I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for “and it’s available right now” announcements at conferences. When Halo Wars 2 dropped its beta on us a full eight months before its release, it was a treat that left me pink with glee. And I appreciate the fact it’s here now, rather than two weeks before its release date of February 21. It shows that Creative Assembly, the team known for their work on Total War, mean for this beta to help shape the final experience; it’s no marketing stunt, they really aim to make the game better in the long run.

For the first half of the beta’s run, Domination is the only mode available. A standard Team Deathmatch affair will be playable on June 17, but by then the novelty may have worn off and, quite frankly, a mode that lacks an objective other than straight up killing doesn’t appeal to me just yet in Halo Wars.

So Domination seemed a perfect choice to pick up and re-learn the craft.Screenshots_0002_Layer 1Domination tasks you with setting off into the map and capturing control points; the more you control at any given time, the faster your resources pour in. The faster that happens, the quicker you can amass an army that’ll scorch your opponent from the playing field. At its core, your goal is to outlast the other team as both your tickets expire. But employing strategy about which bases to tackle and in which order sets it apart from the hoi polloi of deathmatches.

I don’t love that you can’t go it alone, though. Great players could take on two players, I have no doubt. But I, every so often, was hamstrung by a partner who’d just spend all their time building up a base and doing nothing with it. There are bound to be solo competitive modes in the final release but being forced to partner up in the beta seems like an odd choice.

Halo Wars 2 is as much about the prelude to conflict as it is the conflict itself. Most real-time strategy games are; though Halo Wars 2 is as stripped back and accessible to console users as the original was, perhaps even more so.Screenshots_0000_Layer 3Every second is precious at the beginning of any game, as you decide what’s more important. Do I take the center point straight away? Do I farm resources? Do I send skeleton crews to mop up the outer points? I personally don’t have the formula quite worked out yet, as PVP was never my bag in the original. I was crushed in my first game, but as I continued to learn the defeats became less and less emphatic and, at long last, I broke through.

It felt nice. (Even if the win came largely on the back of my teammate’s war savvy.)

The game gives you the choice of two commanders in this beta. You can choose either James Cutter, who returns from Halo Wars or Atriox, a high-ranking Chieftain among the Jiralhanae, most often referred to as Brutes in the Halo universe. Both have their strengths, but I’m a Cutter-man myself. After more Halo games than I can care to remember, I just can’t get in bed with the enemy.

Some of the larger scale conflicts on display in Halo Wars 2 can be pretty spectacular, though they’re incredibly choppy at times on Xbox One when things get a bit hectic. There’s also a heap of noticeable screen tearing and lag online but hey, that’s what a beta is for.Screenshots_0001_Layer 2Halo Wars 2’s beta runs until June 20. The only requirement to download it is a Gold membership and 13GB of space on your hard-drive, so I encourage you to give it a go, especially if you’re a Halo fan. My understanding at this stage is that this game slots in between Halo 5: Guardians and the next instalment, whenever that’ll be. So go on, give war the old college try.

And once you’re an ace, perhaps you can teach me a trick or two.

Halo Wars 2 is set to release on February 21, 2017.

You can pre-order the Ultimate Edition (which releases four days earlier on February 17, 2017) here, doing so gives you access to the definitive edition of the first game in the series enhanced for Xbox One.