That time has come again, when the delightful resurgence of the Halo series graces fans both new and old…and the Halo Wars has a simple recipe that keeps on bringing players back again and again, no matter how frustrating the battle may be. Faced with the many bad reviews of Halo 4 and Halo 5 : Guardians, 343 Industries and Creative Assembly take us back to the simple things with Halo Wars 2, albeit with a whole spree of new and improved units.
Stretch your mind-brains back and remember the terror of facing the Brutes in Halo 3 (especially on Legendary), their guttural grunts and whistling of their gravity hammers the only thing you know before either Master Chief or the Arbiter is sent flying off into the distance. Well now they are stronger and have control over the remnants of the Covenant, pretty much.
Halo Wars 2 utilises a style that is not often seen in the AAA spree of games, that being the Real Time Strategy or RTS games. What this means is that, it isn’t as simple as running in to an area, killing everything in sight and then walking out unscathed. There is no Master Chief-esque obliteration where you jump into a battle, take out several powerful enemies on your own and walk away with not a scratch on your armour. Halo Wars 2 is a game where you must use strategy and carefully consider your next move, even while your opponent is doing the same. Even in the campaign at the lower difficulties, you will be assaulted and terrorised by enemy forces, impelling you to make some swift choices to save your units.
Enter The Ring : Player One v Atriox
The campaign of Halo Wars 2 is set 28 years after the events of Halo Wars 1, with much the same cast and crew as the previous game. We are once again under the leadership of Commander Cutter, on board the UNSC battleship, Spirit of Fire and have been awoken above a strange artefact that fans of the Halo series would recognise, the ancient forerunner installation known as the Ark.The ship and crew were pulled there through a slipspace rupture, via a powerful malevolent force.
This force was Atriox a former member of the Covenant, who had grown into a powerful leader with a burning hatred of humanity and the Covenant he once served. Throughout the campaign you will navigate through a series of 12 missions, some relatively simple and some annoyingly complex, that they will get your mind firing on all cylinders as you work through the puzzles of the battlefield. What units to focus building on and where to deploy them at given times all play a significant part in achieving victory.
The narrative of the campaign is not a bad one but it is highly militarised, even though the Spirit of Fire is essentially trying to contain a threat that could be worse than the Covenant, who spoiler alert, almost drove humanity extinct (A moment of silence for Planet Reach). Besides from a few key moments, the urgency and desperation of their situation is not really felt throughout the story. In many ways it is set up in a disciplined kind of way, without allowing much emotion to seep in. Sweeping back in on the characters, you do not really develop an emotional connection to the major players in Halo Wars 2 and as such, they kind of feel hollow and drained.
Do not get me wrong, the story is quite enjoyable and ties in well with the style of the game, but it isn’t the absolute best it could have been. Plus, the characters are not able to engage the player as much due to their lack of depth, the kind of structure and personality that was given to Noble Team and Master Chief in previous iterations of the Halo franchise, for example. Even though it is an RTS game and not entirely focused on an industry breaking story, it would have been enjoyable to have a spectacular narrative to follow as we blasted our way along the Ark.
Rise Of The Phoenix … Logs
Kind of feeding in with the lack of a clear narrative is the arrival of the Phoenix Logs, collectible snippets of intel and information that can be found in each mission. These refer to places you visit on the Ark, enemies you encounter and a whole suite of other assorted things that will absolutely entrance any lore lovers out there and will be something to hunt down for the collectors.
Having little bits and pieces of intel or information hidden in the vast worlds is almost a long-standing tradition in the Halo franchise and it is nice to learn a little bit more about the massive universe brought to life by Bungie Studios and 343.
The AI … It’s Learning
One of the things that I both immensely enjoyed and thoroughly hated throughout the campaign, was the presence of the AI, that made it seem like Atriox or his commanders were sending counter attacks to stop our progress across the Ark. Having enemy squads appear seemingly out of nowhere and harass our progress made the landscape of the virtual battlefield feel a little more alive and indeed, more interactive.
Though, the frustration comes in when the enemy units begin to dismantle your base, which as any good commander knows, is a main step into winning any battle. The AI can quickly become quite a thorn in your side, by taking out your resource generators and preventing you from buying reinforcements. On the opposite foot however, this is just part of the challenge, another puzzle to solve and to overcome on your battle to remove the Banished from existence.
Despite the controls of Halo Wars 2 being quite simplistic in practice, there are a lot of little intricacies and a fair bit of complexity in putting them into play, so it is definitely advisable to tackle the campaign first, or at least the start of it. The gameplay is quite easy to learn however and the campaign takes you through a brief tutorial that places emphasis on unit movement, both relocating single units and large groups. This is key to the gameplay of Halo Wars 2, knowing when to utilise your whole force or when to utilise the military equivalent of a scalpel.
Or you could always just get a friend to join you in some classic Halo action and blast through your enemies. Sadly, although understandably you will not be able to play local co-op which means two copies of the game must be in play at all times.
That leads into a particularly annoying problem. While it is easy to select all units and send them in, there is no real effective way of dividing your units into their individual squad types, for example, selecting all infantry to the exclusion of everything else. This means it is a lot harder to finesse through the game with a series of tactical manoeuvres, where more often than not, a balanced assortment of every unit type sent in a Halo-type blitzkrieg can be enough to win the day. Don’t get me wrong, Halo Wars 2 is a lot of fun, but in this aspect gameplay is a little shallow and combat is more of hitting the target with a Gravity Hammer, rather than severing your enemies with several smaller knives.
Moving on to the display, the HUD presents every single bit of information you need for the battle without overcrowding the screen or making it seem too daunting. From having a small, easily understandable map on the bottom right, to a counter of all your available units along the bottom, all the necessary intel that you would need from a commanders point of view is readily accessible.
Gotta Think Fast
Aside from looking like a seizure waiting to happen, with the kaleidoscope of flashing colours, the above image showcases what the multiplayer is like. One word – chaotic. With a huge variety of multiplayer modes, both against bots and against opposing players, the Halo Wars 2 multiplayer requires you to think on your feet and make split second decisions that could lead to you obliterating the enemy force or forcing you to start rebuilding your army from scratch.
One of the cooler things about the Halo Wars 2 multiplayer is the fact that you can choose a leader that is based in the UNSC or the Banished, meaning you can have access to both sides of the conflict and experiment with the different units available to each leader. Although one thing was clear while I was playing – whether I control Spartans or Elites, I suck at Halo Wars 2. At least for the time being.
One of the main multiplayer modes, known as Rumble is essentially a giant map filled with an assortment of controllable bases that two teams of three are attempting to control. Units are being flung left right and centre to counter other armies and basically whichever team holds the most bases at the end of the time limit, is the winner. The action in this multiplayer mode, much like the campaign and indeed other multiplayer games is fast paced, requiring you to be in several places at once, constantly scanning the battlefield for combat opportunities or trying to protect your allies or yourself, while churning out units. Halo Wars 2 is definitely not a game for those who want a laid back experience.
While Halo Wars 2 is a notable and admirable attempt by 343 and Creative Assembly to make a popular functioning RTS game on console, it falls short in a finesse scope that would make it one of the top RTS games out there. It is incredibly fun to play but separating the units at times with no real way to map a given unit to a particular button can become tedious. That being said, it is a great return to the Halo universe and approaches the combat of Halo in a different sense, with different protagonists, which is quite refreshing, while still maintaining the nostalgia of commanding Spartans, Warthogs, Hornets and other key units.