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.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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