Halo Wars 2 review

It’s somewhat ironic that Halo Wars 2 is the first Halo game to the come to the PC in years, because what makes it stand out is exactly that it’s a real-time strategy (RTS) game built primarily with a console controller in mind. The follow-up to 2009’s Halo Wars (itself the best-selling console RTS of all time) boasts new developers, a new console, and new(ish) enemies, but like its predecessor was designed from the ground up for a gamepad, rather than the more traditional mouse-and-keyboard setup.

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But does it work? Can you squeeze all the complexity of an RTS down to a few face buttons and a couple of triggers, or do you need the full power of QWERTY to get your tactics on? We went hands-on with Halo Wars 2 on the Xbox One and PC for a few hours to try out its campaign, multiplayer, and new game mode Blitz to find out.

And if you want to find out more about the game or watch the trailers, head to our Halo Wars 2 news round-up to find out more.

Halo Wars 2: UK pricing, platforms and deals

Halo Wars 2 came out in the UK on 21 February 2017, and you can currently buy it for £39.99 from Amazon or Game. You can also order the Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition for £64.99 from either Amazon or Game. That gets you a DLC season pass and Halo Wars: Definitive Edition, a remastered version of the original game, available to play right now.

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Halo Wars 2 is out on both the Xbox One and Windows as part of Microsoft’s Play Anywhere scheme, which allows anyone who buys a copy of the game to play it on either platform, with their save data seamlessly syncing between both versions.

Halo Wars 2: Gameplay and features | What is Halo Wars 2?

While the first game was created by Ensemble Studios, this time around it’s a joint project between 343 Industries (the team responsible for Halo 4 and Halo 5) and Creative Assembly, the RTS legends best known for the Total War series. It’s not surprising then that on the most basic level, Halo Wars 2 is a pretty typical RTS, just with a few tweaks made to suit the console controller setup. Anyone who’s played the likes of Command & Conquer or StarCraft will recognise the structure: you establish a base, build and upgrade buildings, harvest resources, train troops, and send them out to attack your opponent.

Playing with an Xbox One controller (PC players can stick to a mouse and keyboard if they prefer), you use the left analogue stick to move the camera, and the right to rotate and zoom. Tapping A on a unit selects it, while holding A selects all the units in a small area. Once selected, X directs them to move or attack, while Y triggers any special abilities such as infantry throwing grenades, or Warthogs (the Humvee-esque vehicles in the Halo world) ramming into opponents. You also have access to some occasional powerful Leader abilities that you can access with the left trigger, tied to which of the six Leader characters you’re playing as.

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The challenge with the controller setup is replicating how quickly PC players can select various configurations of units. It’s probably impossible to entirely manage that with a gamepad, but the developers have done their best. Tapping the right bumper lets you select every unit currently on the screen, while a double tap selects every unit on the map. Holding the right trigger down gives you access to more fine-grained controls, letting you add and remove individual units from your current selection, or save selections which you can cycle through with the D-pad.

At first the control configuration feels a bit overwhelming, but we got to grips with it before long, and quickly found it more natural to play with the pad than a mouse and keyboard - it’s obvious that the game has been designed with a controller in mind, even if the genre was not. Still, as fights grew bigger it proved impossible to manage any fine-grained unit management with the controller, and it quickly descended into amassing the biggest army we could in one place and steamrollering over everything - though given that tends to be how we eventually play most RTS games, maybe that isn’t really Halo Wars 2’s fault.

Halo Wars 2: Campaign

Perhaps surprisingly, given that the first Halo Wars came out way back in 2009, Halo Wars 2 picks up immediately following it - with a twist. Previous protagonists Captain Cutter and Professor Anders are back, but they’ve just woken up from a 28-year cryosleep. Since the original game was a prequel, this time jump in fact puts the new game directly into the same time period of Halo 4 and Halo 5. Rather than tying into their plots though, Halo Wars 2 pits you up against a new enemy: the Banished, a splinter group from original Halo baddies the Covenant.

We got the chance to try out a couple of early missions from the Halo Wars 2 campaign, and got a feel for the more simplified, but cinematic, take on the RTS. The first mission we played, Ascension, sees the human UNSC forces fighting to access some sort of device or facility called ‘The Cartographer’. To do so, you need to fight for three control points, which earn you points as you hold them - the more you hold, the faster your points go up, and you have to beat the AI opponent to a set target.

But first we needed to get there, in a brief section that served to introduce the game’s Hero units. For the campaign, your Hero is the Spartan soldier Jerome (no idea who at 343 thought that Jerome was an imposing name, but, uh, it really isn’t - sorry to all the Jeromes out there). For the most part, he’s just an extra powerful infantry unit, but he also boasts a special power: the Spartan Slam. This is both a jump that lets him leap up to higher terrain, and a way to leap onto enemy vehicles and hijack them, taking control to assault the enemy with its own tech. It’s a neat idea, and fun in small skirmishes, but in larger fights it’s all too easy to lose track of Jerome, and we found we forgot all about using his hijacking ability as the mission went on.

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Later on we were given the chance to set up a base, creating facilities to gather the game’s two resources, Energy and Power, along with others to build infantry, vehicles, and aircraft. The game manages these three types of units in a rough rock, paper, scissors system: vehicles can typically dominate infantry, aircraft can take out vehicles, and infantry are great for downing aircraft. As we expanded out over the area, we found individual nodes of resources that our troops could claim, as well as sites to build new bases on - some were limited micro-bases that maxed out at one building, but others let us build full secondary bases to expand our control. Limiting bases to specific locations adds an extra strategic wrinkle, because it means that if you find and destroy an enemy facility, you can then build your own site on top of it and controlling the finite number of bases becomes a valuable part of the game strategy.

After playing Ascension we played the campaign’s brief introductory mission, which serves mostly to set up the plot and establish the game’s cinematic tone. Unlike Ascension, the opening mission was interspersed with a few slick cutscenes establishing the characters and the new villainous faction, the Banished. So far they seem to basically be the Covenant with a red paint job, but we suspect the full campaign will reveal a few more differences in their motivations at the very least. The cinematic style is another way that Halo Wars 2 feels more console-oriented, but once again it’s a slightly uncomfortable fit with the genre - it’s fun to watch a cutscene of a dramatic fight, but frustrating to not get to take control. Better was a neat sequence where we were tasked with trying to escape on a single vehicle, ramming through infantry to make it out alive, but it wasn’t especially strategic. It’s another reminder that the immediacy of console action games just isn’t always a comfortable fit for the RTS genre, and Halo Wars 2 can’t quite cross the divide between the two.

Halo Wars 2: Multiplayer

We also got to spend some time with the Halo Wars 2 multiplayer, trying out a game of 2v2 Deathmatch over a local network. Obviously the same basic gameplay setup carries over from the single-player: you start with an initial base location, which you can continue to upgrade and expand as the game goes on. You can also establish secondary bases at other sites on the map, as well as fight to control a few control points that give you a steady stream of Power, but can be captured from you if you don’t leave troops to guard them, along with garrisons where you can entrench infantry.

Most interesting were a few portals dotted around the map, which could quickly teleport your army to the other side of the arena. This forces you to change the way you view the geography of the fight, with armies and bases that appear to be distant in fact having quick links. This was one of our favourite elements of the multiplayer gameplay, and it became a great way to set up ambushes, leaving what appeared to be undefended targets rip for an attack - but secretly with an army lurking just on the other side of a nearby portal.

Halo Wars 2: Blitz

The last game mode we sampled was Blitz, and it’s also the most interesting, because it’s the game’s most comprehensive attempt to re-invent the RTS. No doubt inspired by the popularity of digital card games like Hearthstone (not to mention all those endless micro-transactions), Blitz is a cross between an RTS and a collectible card games. You build up a card collection by opening card packs, some of which are earned by playing the main game, and others we expect will be available to buy through microtransactions. Each card represents either a specific unit or power in the game, and comes with its own Energy cost and abilities. There’s also some sort of levelling up system for the cards, but we didn’t get the chance to fully explore how that works.

Once you have a few cards, you can build decks. Each deck you design is linked to one of the six Leaders: three for the UNSC, three for the Banished. Each leader is limited to the cards belonging to their faction, and there are also a few cards limited to specific leaders - Commander Cutter can call down a missile strike or two squads of orbital drop troops, for example. Decks have a limit to the number of cards they can contain, but otherwise you’re pretty much free to include whatever available cards you want - and an additional deck stats screen will let you know about your balance of infantry, vehicles, and aircraft, or how many high and low cost cards you’ve selected. You can set up to three decks per leader, for a grand total of 18 decks, leaving plenty of room for variation.

Once you get into the actual Blitz gameplay, things are more simple. We tested it out in 2v2 multiplayer, with each player starting off with three specific units, set by which Leader they picked. The aim was to possess as many of the three control points as possible, each of which added points, with the first team to hit 200 winning the game. You add to your army by playing cards out of your hand of four, each of which costs Energy to play - and you can also pay a small amount of Energy to swap a given card out of your hand at any time, in the hopes of drawing something better from the deck. You continually gain Energy at a steady rate as you play, but can speed this up by racing for the periodic Energy drops dotted around the map.

In theory, Blitz seems intended to up the pace by removing the need to worry about base-building, while adding a new strategic wrinkle in terms of deckbuilding and card management. While it definitely achieves the first, creating a rapid, action-packed mode that’s at times reminiscent of the lane-based gameplay of MOBAs like League of Legends, the new level of strategy doesn’t really come through. The problem is that the best strategy we found was simply to play almost every card as soon as we had the Energy to do so, putting as many boots on the ground as we could for early domination. There was never any incentive to strategise about cards or deployment - you just spawn as much as you can, as soon as you can.

There’s a bit more strategy to decisions about which control points to aim for, or when to defend a point and when to rush off to a new energy drop, but only because it’s still a little too fiddly to multitask with the controller, encouraging you to instead keep your army massed in one place. The result is a game mode that has none of the strategy of either an RTS or a card game, stripping the complexity out of each to create something that’s accessible and easy to play with a gamepad, but ultimately rather unfulfilling.

SHOULD I BUY HALO WARS 2?

Halo Wars 2 does a good job of bringing an RTS to a console, and should please fans of the franchise, but it's inevitably always going to feel like a bit of a compromise. The result is a strategy game that downplays the strategy in favour of fast-paced action - it's plenty of fun, but serious strategy gamers might find it a bit lightweight.