From Creative Assembly, 343 Industries, and Microsoft Studios—the developers and publisher, respectively—comes another rendition of the Halo universe in the form of a second real-time strategy (RTS) game. As a sequel to 2009’s Halo Wars, Halo Wars 2 features iconic species, technology, and military forces familiar from previous forays into the Halo universe, such as the Spartan super soldiers, Scorpion tank, Banshee aircraft, and much more. For fans of RTS games and the Halo series, Halo Wars 2 offers a gripping experience with great visuals, engrossing audio, and an enthralling storytelling. Unfortunately, the game does not offer enough in the way of diversity from its predecessor to stand well on its own.
Visually, Halo Wars 2 pays homage to other titles in the Halo series, for even the main menu evokes that surreal blend of science-fiction and fantasy. When diving into battle, one immediately notices the smooth 3D models and the colorful environments. The futuristic structures—energy generators; gigantic, pulsing gravity fields; and doors that dwarf even the largest military units—built into each map’s landscape envelop players in an alien planet that is both enigmatic and intriguing. Moreover, the amount of detail that jumps out at players when analyzing the game’s unit roster is one of the main positives that makes Halo Wars 2 a decent game. Everything from glints of light reflecting off helmet visors to the rotating barrels on a Warthog’s (ground vehicle) mounted gun when it fires blend together to create an entertaining virtual combat experience, even from the player’s overhead view. In addition, the combat optics, such as muzzle flashes from rifles; plasma bolts; repair beams; concussive explosions; and littered debris, go a long way in convincing players of each map’s wartorn authenticity. However, while Halo Wars 2’s graphics are impressive, they are not much different from that of the original Halo Wars. Furthermore, outside of the game’s cutscenes in the campaign’s story, the graphics do not meet the high standards set by most games produced for current-gen consoles. Indeed, given the vast similarities to its predecessor, Halo Wars 2 often feels like a reversion to Xbox 360.
However, while Xbox 360’s days have passed, Halo Wars 2 does continue the first game’s original tale. As a direct sequel, it has a gift for telling a convincing narrative, even if it does skew towards cliché. As if watching an animated movie, the game’s cutscenes are well-crafted, revolving around aesthetically pleasing characters, reporting noticeable improvements from the banal representation of its forebear. From the start of the campaign, the story grips players by thrusting them into the unknown, where they must join their UNSC (United Nations Space Command) force in exploring an unfamiliar planet. Once there, players come across a powerful enemy that tosses the Spartans (the super soldiers controlled by the player on the first mission) around like ragdolls. After being forced to leave one Spartan behind and suffering one casualty, players make a narrow escape from a horde of enemies. What follows is the story of an outnumbered and isolated group of UNSC forces that rises up to challenge a superior enemy.
The dialogue in this campaign instils confidence in the player’s forces through motivational speeches that reinforce one’s pride and faith in humanity. Conversely, the story’s antagonists instill dread with their overconfident, berserker-like diction that conveys a constant desire for battle. Such believable dialogue is evidence that talented, professional, and dedicated voice actors were hired to bring the characters to life. Despair, determination, condescension, and a myriad of other emotions are delivered through the story’s dialogue, in combination with the facial expressions of each character. However, such a moving story is brought down by the unoriginality of its contents. While cliché stories are not inherently bad, Halo Wars 2’s story lacks sufficient imagination, resulting in a well-crafted but uninspired tale.
Working in concert with the graphics and the story, the game’s audio neither stands out nor hides in shadow. Cacophonous explosions, pattering of gunfire and plasma shots, rumbling engines, whirring hovercrafts, and the minute construction of buildings upon base platforms aid in the attempts to immerse the player in the Halo universe. Nevertheless, Halo Wars 2’s audio simply feels like more of the same in that it is a near-repeat of its predecessor. To say that the audio quality is poor would also be a falsity. The quality is high, but imitative.
Along those lines, Halo Wars 2’s mechanics are equivocal to their predecessor and other RTS titles made for console, deriving much of the gameplay from other console RTS titles such as Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II. Players build bases, gather resources (in this case, supplies and energy), recruit units by purchasing them with the aforementioned resources, and highlighting or selecting units to move them or attack an enemy. In PC terms, moving units would be referred to as “point-and-click;” Halo Wars 2 uses the same principle on Xbox One. Gameplay is smooth, with loading screens being the only true, though admittedly minor, inconvenience. The combat sports a “rock-paper-scissors” core. In effect, infantry units are strong against aircraft, aircraft are strong against ground vehicles, and ground vehicles are strong against infantry. While easy to grasp in order to implement proper counter-attack strategies against an opponent, this “rock-paper-scissors” system is far too predictable and all but prohibits more flexible strategies.
Halo Wars 2 features a small variety of game modes, such as the self-explanatory Deathmatch, territorial modes like Stronghold and Domination, and the newest game mode to the Halo series: Blitz. Of all the game modes mentioned, Blitz warrants the spotlight, for it is the most original. By playing through the campaign and completing daily challenges, players will be rewarded with Blitz Cards. In a nutshell, Blitz Cards replace the base building and resource management aspects of Halo Wars 2 with cards in a deck. These cards are used to deploy units in Blitz, combining elements of collectible card games with RTS gameplay. Playing a card costs energy. The more powerful the unit, the higher the energy cost. Blitz is truly an innovative concept. Indeed, in a largely unimaginative sequel, Blitz is the rough diamond upon which Creative Assembly and 343 Industries can build for future Halo Wars installments. The blend of tabletop collectible card game elements with real-time strategy video game mechanics is a creative way to bring different types of gamers together to experience each other’s respective affinities. By applying different types of strategy, players can be sure to exercise their brains in a creative, semi-challenging environment.
Indeed, semi-challenging is about as difficult as the AI gets in Halo Wars 2. Bordering on child’s play, Halo Wars 2’s AI becomes only moderately difficult at best, even on the highest difficulty setting (legendary). The lack of a real challenge makes Halo Wars 2’s replay value rather low for those gamers who wish to play solo as opposed to multiplayer, becoming a mind-numbingly boring time sink after just a few hours, mainly serving as a story-driven tutorial for multiplayer. The real challenge is competing against other players online, for other players are less predictable than the AI. Sadly, even playing against other players deforms into a repetitive, mundane ordeal.
Finally, the Leader Power upgrades available within most game modes add to the player’s and AI’s respective arsenals. From healing powers to devastating superweapons, each Leader—military commanders who provide the aforementioned Leader Power upgrades—chosen at the start of the game in skirmish modes (Deathmatch, Domination, and Stronghold) provides their own distinct set of Leader Powers. Once unlocked, these Leader Powers cost energy and supplies to use, and incur a cooldown period before they can be used again. While intriguing and useful, these Leader Powers do not differ substantially from the first Halo Wars, and are therefore a bit lackluster in their implementation.
At the end of the day, Halo Wars 2 is a relatively fun game for an extremely limited time. The graphics are decent by Xbox 360 standards, but fall short of using the greater power available to the Xbox One outside of the campaign’s cutscenes. The audio merely exists, neither detracting nor enhancing the player’s experience. Then the mechanics, while smooth, lack depth and originality. All-in-all, Halo Wars 2 is a decent game, but does little to distance itself from its predecessor. Perhaps if this version of the game was the first in existence, the quality would feel superior. As it stands, Halo Wars 2 is not an example of how video games within a series can evolve over time.