Review: Halo Wars 2 (Xbox One) almost manages to revive the console RTS

Halo Wars 2 has been the most surprising addition to the Xbox One library. It’s the sort of sequel that seemed more at home on a wish list than on a release calendar, rousing fan memories after eight long years of dormancy. With no real competition on the radar, this 343 Industries-Creative Assembly collaboration has been an easy win on console turf, marking a noble attempt to revive the classic real-time strategy genre. Whether it manages to keep that interest alive is a somewhat different matter.

Translating the technical complexity of an RTS to a controller has always been an uphill battle, one mired in compromise.  While Halo Wars 2 isn’t any different, the development teams were careful to ensure that they capture the essence of strategic combat, which they have. In the end, what I took away from it all was the polished production and entertaining campaign, as well as the lingering doubt that I’d continue playing months after release.

The single-player in Halo Wars 2 is quite the highlight, home to an exciting story chock-full of cinematics by the renowned Blur Studio. We see an admirable job in resuming the adventures of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, whose resolute crew were last seen in dire circumstances. They wake from a 28-year cryo-sleep to a perished ship AI and a distress beacon, the latter ultimately leading them to a new AI and a new foe: Atriox, leader of a rogue Covenant faction known as The Banished. In a stunning display of strength, the Brute single-handedly takes on the Spartans from Red Team, thus beginning the 12-mission campaign (in the base game) between both forces.

What makes it all exciting is the canonical tie-in with the main games, bringing us up-to-date with events till Halo 5: Guardians. The key here is Installation 00, better known as “The Ark” – a Forerunner location we wound up damaging in Halo 3. Of course, Cutter and company don’t know that, and it was great watching them learn the true nature of their battlegrounds.

The narrative is, in many ways, a bridge. The Spirit of Fire’s long absence forces them to learn everything that has transpired as quickly as possible; at the same time, it allows 343 Industries to branch out from Master Chief’s journey, exploring and developing plot points that may very well end up in Halo 6.  It helps that it all surrounds one event too, resulting in a neat, self-contained chapter in the Halo timeline. They didn’t craft the most compelling story to ever come out of the franchise (I have a soft spot for Combat Evolved on PC), nor is it free from any number of eye-rolling moments, yet what pulls it all together is Blur’s amazing craft.

I’m of two minds when it comes to praising a game for its cinematics but Halo Wars 2 is a gorgeous showreel, breathing life into characters typically seen only from above. Any lackluster delivery of the story is quickly remedied by the sheer quality of detail and expressiveness solely found in the realm of pre-renders, accompanied by some appreciable voice acting. More importantly, they help soothe over the fact that most of the campaign is heavily guided. You could even call it hand-holding with the way some mission objectives are structured – build this unit, go here, do that. It does this for far too long, especially when it streamlines many RTS aspects to begin with. I can see the reasoning behind it: the campaign serves as a tutorial for multiplayer, even coming with rewards for use in the latter. In practice, it made for needless repetition, especially if you’ve played an RTS before.

A game relying on pretty movies is normally grounds for harsh critique, as it should, yet I never felt annoyed with the campaign – flustered at the lack of freedom, certainly, but I was still having fun. The unit diversity is an improvement over its predecessor and the quality-of-life changes, such as grouping or the point-of-interest system, grant greater control over the battlefield. Where the developers truly outdid themselves is in faithfully recreating the ebb and flow of Halo battles from a different perspective, almost as if they took one of the main shooter titles and simply moved the camera. Just don’t expect any technical challenge out of the campaign AI, as a good old army rush (keeping in mind the rock-paper-scissors concept for unit type) is usually all it takes to win.

Halo Wars 2 slips a little where multiplayer is involved. Disappointingly, Blitz mode didn’t carry as much longevity as I hoped it would. It was to be the solution to the console RTS dilemma, incorporating MOBA and deck-building elements to keep things fast, intense, and fresh. I saw promise in the preview build and open beta, only to find in the weeks following launch that its potential could never bloom.

halo wars 2 blitz deckbuild

There are a few reasons for this, chiefly the introduction of buyable card packs. The issue is in card levels, gained by obtaining duplicates, a process that’s sped up when someone pulls out their wallet. Naturally, a gulf between the have and have-nots formed, exacerbated by time and a shrinking matchmaking pool. A good player may still overcome the stat bonuses provided by higher card levels, particularly when it comes to gathering energy drops scattered throughout the map or timing their offensives; chances are, though, that many found themselves burned by the first few matches or confused by the one weird hybrid in their RTS.

I believe that removing card packs completely and implementing a wider variety of maps, each harboring unique events, would be the push needed to revitalize Blitz. I also believe it’ll never happen, as 343i has far too much on their plate as is with expected RTS updates and other development.

Which brings us to the more traditional multiplayer mode that is Skirmish. There’s a healthy amount of variety when it comes to leaders and powers although casual players aren’t going to find much solace in that. Here, Halo Wars 2 sheds its beginner-friendly mantle by demanding one follows the RTS learning curve – stick to one leader, memorize a build order, know their strengths and weaknesses, and learn by losing. Even so, the only viable playstyle is aggressive, one that encourages heavy scouting and constant tabs on unit production and supply. To turtle is to die,

This competitive focus, while good for the skill ceiling, is a little at odds with Halo Wars 2’s position in the ecosystem. Any player wanting to prove their mettle on console is already doing so in a first-person shooter, fighter, or racing game, yet anyone with a passionate streak in RTS is going to do so on PC. And if you’re playing on PC, well, there are better options in terms of depth and community size.

Halo Wars 2 is, without a doubt, unmatched in the console arena. The fantastic production aside, it successfully adapts the Halo universe in a way that action-oriented gamers are sure to appreciate. It’s entertaining, if not brief, though the largest hurdle is in convincing anyone to buy it in the first place. I’d hesitate to make that call without a promotional free weekend and sale on the horizon, if only to boost the player population first.

As with any release, there will be a group of dedicated players who push Halo Wars 2 to its limits, and I’m sure we’ll get to see some amazing strategies and videos come out of it. It’s just a shame that, outside of these core group of fans, the game will remain a niche entry in the Xbox One’s 2017 lineup – a momentary blip for the divisive”console RTS” label before the cryo-chambers call out once more.

A copy of the game was provided for review.

Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.