Finally, at long last, the sequel for Halo Wars has arrived. More importantly, though, is it any good?
The original Halo Wars was a pleasant diversion from the usual FPS delivery of Halo. It provided a different perspective. Unfortunately this was also it’s Achilles heel. The original campaign featured the annoying Sergeant Forge, who seemed to be angry with everyone (he reminded me of the angry guy at the cantina in Star Wars). The narrative, though, interesting and fun as it was to play in the campaign, seemed detached and distant. And I wanted something more intimate. I initially thought I was simply too used to the FPS viewpoint of the original trilogy, but it was all down to the narrative.
The second iteration of Halo Wars, however, is different. The campaign, again, introduces you nice and slow to the features and controls, which is a good thing for beginners. Although having completed the tutorials beforehand did seem to slow things down as I wanted to simply get going. But for those who tend to ignore any form of bespoke tutorial it’s a good pace for the initial stages of the campaign before the pace quickens and the threats increase. I played the campaign on normal and the difficulty does increase throughout the game, but it never feels overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge.
This iteration is developed by the respected masters of real time strategy games, Creative Assembly, who are well known for the Total Wars series. And it shows here. The gameplay is fluidic and the plot well paced. Everything has a purpose and the units in-game complement each other well. The controls are also easy to understand and use, which is essential for a console release. Though I would have preferred greater flexibility with the controls and possibly even the camera. Sure I can zoom in and out, but I’d like to tilt the viewpoint just fraction, though that could just be my personal preference. But overall, Creative Assembly have taken what was good in the first game and improved upon it.
The campaign itself is engaging and entertaining. The Bansished provide a more guttural and raw opponent than your typical Covenant force. They definitely comes across as more threatening and animalistic. This in turn heightens the level of tension throughout the campaign. And I felt it provided a greater sense of purpose.
The previous game featured one of the Prophets and the previous Arbiter. But I couldn’t really get into that storyline as you already know what happens to the Covenant Prophets from the original trilogy. And the presence of the new Arbiter in the original trilogy means the previous one most likely died (and he does). Halo Wars 2, though, is set in the present day of Halo, more or less. This results in a game which feels as though your actions matter and you don’t already know the outcome. It also makes it feel more intimate, more involved, and that was what was lacking in the original. And thankfully, there’s no Sgt Forge in the campaign, though he is available as a free download in the form of a faction leader in multiplayer. And I’m happy to keep old shouty face there.
The rest of the characters feel well founded and have a depth of purpose that seemed lacking in Halo Wars. And though Isobel could be seen as a Cortana rehash (AI with psychological issues) she complements the game well, as having both Serena and Anders would seem like a intelligence contest, and a little overcrowded. Atriox is the big bad, and I like him. He comes across as deadly and inventive in his strategy. He has purpose and drive, all of which are essential for bringing him to life and ensuring he presents a solid antagonist, unlike the Arbiter in the first game.
My biggest complaint, however, is actually with the campaign. It feels way too short. The knock on effect of this is a lack of the stunning cut scenes produced by Blur. But what is presented as cinematics is wonderful to look at. But the campaign definitely needs a few more missions. It also ends on a bit of a cliff hanger. Not quite as bad as how Halo 2 ended, but you definitely need to ‘finish the fight’ in another game. It clearly sets things up for a third Halo Wars, and possibly some involvement or crossover from the main FPS series, featuring the Master Chief. But we’ll have to wait and see if that happens.
Multiplayer is an important component of any Halo release and having it in Halo Wars 2 was a forgone conclusion. Creative Assembly have tweaked the aspects of multiplayer since the original, and they’ve added additional features, such as Blitz, which centres around players and their unit cards. These are then transferred to the battlefield instead of the typical build up of resources and then your army. It means you can attack right from the off. Admittedly, Blitz could be seen as a means of promoting micro-transactions, much like the Halo 5 REQ Packs. But it’s certainly a different approach to multiplayer RTS.
Strongholds is also another great feature. Again, with a face-paced approach in mind, players have to quickly build up and capture other bases. Once all the bases are captured by one faction the other side has a limited window in which to take some of them back, otherwise they lose. It encourages teamwork with other players, and was one of my favourite things about Halo Wars 2 at Gamescom. You also have Skirmish, Deathmatch and Domination, all of which are fairly typical of multiplayer or AI-derived gametypes. For me, though, Blitz and Strongholds is where it’s at. And supposedly a more competitive multilayer is in the pipeline.
Visually, everything looks good. Clearly it’s an improvement over the previous game. There’s more detail and the game looks more vibrant. And then there’s the cut scenes. Blur do a fantastic job of bringing Halo as close to an animated feature as is possible, but the lack of missions in the campaign results in less cut scenes. And this makes me sad. It should make you sad, too. But on the plus side the music is typically Halo, with hints of the original, which also featured a great soundtrack.
Creative Assembly’s injection of RTS expertise is well documented. And it shows here. But there’s a sense that something is still missing. It’s an improvement on the first game, but with a short campaign and greater emphasis on multiplayer, I feel this game has been cut short in it’s prime in order to make way for the 3rd in terms of narrative. But what’s been created is definitely a well rounded game with lots of great features and inclusions, Blitz being one of them, despite it’s financial connotations. Halo Wars 2 doesn’t quite break the mould but it definitely re-shapes some important features. It’s enjoyable, fun but a little short – and could really do with more gorgeous scenes from Blur (drools).
Out of 5 stars, I give Halo Wars 2…
Flugel Meister (Dave) is a longtime video gaming fan, who's love for all things pixelated began way back in 1980, when he ventured onto his brother's Grandstand console before progressing to a Dragon 32 and then a Spectrum 48K. That's right. he's old. When he's not gaming, he can be found swimming in the country's reserves of cheesecake.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidPMcDougall