multitask for whilst fighting over control points.
Blitz doesn’t really feel like a card game, and yet it runs off the same principles. You build your own decks from cards you’ve earned during the campaign and challenges, you pay an energy cost to play those cards with their own strengths and weaknesses that you’ll play in tandem with other cards, overlayed with the abilities of your chosen leader. Blitz just adds another lay to a CCG - you actually need to implement the card’s effect yourself – that is, play the RTS.
If you’re the more vanilla kind of person there’s still conventional multiplayer. So if deathmatch and two other control-based modes on top of already basic strategy gameplay tickle your spartan, more power to you.
Part of me is conflicted as to whether Halo is suited for RTS. Functionally it’s simple as butts, because anything more would upset the delicate balance already being tread. Microsoft can’t do anything more either, otherwise they’d be removing a console-centric franchise away from console. But the theatrics of Halo befits the large-scale chaos of real-time strategy. The CCG flavour of Blitz may or may not cement any long-term commitments, though it remains somewhat enticing from novelty. Halo Wars 2 retains itself as serviceable fun, if only by being unbearably approachable, and enjoyably Halo.
A thank you to Luke Batt for helping me take the multiplayer through its paces! Without you, this would’ve been a review-in-progress.
Ben received a physical copy of Halo Wars 2 from Xbox NZ for review.