Available On: Xbox One, Windows 10 PC
It’s been seven years since the original Halo Wars helped prove that not only can you make a non-first person shooter Halo game, you can also bring the Real-Time Strategy genre onto consoles. Despite the large time gap Halo Wars 2 is very much a sequel, improving upon the original while offering fun new competitive and cooperative game modes.
Spirit in the Sky
The twelve mission campaign starts off where the original game ended, with the gigantic UNSC spaceship Spirit of Fire adrift in space, its crew in cryo sleep. They’re awakened over the Ark nearly thirty years later, bringing Halo Wars 2 up to date with the main series timeline. The war with the Covenant has ended but a new threat has emerged – The Banished. These renegade Brutes broke away from the Covenant and have taken over the Arc. Naturally the UNSC forces declare war.
The story is what you’d get if Michael Bay directed a Halo movie: plenty of explosions, gunfire and “ooh-rah” heroics. It’s a bit light on characters and plot, focusing on a few named Spartans and some returning leaders like Captain Cutter and Professor Anders. The Banished might as well be Space Orcs, and big bad villain Atriox is mostly an unseen presence who taunts you.
The campaign does succeed at offering a variety of fun mission structures. Many play out like multiplayer Domination, as you race to capture control points around a map. Some pit you with a limited force lead by a Spartan hero behind enemy lines, using snipers to detect mines and setting up Kodiak artillery in key locations. Others have you defending against wave after wave of foes. The campaign does a great job introducing you to the game’s different multiplayer modes and counter unit strategies, even if the story is a bit ho-hum.
Where Halo Wars 2 really excels are the multiplayer modes. For standard online multiplayer you have three options. Deathmatch is standard kill ’em before they kill you. Domination tasks each side with securing an odd number of control points to earn points, Battlefield style. Stronghold forgoes resource collection all together as you race to capture strongholds on the map to bolster your forces.
All these modes can be played with teams of up to three (and versus AI), creating some fantastically chaotic matches. The art design and animations are a wonder to behold when armies clash. Brutes crash into armies swinging hammers. Warthogs ram infantry, scattering them backwards. Blisterbacks launch a barrage of missiles that cascade into the ground. It’s a beautiful symphony of destruction that caused me to lose many a fight simply because I sat and watched a battle too long.
Halo Wars 2 requires you to constantly be making adjustments and working the overall map rather than individual battles. Most units do have active skills but they rarely turn the tide.
Instead you have Leader Powers you can earn and activate. These powers come in a wide variety, from teleporting your troops across the map to providing healing or an orbital laser cannon. Different leaders utilize different powers. At launch you can choose between three UNSC and three Banished leaders, all from the campaign. These leaders come into play much more importantly with the game’s signature multiplayer offering: Blitz.
Blitz is an all-new multiplayer mode for Halo Wars 2. Instead of building bases and units, Blitz uses cards to represent each unit and leader power, and you can only pick ten. Each leader has specific cards they can use, as well as a generic pool to draw from (similar to Hearthstone). You have to build a balanced deck of different cost units and varying counters to be successful. The real kicker is you only ever have access to four randomly drawn cards at a time.
Blitz plays out very quickly – a timer ticks down from 12 minutes right from the start. Weirdly there’s only one map available for Blitz mode, and it’s pretty tiny. Teams have to capture three control points while deploying units and powers from the deck they built. Cards cost energy which ticks in slowly, but can also be gained through random drops scattered around the map.
The result is a fast-paced RTS mode that brilliantly combines deck-building and strategy in a way I hadn’t seen since 2009’s Battleforge. Summoning units right into the battlefield is a blast, even if things can quickly grow unbalanced depending on how the decks match up.
Blitz also serves as Halo Wars 2’s primary means of progression. Daily and Weekly Challenges offer fun quests and objectives to earn while you play, like winning three blitz matches or finishing nine matches as Decimus. Completing quests raises your overall career rank and earns you new random card packs (which you can also buy with real money, of course). It’s fun to complete challenges and earn new card packs, though I wish the card pool were deeper.
Unfortunately Blitz was also where I saw the most connection issues. For the the first few days I couldn’t even play 2v2 or 3v3 on PC. A patch was released at some point that helped, but lag was often crippling with a larger number of players. Nearly every multiplayer match I played (including Blitz and the standard modes) had at least one player who dropped out early. New multiplayer games often have connection issues at launch, but we shouldn’t give excuses. Hopefully these issues will be resolved quickly.
Halo Wars 2 has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB. It very much emulates the Halo theme of space marines at war. The tone is obviously violent but never gory.
As a long-time RTS veteran I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Halo Wars 2’s lighter gameplay. The rock-paper-scissors unit designs keep battles simple but effective. The action smartly focuses on fast-paced skirmishes and strategic maneuvers, and Blitz is truly a stand-out mode. Considering your RTS options over the last decade are basically Starcraft II or a MOBA, Halo Wars 2 offers plenty of compelling reasons for RTS fans, Halo fans, and newcomers alike to join the war.