When the Halo universe is done right, it can be a really fun place in which to play, whether it’s in the form of a first-person shooter, a novel, a cartoon, or a real-time-strategy (RTS) game like Halo Wars 2. And in Halo Wars 2, Halo is done right — if far from perfectly.
The game itself is structured similarly to a main series Halo game, with about ten hours of story content spread throughout 12 missions and explosive cinematic cutscenes to tell the story in between. Captain Cutter, the Spirit of Fire’s commander, and other characters (including a female AI construct) keep the chatter up throughout missions. A variety of multiplayer options, including campaign co-op and the new Blitz mode, round things out and add replay value.
All in all, Halo Wars 2 feels like a Halo game in many ways — arguably more than some games from the main series, such as Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. However, it is not a Halo game in the way that matters most: It isn’t an accessible shooter, but a much more complex real-time-strategy game. And as a console-first game, it operates within some limitations (like the Xbox One controller) that can make it frustrating for newcomers or strategy veterans alike.
Tales of grandeur
The Halo series’ signature faux-epic sci-fi, with its rampant Biblical metaphors and cheesy hoo-rah attitude, is in full force in Halo Wars 2.
Halo Wars 2 feels like a Halo game – arguably more than some games from the main series.
This sequel picks up the story of the Spirit at Dawn, a UNSC (United Nations Space Command) colony ship whose occupants have been frozen for 28 years. During that time, a lot went down in the Halo-verse, including the events of the original trilogy, up through Halo 3.
The Spirit of Fire’s occupants wake up after 28 years of cryo-sleep to find their colony ship floating above the Ark, a key location from Halo 3. They send some Spartans — not the Master Chief, but some of the series’ other, more rarely seen super-soldiers — down to the surface, where they encounter a powerful Brute leader, Atriox, and a terrified AI construct, Isabel.
They learn that Atriox is the leader of a powerful rebel army — the only such ever to stand up to the alien Covenant from within and succeed. The Covenant and humanity are more or less at peace after the events of Halo 3, so this rebellion retcon gives Halo Wars 2 a good narrative excuse to throw familiar Halo enemies like grunts, brutes and elites at players instead of the newer, far less interesting foes seen in Halo 4 and Halo 5.
That’s the story. Atriox and the human forces battle for control of the Ark, and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance, as it always does in a Halo game.
Halo Wars 2 is more complex than its predecessor, but still operates within some limitations — on Xbox One, you use a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard, which presents some problems. Elsewhere the game is simply held back by some small, but meaningful design choices.
Some missions start you off with just a handful of units, tasking you with fending off some enemies or navigating to a specific point before you can start building. But every mission involves constructing at least one base and often several mini-bases, all at pre-set locations, then deciding exactly what to build on the limited plots around that base and managing your resources accordingly.
A typical scenario might go something like this: You spawn with a few units and fight your way to the location of a base. After building the main building you start with a couple of supply pads and a power station to continuously generate resources, then send some units out to collect resources around the map and scout out other potential base locations. Then you build a barracks, garage, and/or air pad, and start cranking out units, hoping you’ve balanced resource generation and unit production craftily enough to build up your power by the time the battle really starts.
While the mechanics of playing the game seem basic, there are systems upon systems that affect what you need to build, and how you need to fight if you want have the advantage. The vast number of different unit types all have their own upgrade paths, such as giving marines grenades and rocket launchers to use. Your headquarters need to be upgraded to make better units, and you can purchase “leader powers” like air support and healing drones.
On top standard stats, there’s a rock-paper-scissors strength/weakness system ruling every battle: Vehicle units are strong against infantry; infantry is strong against air; and air is strong against ground vehicles. However, there are exceptions to that, too, such as the special anti-air warthog jeeps.
Tracking and directing all these moving parts is simply too difficult with the controls and interface on Xbox One. Developer Creative Assembly did a pretty good job, given that RTS games have never matched well with the limited number of buttons on a controller. Despite a valiant effort, you’ll find yourself frustrated at certain limitations when the battle really starts to take off.
For example, Marines can be upgraded to throw grenades. To use them, you have to select your marines and press “Y.” That’s fine when you’re managing a single team with a small number of units, but when your forces are numerous and diverse, just finding your marines can be a pain.
You can pull up a clumsy unit list that spreads across the bottom of the screen, pulling the right trigger continuously until you land on your marine units (and needing to send the cursor all the way back around the list if you go past them). Or you can locate one marine unit on the map and double-tap A to select all units of that type, then direct them to throw their grenades — though if your forces are divided into multiple groups, this will pull marine units from all over the board, which isn’t ideal.
That’s to say nothing of units with more complicated extra abilities. Kodiak ground tanks can hunker down at your command to fire powerful mortar volleys at distant targets, which sounds great until you direct all your forces to move but forget to tell the kodiaks to switch back to mobile mode, leaving them stranded around the map.
Cycling between different units on the map involves haphazardly jamming on a d-pad button until you get the ones you want, or manually dividing them into separate “armies” using a complex system that involves holding the right trigger and tapping, holding and double-tapping various d-pad directions. There’s not even a global unit list you can pull up to see everything you have on the board, and without the ability to zoom in on it, your mini map is of limited utility.
None of this is to say Halo Wars 2 is by any means unplayable on Xbox One. But it often works in spite of, not thanks to, these control and interface systems.
War never changes
Thankfully, Creative Assembly nixed its plan for crossplay between Xbox One and PC, meaning most anyone you play against online will be under the same limitations as you. And Halo Wars 2 provides a large toolbox to keep the basic mechanics of fighting against other players interesting for a long time.
You can set up custom matches that include both friends and AI opponents or teammates, taking control of human and alien armies with various leaders that have different powers. The rulesets are flexible too, with game types like domination and deathmatch, all of which have sliders to change match parameters like score, time, and resources. It’s even possible to play matches with unlimited resources to see who can simply go nuts and build the craziest army first.
You’ll find yourself frustrated when the battle takes off.
The most novel (and divisive) of these modes is the card-game/RTS hybrid, “blitz,” where you summon units based on a hand of cards that can be played at any time (granted you have enough energy). You compete with others to capture points around the map. Card packs are, of course, available to purchase for real money, so whether you’ll even try the mode out will depend on your stomach for microtransactions (though the game does seem to provide free card packs at a decent pace, especially your first time through the campaign). Luckily, there are enough more traditional modes that you can ignore this whole in-game economy if it doesn’t suit you.
It may be in playing against friends that you find the most chaotic joy, especially as you pay close attention to one another’s styles across multiple matches. Your opponent is obliterating your ground troops with vehicles? Take a gamble on the next match and funnel all your resources into maintaining a giant air fleet that soars around the map raining death. Maybe they’ll fall for it, or maybe you’ll learn another new tactic from them. But it’s in friendly duels that Halo Wars 2 transcends those rock-paper-scissors and starts to feel a little more like chess.Our Take
Halo Wars 2 doesn’t always work thanks to limitations of the controls and issues with the interface, but it’s a decent real-time strategy game and great fun for Halo fans.
Is there a better alternative?
There’s no shortage of real-time-strategy games on PC: Even if you’re bored with the obvious (Starcraft II), there are plenty of great ones, including new games like Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, and older gems like Company of Heroes 2. On Xbox One, Halo Wars 2 is about as good as you’re going to get.
If you’re coming to the game because you’re a die-hard Halo fan, Halo Wars 2 has plenty of lore to get excited about.
How long will it last?
It should take about 12 hours for most players to beat the campaign on normal, but there’s a huge amount of replayability in the forms of harder difficulty levels, challenges and optional objectives, and online campaign co-op. Plus, a range of multiplayer modes and options will keep deliver new challenges until you get tired of the game.
Should you buy it?
If you’re looking for the best real-time strategy game on the market, look elsewhere. But if you want a solid Halo game with some surprisingly complex strategy gameplay, and can look past its flaws. Halo Wars 2 may be worth your time.