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Halo Wars 2 Review | More of the Same

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Halo Wars 2

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.

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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 2-2

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.

PASS

Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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