By Dan Stapleton It is said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In that sense, Halo Wars 2 is the de facto king of real-time strategy games on consoles, where the venerable genre is underrepresented because of the challenges of managing a lot of units at once on a gamepad. Like its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 does a reasonably good job of overcoming many – not all – of those challenges, but compared to the best RTS games on PC, where it also exists, its campaign missions are flat and unambitious, and its distinctive Blitz multiplayer mode sacrifices the stability of a level playing field in the name of fast and unpredictable action.
I admire Microsoft’s effort to expand its prized Halo series into something that spans beyond an endless procession of first-person shooters, and with Halo Wars 2 (like Halo Wars before it) we get to experience this sci-fi universe from a perspective that emphasizes the scope of its battles. Seeing instantly recognizable vehicles like Warthogs and Banshees on the field adds an inherited personality to what is otherwise a fairly standard set of units. While there are substantial differences in tactics thanks to the unique Banished (a rebel faction of the Covenant) units like suicide grunts and airborne Blisterback artillery, the greatest distinction between them and the UNSC Marines comes from support powers like bombardments and buffs cast from above.
The single-player campaign’s 12 missions took me roughly eight hours to complete, including restarting a couple of them a few times. The mission designs are nothing special – though they avoid the trap of repeating variations on the basic “go destroy the enemy base” cliche, they lean heavily on hero-focused objectives like leading your Spartans around the map and holdout missions against waves of enemies. There’s enough variety to keep them from feeling repetitive, but only a couple think outside the box of what StarCraft did almost 20 years ago, and the static base building on pre-determined plots doesn’t provide a lot of flexibility when it comes to build orders. Much of it is in the vein of the “campaign as multiplayer tutorial” model, teaching you which units counter what, how to deploy artillery units, and how to capture the majority of a map’s control points to win. Each one does come with a range of side objectives (such as keeping a specific unit alive, destroying extra bases within a time limit, or collecting resources from the map) to give them replayability on top of simply turning up the difficulty, though.
Between those missions are some exceptionally well animated cutscenes that tell the story of the UNSC starship Spirit of Fire. The latest Cortana stand-in, Isabel, is a surprisingly endearing character who emotes much more effectively than her human friends. Captain Carter and the three interchangeable Spartans under his command might as well be cardboard cutouts for all the personality they exhibit, but they have a great threat to fight against thanks to the new brute villain, Atriox. He fades into the background after a spectacularly intimidating introduction, but his presence is still felt through Isabel’s fear of him.
Where Halo Wars 2 feels most limited is in its controls. That’s not at all surprising for the gamepad, where controls for an RTS are always going to be clumsy at best, and though I didn’t expect this problem to be fully solved, developer Creative Assembly doesn’t seem to have done a lot to design its battles to avoid it, either. For example, the speed with which units tend to die in combat isn’t very forgiving when you consider how slowly most people are likely to be able to react. It’s definitely workable, using a very similar layout to what the first Halo Wars has, with some clever changes like using a double-tap of the right bumper to select all units. But even things like that can’t make up for the shortage of buttons and precision on the controller relative to a mouse and keyboard.
If, for instance, you’re trying to get your Warthogs and Scorpion tanks out of range of the anti-vehicle gun of a Hunter before they can inflict real damage and move up your anti-infantry Hellbringer flamethrower units to counter, it’s tricky to pull off in the heat of battle. You have to select all units on screen using the right bumper, then use the right trigger to cycle through the available unit types – which can be a lot in a large army – and then you can move that unit type independently. It works, but usually not quickly enough, especially if you have multiple vehicle types to move to safety. Then it might be faster to target and double-tap a unit with the A button to select all of that type, then hold right-trigger and double-tap one of the other types to select both at once. Good luck with that if you’re working with air units.
That said, it’s impressive that Creative Assembly was able to pack all the controls you need, with the ability to assign up to four control groups to the D-pad and even queue up move commands, onto a gamepad. The catch is that much of that is accessed by holding the right trigger to change the functions of the rest of the buttons, which means you basically need to learn twice as many controls as you do for most games. Again, it’s not insurmountable or unusable, but it’s no picnic. I’m sure some people out there will get good enough with these controls to be relatively fast and become competitive with them (someone has, after all, beaten Dark Souls with a Guitar Hero controller) but by and large I expect most people will get through the campaign and many multiplayer matches largely by selecting all units on screen and throwing them into battle to fend for themselves.
That’s where the support powers come in and compensate for the lack of micromanagement dexterity. Some of these are strikingly powerful when fully upgraded, such as the Archer missiles that destroy a swath of enemies and the extremely useful ODST soldier drops, and using them at the right moment feels great and can absolutely turn the tide of a battle.
Controls are better on the PC version (this is a Microsoft Play Anywhere game, meaning that if you buy one version digitally you get the other for free) but there are some strange issues that make it feel unpolished and disappointing next to its PC RTS peers. Clicking the minimap frequently messes up and simply doesn’t work, forcing you to use the WASD keys to scroll for navigation. Likewise, the command for a unit to use its special ability seems to only work every few attempts. Bizarrely, in the Blitz mode multiplayer there are no default keybindings for recalling a control group you’ve set, rendering it effectively broken until you go into the clumsy menus and manually fix it by rebinding them. And you can’t bind the mouse scroll wheel to the camera zoom, because that control is permanently locked to cycling through unit types in your selection (which is something you barely need to do on PC). I still prefer to play on mouse and keyboard, but this experience should be better.
Speaking of things that should be better, back on the Xbox One side I saw frequent bugs in the campaign missions, which is something I didn’t expect from a Halo game. I’ve had crashes, infinite loading screens, five- to 10-second freezes, stuck units, mission events failing to trigger (forcing me to replay the mission) and more. I got through it, but I was surprised to see such technical roughness. Fortunately, the glitches have been almost entirely limited to the campaign thus far, with the exception of the stuck units bug, which has popped up in multiplayer on both Xbox and PC.
Most of Halo Wars 2’s long-term appeal is in those multiplayer modes, which are to its credit significantly more diverse and in some ways interesting than you typically see in an RTS. On top of the standard deathmatch mode there’s the territory-control Domination style (reminiscent of Relic’s Company of Heroes and Dawn of War 2 multiplayer) which really gives the support powers a lot of moments to shine. Spotting a bunch of enemy units camped on top of a control point is an excellent time to use a bombardment ability, for example. And because you’re given the choice of seven commander characters with different sets of support abilities, you have lots of options there - including some who can temporarily cloak groups of units or create holographic diversions. But again, the base building options feel limited by the predescribed locations, which constrains build order freedom. That means the variety is going to be down to which of the handful of maps you’re playing on.
Similarly, there’s a different territory-control mode called Stronghold where you’re competing to control the most base-building locations on the map when the timer ends; the twist is that everyone has completely unlimited resources. That makes it all about unit tactics, which, if you’re playing on Xbox, is not Halo Wars 2’s strongest point. But it does create some pitched battles where you don’t have to care about such pithy things as resource production or upgrades. I’d call it a fun diversion - like playing a goofy cheat mode.
In its own section of the menu, separate from the conventional multiplayer modes, is Blitz – a faster, more frantic mode where instead of building bases to produce resources and more troops, you summon soldiers using a deck of cards you’ve prepared ahead of time. I generally like this kind of randomization in single-player games because it prevents you from falling into patterns and repeating the same successful tactics over and over again, because you might not have access to the card you’d want to use at the moment you want to use it. Improvisation feels good. Alas, I don’t think it’s a great fit for a competitive multiplayer game because all too often you win or lose based on a combination of your own luck and the enemy’s, rather than the test of skill on the asymmetrical but level playing field I expect from an RTS.
Blitz is fun, but I think that dependence on luck is going to shorten its long-term appeal. And when that luck extends to giving you random new cards, some of which are unique to the six leaders, in upgrade packs that are also for sale in the store, I worry even more. You can’t directly buy the power you want, but you can buy another shot at it. Hopefully the matchmaking system is smart enough not to pair people with crazy-powerful cards in their decks against those with more modest decks, but that remains to be seen.
Finally, there’s a single-player and co-op variant of Blitz called Firefight that’s about holding out against ever-increasing waves of enemies as they try to overwhelm you and capture two of three points on the map. I’m having some good fun in there, where the randomness is about creating unexpected scenarios without the shame of losing to another human you think you should’ve beaten, and the balance is tweaked so that swarms of enemy units explode easily under my Banished lasers. That’s a very good use for the card mechanic.