When I experienced the first Halo Wars title eight years ago, developed by the esteemed Ensemble Studios, I was the definition of a greenhorn when it came to the real-time strategy genre. Admittedly, I’m still coming to grips with the nuanced art of commanding legions in wartime scenarios. Though Ensemble Studios’ vision of an accessible, casual strategy title was realised as Halo Wars expanded the Halo canon with great meaning all the while offering up a solid gaming experience that only Ensemble could, at the time.
With Ensemble having succumbed to closure, Creative Assembly (of Alien: Isolation fame) and 343 Industries, developer of the mainline Halo titles, have carried the torch forward. Aside from the obvious departures in playstyle, Halo Wars 2 is a huge departure from the much maligned Halo 5: Guardians, as Captain Cutter’s speech after the game’s prologue painted clearly the game’s intended direction. It’s a bare-bone military narrative, peppered with some incredibly effective character performances.
The game opens as the crew aboard the Spirit of Fire awaken from cryosleep above the Ark, as a signal beacon draws them into the Forerunner Halo-manufacturing plant. Their vessel along with its crew has been declared lost and the Human-Covenant war is over, facts that aren’t known by Cutter and company. Naturally, the signal from the Ark is explored as it becomes clear that something descended and extinguished the human presence that once resided there. Isabel, an A.I. left over in the carnage, is recovered by Spirit of Fire as the team meets Atriox, a ruthless and calculated Brute general and leader of the once-Covenant splinter-cell, the Banished.
Halo Wars 2 is at its best when it’s telling the story of its two most interesting characters. Isabel acts as the game’s emotional centre, as she longs to exact vengeance on Atriox after he swept through and eradicated her once ‘family’, as she considered them. Not since Cortana many games ago have I cared for a character in the Halo universe, but Isabel’s plight was one I was happy to invest in. There’s an emotional weight to her performance that, in all honesty, carries the tug-of-war between Spirit of Fire and the Banished throughout the game. In a series where not enough time is ever spent getting to know the enemy, Atriox doesn’t quite get the screen time deserved during Halo Wars 2, though when he does make an appearance it’s one to remember. There’s an early scene in which Isabel pours a tall glass of exposition, telling Cutter about Atriox’s rise to leadership.
Tired of being forced to break the lines time and time again in suicidal missions, Atriox let slip his shackles and overthrew the Sangheili, forging his own path. From then on, anything and everything were to be on their own terms. Slaves no longer. His introduction is short-lived, though it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the game. It truly paints him as an empathetic and reactive leader who’d fought his way out of a corner, an interesting juxtaposition for the protagonists.
Much like Halo Wars, its sequel is as streamlined and easy to pick-up.
The campaign eases you into the core game’s many elements. A tutorial is blended into the narrative, which sees you beginning with general infantry movement. Soon after, you’ll learn how to operate your command centre, becoming a logistical dynamo with precise tact and resource management. That’s if the game’s helpful hints sink in. Admittedly, I was slow on the uptake as some of the game’s missions provided a welcome challenge even on the easiest difficulty. Though, as I emphasised earlier, I’m still very much a greenhorn to the genre itself. The bombastic, military-themed campaign stretches out to a dozen missions; some might only last ten to fifteen minutes while others may take up to an hour. It may be short, but it’s linear and focused in a way that assures your cursor is never far away from the thick of it.
For a genre with a lot going on, the developers have done well enough to optimise it for a controller. It may not be as intuitive as the keyboard and mouse combination but I rarely had any trouble executing my plans (save for situations where my defences fell apart and I scrambled, but I can hardly blame the game for poor planning on my part.) Being able to use hotkeys to cycle between bases helped me jet around the map with my bird’s eye, with clicking and dragging not being possible. It’s really quite neat how such an imposing and deep genre can make the leap to consoles and remain, more or less, playable to its full extent.
While all of the traditional real-time strategy modes are in place for the game’s multiplayer, Creative Assembly has concocted something rather bold in an attempt to evolve the genre. Blitz is very much a mash-up of traditional Halo Wars gameplay and a deck-builder game, like Hearthstone. It’s a fast-paced, white-knuckle mode where a clear head and fast decision making is key. Fortunately, the game throws cards at you at a crazy rate, eliminating some of the pressures of succumbing to microtransactions in an attempt to remain competitive. It’s unlike anything the genre has seen and I expect it to catch on as the Halo Wars competitive circuit, hopefully, grows.From the lush shrubberies on the ring worlds to the alien life that tries to snuff us out at every turn, it’s a gorgeous series. Halo Wars 2 is no different as the sense of place on the game’s Lesser Ark is wonderfully realised. It’s not the most technically impressive game, but it’s hard not to get caught up foregoing the objective to explore and marvel. Beyond the blooming flora, cold and clerical Forerunner architecture and the stars dotting the galactic backdrop, Halo Wars 2 runs at a smooth framerate with fluid animation to boot.
Special plaudits to Blur, the production company responsible for the game’s cinematics. We’ve all seen their work, even if we’re not aware it’s theirs, and their efforts in not only Halo Wars 2, but the Halo series as a whole, has been astounding. Their work is the height of badass. Look no further than the aforementioned Atriox origins cinematic. If it reminded me of anything at all, it’s probably the scene from 300 where Leonidas shield-punches his way through a handful of meat bags in slow-motion. Epic.Halo Wars 2’s soundtrack (which is available to hear on Soundcloud) kind of dances on a fine line. At times it’s sweeping and beautiful and really recaptures what used to make Halo soundtracks infamous before O’Donnell’s lingering influence escaped the pores of the now recently vapid efforts. Some of the tracks are a triumphant return to the glory days, dripping with grace and elegance. But then, on the other hand, many are just far too busy. War and tension should, admittedly, warrant racket and cacophony, but even Halo Wars 2 overstepped on a few occasions. The design beyond the soundtrack is, as is expected of 343 Industries, top drawer. The tonal return to outright warfare, much like Combat Evolved or Reach, has brought out their best.
It’s hard not to be taken aback by the performances of both Erika Soto and Gideon Emery, whose performances as Isabel and Captain James Cutter respectively can only be described as first-rate. While I sang Soto’s praises earlier for her performance, Cutter’s bellicose patriotism is pinned permanently to his sleeve courtesy of Emery’s portrayal. It was certainly jarring for Cutter’s appearance to change so drastically between games, but he’s in good hands.
Halo Wars 2 is familiar but different in all of the right ways. A short, robust campaign, rich with genuinely effective character performances and a compelling (though far too absent) villain is complemented by a multiplayer facet that is far better off on the back of a daring deck-building venture.
The Xbox One version of this game was played for the purpose of this review. You can read our review policy HERE.