For the real-time strategy genre, we’re long past the point of ‘can the traditionally mouse-and-keyboard-friendly setup of a typical RTS work on a console?’ That question was put to bed a generation ago, thanks to a string of strategy games that got a console release – including the likes of Command & Conquer, Supreme Commander, Halo Wars, Red Alert, and even Lord of the Rings. The genre experienced a renaissance of sorts thanks to these and many more titles. But, around about the time the current console generation started, the number of high profile RTS games being released dropped off dramatically -- especially for consoles.
But also, for the PC market.
One of the bits of wisdom one could glean from this small window where the genre flourished across both console and PC was that the genre could work on any platform. But in the console world the term ‘intuitive controls’ translated to a situation where just about every button on a controller would be utilised alongside trigger combinations, selection wheels, d-pad shortcuts, and more.
Designed from the ground-up as a console strategy game set in the Halo universe, the original Halo Wars for Xbox 360 was a little different. It still utilised just about every button on the Xbox 360 controller, but as a game in one of Microsoft’s premiere franchises it found itself in a unique position. Not only did it have to appeal to the millions of Halo fans and players across the globe, but it also had to satisfy that first-person shooter thirst for immediacy. And so, the focus would shift towards streamlining and simplifying the usual strategy stuff one might associate with the genre. Things like resource gathering, building structures, and setting up defenses. But, with Age of Empires developers Ensemble Studios at the helm, the result was perhaps RTS gaming’s finest hour on a console.
In addition to nailing all aspects of the typical strategy experience, it also featured an engaging story, fun co-op, and even a robust multiplayer experience. And with Ensemble Studios shutting its doors not long after completing work on Halo Wars, it also served as a swan song for a veteran studio that cuts its teeth in the strategy genre. An aspect of its release that led many to believe that Microsoft wouldn’t bother with a sequel. So, it’s no wonder many were taken by surprise when Halo Wars 2 was announced for both Xbox One and Windows 10 in 2014.
Since the debut of the 2009 original Microsoft had established 343 Industries as the caretakers of the Halo franchise. And with development on Halo Wars 2 led by Total War veterans Creative Assembly, in partnership with 343 Industries, the end result is a game that clearly aims to recreate the same look and feel of the original without straying too far from the systems and unique elements that made it a hit. On that front Halo Wars 2 could be viewed as a safe sequel, one that doesn’t stray too far from the formula already established. But that would be selling it short.
Perhaps it’s the years since releases, but playing Halo Wars 2 today is a refreshing experience. Like its predecessor, it presents its grand sci-fi story set in the Halo universe against the backdrop of controlling units and scrambling to build up a sizable force to attack or defend a particularly important part of the map. In terms of the basic setup not much has changed, and even though this game is getting a simultaneous release for both Xbox One and Windows 10 (with both versions played for this review), the core design is clearly in-line with the console origins of the original game.
This means you still have no real control over where you can build or place structures and your main base of operations will quickly become a mega-structure that can gather resources, upgrade unit armour, build a fleet of Hornets, and train marines, all at the same time. It was an aspect of the original Halo Wars that suited the style of play, and something that we kind of expected to find in the sequel. The surprise though comes with how well new developer Creative Assembly seems to grasp this core part of the game, and how both the campaign mission design and maps lend themselves to not limiting your forces with a single mega-base. But instead, place an importance on expanding your control and defenses across multiple sites to properly take command of a large battlefield.
Not only that but there’s a playfulness and sense of experimentation, especially in the campaign mission design, that at times feels like Blizzard’s StarCraft II. Now, that might partly be due to the sci-fi setting and similarity across several key units (including a vehicle that behaves almost exactly like a classic StarCraft Siege Tank), but it mostly has to do with the variety you’ll find. And how there’s no real one strategy for all, and how one minute you might be commanding an elite group of Aussie-accented snipers, and the next trying to shore up enough units to fend off an attack from a massive Scarab. The story, which centres around the exploration of the mysterious Ark installation and the rise of a particularly menacing villain by the name of Atriox, even has you controlling specific Spartan commanders -- utilising their abilities to take over large vehicles and use them on the enemy. Just like our pal Master Chief.
And it all looks and runs extremely well. Which is to be expected from a Microsoft Game Studios release, but not so much from Creative Assembly. The developers behind the popular Total War series have created some wonderful games in the past (including last year’s incredible Total War foray into the Warhammer universe), but they’ve always been a little rough around the edges at launch. That’s not the case with Halo Wars 2, as you’ll be hard pressed to find a fault with the presentation or overall look of the game. Add in cinematic sequences created by the talented Blur studio, and you get the impression that this is a game with every bit the level of polish one might find in a Halo game proper.
Halo Wars 2 isn’t perfect by any stretch, and there are issues coming to terms with the controls when trying to manage multiple armies made-up of different unit types. Trying to put together a specific formation with a controller can become quite difficult, to the point where you begin to overcompensate a particular damage type to make up the shortfall. Naturally, things like this are a lot easier with a keyboard and mouse. But even so army formations, a staple of Creative Assembly’s Total War series, are nowhere to be found. Leaving a lot of the moment to moment combat in the hands of AI. Now, for the most part it works well enough, but there are instances where a single unit will become useless as it struggles to find the right angle or target.
Minor gripes aside, Halo Wars 2 is still one of the most impressive RTS releases we’ve played in a while. It features an engaging and often exhilarating campaign, and in addition to that a string of multiplayer modes that range from co-operative play to traditional competitive stuff and even a new card-based affair called Blitz. A new addition to the series, Blitz works surprisingly well as players forego the usual micro-management of bases and build queues in favour of using a pre-made deck of cards to call in units and abilities whilst vying for control points. As a fast-paced competitive mode it’s a lot of fun, but perhaps it works even better when played co-op as you team up with someone to see how many waves of increasingly more powerful enemies you can survive.
In the end, though, like with the original Halo Wars, what we have is an experience that can appeal to fans of both the Halo franchise and those who would enjoy your typical RTS experience. But, appealing to everyone can have its detriments, with some of the RTS elements in Halo Wars 2 feeling like they could have been fleshed out just a bit more, and some of the more action-oriented scenes feeling like they would have benefited from a perspective that wasn’t so far removed from the ground. But even so, it’s still an often-thrilling experience, and a great entry in the Halo franchise. And, a friendly reminder that there’s always room in the market for a good RTS game.