For a series as large as Halo is, it rarely steps out of its comfort zone of the first person shooter, but when it does something wonderful can happen, which is what did occur with the first Halo Wars, but then it was complete radio silence on the series, until now.
Halo Wars 2 has a story and it picks up right after the events of the first game, well right after being when the crew wakes up from their 25+ years of being in cryo. The ship it seems was pulled from subspace, but when the crew come to, they find themselves adrift without any idea where they are and the ships AI has been deleted, as it passed its seven-year life. The Captain sends a small recon team down to explore the remnants of a research outpost and that is where you meet Isabel, the AI that assisted with the running of the outpost and while she tries to tell you to flee, you meet up with Atriox, the chieftain of the Banished.
After being almost destroyed by Atriox, the team make a hasty retreat and along the way, one of the team stays behind to keep a holo bridge active and provide cover for the rest to escape. Once back on board, more details from Isabel come to light about Atriox and just what he is capable of doing and Captain Cutter decides that Atriox needs to be stopped, in order to help humanity, survive. The missions that you undertake are all aimed at taking down the Banished in small ways, which work with the much smaller force that you have, compared to that of the Banished. Things stay consistent, until you discover some crucial information about what Atriox is planning, then the stakes kick into high gear.
The gameplay is very similar to that of the first game, or other console based RTS games, with radial wheels aplenty, it makes accessing building structure menus nice and easy, and as icons are always in the same position, you don’t need to keep relearning them each mission. Moving your selected forces around is nice and simple, move the cursor and press X to direct them to deploy to that location, if your reticule is over an enemy or enemy structure, your selected soldiers will attack. Should enemy forces come close to your troops, they will also automatically defend their position. Some targets have the option for a special attack to be triggered, but that is only if you have a soldier select that can do such an attack, usually a Spartan and while these attacks are usually able to take out most enemies, you can also use them to hijack enemy vehicles, giving you even more power on the battlefield.
The other half of the battle comes down to managing your base or bases and the resources needed to keep the war effort going. The game will thankfully give you plenty of resources to use, supply drops and power are the currency needed here and while you can earn them, but create supply pads and generators on your base, you can destroy enemy structures to also collect the resources. Each unit, vehicle or building you can make has a requirement, most will be supply based, but upgrading requires power and while you can build lots of foot soldiers without too much effort, creating a Warthog or a Wolverine is going to need both resources, so you need to manage them properly. While the main base can be upgraded as well, including the surrounding weapons you can use for defence, the smaller bases are more for localised rally points. For example, a small base might allow for energy generation and nothing else, or you might equip it to be able to train heavy soldiers, each base can be upgraded as well, giving you more plots to build upon, but they will usually max out at three spaces total, so you need to ensure you are building the correct addon in the best location.
While base and resource management are crucial, the other element that comes into play are Leader Powers, some of which are passive and others active. The one which you will likely find yourself using the most are the restoration drones, which you can summon to provide healing within a small radius, soldiers outside of the circle of healing however will get left out. There are passive powers that are always active, like the raid power, which increases the time it takes you to take over a control point or enemy structure. The powers are unlocked by earning Leader Points, which can be earnt by playing the game, the bigger the score you get, achieved by meeting objectives, the main and the secondary that can appear as the game moves forward.
All these play elements work well together in the single player campaign and they also work well in the multiplayer mode. The multiplayer will let you either jump into quick matches, testing how you fair under standard rules, or if you want, you can customise everything, from the map, to game type, ability of leader powers and even if they have a cool down on them. You can also choose a different leader for when you are playing in multiplayer, which in turn will give you a different set of Leader Powers to use in the game, depending on the leader, the powers might end working against you, especially if you are not used to them, so you will want to learn about each leader and their offerings, to ensure that you pick the one that will work best for you.
Multiplayer, as I played it before release, was stable and I had no issues when I was playing, though the time to locate a match was longer, due to lack of players. The space where the game does fall flat though is in the gameplay to the story, both on their own are solid, each really well-crafted and executed, however once you combine the two, they don’t click well. After you meet Atriox for the first time, the cutscene shows the squad of Spartans making their way out in a big hurry, but then you are given control of the game again and it slows you down to the move the cursor and click to move, which complete destroys the flow. There were additional times that this happened, but speaking about them would show the story and it is not something I want to do.
From a performance point of view, the game has what I think are three distinct visuals, there are the super detailed cutscenes, created by Blur Studios, the in game cutscenes that are rendered in engine and finally the gameplay itself. The problem is going from the opening cutscenes or any of the Blur crafted ones to in game is such a juxtaposition of elements, rather than blend they stand apart so far, it’s like they were on different continents. The visuals during the gameplay are solid, they look nice and perform well, I did not notice any slowdown, even during the boss fights, but in order to keep you above the action, they make sure the camera can’t get too close, which helps hide the issues. The maps that you play on are also impacted by the Fog of War effect, where you can only see places you have been too, the problem is anything outside of the gameplay zone, will always stay dark and greyed out, which stands out against the lush green sections or even the blander desert locations.
Listening to the game is a treat, more music in that Halo style is always welcome, the sound effects match what players will come to expect from the series and the voice performances are top notch. All the cutscenes have a sense of realism to them, thanks to those same performances, hearing Cutter give a rousing speech, with hints to the classic from ID4, is really well done and the other character also give their characters a grounded feeling. The same can’t be said for the soldiers on the ground, I get having the leader of the group acknowledge your orders, moving to a point or attacking, but the soldiers all have something to say and there are times when it feels like they all just have to speak, but offer nothing of worth to say.
Halo Wars 2 is not really changing anything up from the original, those looking for a grander scale FPS will be let down, but if you give it time, you will find lots to enjoy. The games multiplayer is going to be where you find your value for money, the standard modes are there, as well as Blitz mode, it will keep players coming back time and time again.
Thanks to Xbox Australia for supplying the game for review