Halo Wars 2 Review
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Release Date: February 21, 2017 – 79% on Metacritic
When the original Halo Wars came to console in 2009, it proved that an RTS could work on console if the developers took the time to design the game around a controller. Ensemble Studio’s last game before being dissolved, it was a fitting swan song for the legendary studio to return the Halo franchise to its true roots as an RTS. Fast forward to 2016, Halo Wars 2 is revealed and is being developed by renown RTS developer Creative Assembly. Releasing in February 2017 and having the unfortunate fate of coming out between Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Halo Wars 2 flew under the radar for most of 2017.
Almost a full year after release, this review in retrospect aims to bring light to what turned out to be a very good halo game and an excellent RTS. An excellent strategy game that is not without its flaws, Halo Wars 2 adds a meaningful story to the Halo universe whilst delivering intuitive controls and easy to learn, hard to master game design.
The story of Halo Wars 2 revolves around the original game’s characters, the crew of the Spirit of Fire. Being brought to The Ark (yes, the same one from Halo 3) six months canonically after Halo 5: Guardians, they run into a rogue faction of the Covenant that has terrorized everything on the Ark, calling themselves “The Banished”. Led by an awesome super villain Brute Chieftain named Atriox, the Spartans of Red Team and the rest of the crew from the Spirit of Fire are tasked trying to find a way back to the UNSC. They run into Isabelle, a seemingly rampant AI that has survived her entire colony being slaughtered by Atriox and his Banished.
What’s so interesting about the Spirit of Fire is that they have been in cryo-sleep for most of the duration of the Human-Covenant war, and do not know the outcome. This means that when they wake and are at The Ark, they have no idea what it is, why it’s important, and if the covenant and UNSC are even still fighting each other. The events of Halo Reach, Combat Evolved, 2, 3, ODST, 4, and 5 are all unknown to this crew which is a brilliant twist. In a universe so rich with history, it’s nice to have a game that doesn’t rely on events from the past games but uses the history of the universe to craft an original, unhindered series of events. They’ve never seen a Halo ring, and during the game, a new Halo ring (perhaps the same one we all saw in Halo 5: Guardians) emerges from the Halo ring factory that is the Arc, and the UNSC and Banished race to seize control of the foreign object before it can enter human space.
The best part about this campaign is Atriox, with Spartan Jerome coming in a close second. Atriox feels and looks like a badass in all the right ways, a true warlord that only wishes to keep The Banished alive at any cost. His tactics are suicidal, vicious, and surprisingly sophisticated for a Brute. Not only that, Atriox is cunning and always finds a way out of a bad situation; Atriox is the best villain in the Halo series since Tartarus from Halo 2. He commands another powerful chieftain, Decimus, that proves to be a thorn in the UNSC’s side.
“Atriox feels and looks like a badass in all the right ways…His tactics are suicidal, vicious, and surprisingly sophisticated for a Brute.”
Spartan Jerome is presented as the ‘Chief’ of the Spartan team and is a bonafide badass the entire campaign. Some Halo fans even insist that Jerome could be the next Chief if something were to happen to him. I think that’s a little farfetched at the time, but it presents an interesting concept. 343 could have a real protagonist to use in future games with Jerome. Could Jerome and Atriox appear in Halo 6?
The base game of Halo Wars 2 included a 6-8 hour campaign on heroic difficulty. It has plenty of secondary objectives for each mission, which grants you a higher score as well as unlockables. Each mission has a skull which can provide difficulty/silly modifiers to the base campaign, as well as Phoenix Logs (think dossiers) that provide deeper lore for those who want to read.
Included in the season’s pass is Operation SPEARBREAKER, a short 2-hour campaign that follows a team of ODST’s in stopping the Banished from launching a Forerunner ship off of the Ark. It was nice to have additional story content included in the season pass; while nothing earth-shattering it was still a fun ride and worth your time. The unique units and abilities included in this DLC changed the way you approached fighting the Banished who are led this time by “The Colony”, a Hunter faction of the Banished with powerful new units and leader abilities.
Not included in the season’s pass was Awakening the Nightmare, a lengthier 4-5 hour campaign that finally put the players in the perspective of the Banished, who accidentally unleashed the returning Flood onto the Ark. The missions focus on containing and stopping the Flood before they get too much of a foothold on the Ark, and eventually, the entire galaxy. It’s an interesting take on the moral compass of Halo, as the ‘bad guys’ are fighting a mutual enemy of the UNSC in an effort to survive. It also focuses on the activation of the replacement ring for the one that was destroyed at the end of Halo 3, which is a nice touch and adds continuity to the story.
Unfortunately, Blitz mode is a blatant attempt at grabbing as much of the player’s money as possible, as the mode is 100% dependent on the strength of their deck. Opening packs give you better cards and upgrade your existing cards, and while packs are earned in the campaign and other modes, the fastest way to get good at Blitz is to drop real money and have an advantage right off the bat against your opponents. There is no redemption in this mode, it relies solely on how much you put into Halo Wars 2, making it extremely volatile for new players or those who cannot spend extra money on the game.
Online 1vs1, 2vs2, and 3vs 3 was also included, and a skirmish mode to practice against the AI makes a welcome comeback. The game has a near-endless amount of content to enjoy since each match will vary depending on your opponent’s strategies, as well as the numerous leaders and unique units. This is the true strength of Halo Wars 2 – every time I played a match I was doing something different and had to think about my army in a different way. The learning curve is steep but remains friendly to new players as the easy to learn rock, paper, scissors mechanic is still the core of the game. Air units are good against vehicles, vehicles are good against infantry, and infantry is good against air. Nuanced units, such as the UNSC Wolverine, are exceptions to the rule as they are ultra-effective against air despite being a vehicle. Luckily, the campaign does an excellent job of introducing different units and their strengths and weaknesses. Once you complete the campaign, you will have a solid foundation for multiplayer.
“This is the true strength of Halo Wars 2 – every time I played a match I was doing something different and had to think about my army in a different way.”
Halo Wars 2 post-launch DLC has been one of its biggest strengths, and its biggest failure. Every month a new faction leader was put into the game, along with new units that are unique to that leader. With every new leader added, the balance of the game seemed to break a bit more. Sergeant Forge, for example, can start the game off quickly by producing his over-powered leader (Forge in a gauss warthog, has shields & grenade launchers) and, when played effectively, hinder your entire production until he masses a larger army to clean up the rest. Most of this has been fixed with patches, but it was still frustrating to go through these updates and consistently have your opponent exploiting cheap tactics for an easy victory.
On top of that, the season pass for the game did not include the last expansion Awakening the Nightmare which was a major disappointment. Spending the extra money to get the “Ultimate” version of Halo Wars 2 at launch turned out to be inferior to the “Complete” version they later released that included the DLC. This was a bad move, and fans were not happy. While the DLC is sizeable, adding an entire campaign, firefight mode, and multiple leaders to the game, it left people like me bitter. Operation SPEARBREKER, while fun, was a short experience and left me wanting more, especially after finding out that Awakening the Nightmare wouldn’t be included in the season’s pass. Gripes aside, the content releases were nice to have and added a ton of different elements to the base game. New leaders, units, a co-op firefight mode, a mini-campaign, and a full-fledged campaign is a commendable post-launch support plan.
“Spending the extra money to get the “Ultimate” version of Halo Wars 2 at launch turned out to be inferior to the “Complete” version they later released that included the DLC.”
Halo Wars was always designed to be played on a controller, a feat that numerous other RTS games tried and (mostly) failed at. Command and Conquer, Supreme Commander, Tom Clancy’s Endwar, and even Civilization: Revolution to a degree all tried and could not capture the magic of a strategy game on your television. Halo Wars changed that in 2009, becoming extremely accessible while remaining surprisingly deep. Halo Wars 2 does more of the same but innovates in that you can create unit groups on a console using the d-pad (a beloved feature on PC for most strategy games). Aside from that, they keep the core controls in place which is a very good thing. Halo Wars 2 remains as the bar for console RTS game controls; at no point did I ever feel like I was hindered by the controller when controlling my army and managing the battlefield.
That being said, with Halo Wars 2 being Xbox Play Anywhere, you can play the game on Windows 10 where you can experience Halo Wars from the perspective of a mouse and keyboard. Needless to say, if you own a capable pc then playing Halo Wars 2 on it is a no-brainer. Not to discredit the incredible work that Creative Assembly has done with controls on the console, playing Halo Wars 2 on pc with a mouse and keyboard feels right and is my preferred way to play.
“Halo Wars 2 remains as the bar for console RTS game controls; at no point did I ever feel like I was hindered by the controller”
As mentioned above, the rock-paper-scissors nature of Halo Wars 2 gives it an easy to learn and hard to master strategy, which is one of my favorite design philosophies of any game. The campaign does a wonderful job of explaining most units to the player, and this can be further strengthened by playing skirmish matches against bots or taking it online to learn trial-by-fire style. As an experienced strategy game player, I had this game figured out very quickly, but I can imagine that new players to the strategy genre would take more time to fully understand the nuances of each unit, ability, and leader.
This is further muddied by all of the post-launch DLC leaders that were released and, alongside them, the unique units and abilities. With so many leaders, units, and abilities now in the game it can be confusing to wrap your head around everything that is happening on the battlefield. Still, Halo Wars 2 never left me knowing what not to do in a situation. If my army was completely decimated by my opponent, I’d know what I need to build next to counter. Where this gets really interesting is in 2 vs. 2 and 3 vs. 3 matches, where you need to account for your opponent, their allies, and what your allies are building. Creating the perfect strategy to counter opponents with friends and coming out on top is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I had in 2017.
“Creating the perfect strategy to counter opponents with friends and coming out on top is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I had in 2017.”
Visually, Halo Wars 2 doesn’t blow me out of the water. Being a top-down RTS with a high-unit count means that visual fidelity had to be sacrificed for the performance of the game. However, where Halo Wars 2 lacks in pure fidelity it makes up for in the detail of visual effects. When a massive war is taking place between you and your enemy, it’s a spectacle to see all the different weapons being fired and the lighting that takes place when a round is fired… ammo or plasma.
I can’t mention visuals without praising Blur Studios for the incredible single-player cutscenes in this game. Just like the original Halo Wars, this game’s cutscenes are industry-leading. I found myself excited at the end of every mission, not necessarily for the start of the next mission but to see the events unfold that Blur has illustrated for us.
“…it’s a spectacle to see all the different weapons being fired and the lighting that takes place”
Lastly, the game does a solid job at providing visual cues for the player to understand what’s happening. Units that are strong against air often are armed with massive missile-pod silos on their back, pointed upwards. Uber-units such as the Scarab, are visually terrifying and are good at killing anything in their path, and it looks like it. The locust, which looks like a mini-scarab, do exactly what the scarab does but on a significantly smaller scale and are good at melting buildings, as their beam of plasma would lead you to believe.
Halo Wars 2 has a lot going for it, and I believe it is one of the most underrated games of 2017. If not for separating Awakening the Nightmare from the season pass and its blatant cash-grab Blitz mode, Halo Wars 2 would have stood out more in a year that was full of brilliant games like Mario, Zelda, and Horizon. Not to discredit the rest of the game, Halo Wars 2 remains one of the finest strategy games I’ve ever played, especially on console, and provides meaningful plot progression for the Halo universe moving forward. If you’re a fan of Halo, strategy games, or both, I’d fully recommend this game to you.
Not without its flaws, Halo Wars 2 is an excellent Halo game and a marvelous strategy game that provides great value to both Halo and RTS fans.
I played through most of Halo Wars 2 on this channel in 2017, catch up on the Lets Play below!
What did you think of Halo Wars 2? Let us know in the comments, and if you’re looking for an opponent/teammate online hit me up on Xbox Live. GT: Mk Anthony. Also, if you’d like to see me revive Halo Wars 2 in video form let me know!