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Halo Wars 2: ‘Halo Wars’ Sequel Still Carrying the Flame

By Steve Watts | Shacknews.com

Halo Wars 2
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One
Genre: Real-time strategy
Mode: Single-player, multiplayer
Developer: Microsoft Studios
ESRB rating: T, for Teen

The game “Halo Wars 2” marks the second time Microsoft has brought on a studio to infuse the Halo universe with the real-time strategy genre, but surprisingly little has changed. It’s still a breezy version of real time strategy staples, which gains streamlined accessibility at the cost of some finesse. Still, it’s a fine and familiar taste of traditionally more complex mechanics, with a notable new feature that may lend it some longevity.

COMBAT STREAMLINED

Like its predecessor, “Halo Wars 2” follows a rock-paper-scissors pattern for enemy weaknesses. In broad terms, infantry beats air, air beats vehicles, and vehicles beat infantry. Some specialized units are more attuned to taking down particular enemy types, but relying heavily on those would be a mistake. Instead, a winning strategy usually comes down to balance. A few of each unit type, all moving in unison.
That focus on a healthy mixture of units is where the game goes for blunt force instead of fine detail. You can select units by type, but in the chaos of battle, that isn’t always doable. You can make individual squads by mapping them to the D-pad, but from then on you need to hold a trigger button to select them. In general, I found neither solution was as useful as simply selecting all units with one handy button click and setting them towards a target. This wide-swath approach to strategy lacks some of the grace of more complex RTS games. Most of the work is done in the planning stages, when selecting unit upgrades or positioning before a battle. Once the aggressions begin, it was mostly a matter of seeing if my calculations paid off.
In the campaign, though, that set-and-forget approach can feel punishing. I often had to repeat missions, or at least go back to my base to regroup, after discovering a surprise waiting for me. Since most of my winning approach was done before firing a shot, if my unit composition was off in some significant way, I would be wiped out without much chance to make it right in the heat of battle. It felt more frustrating and unavoidable when it was off because of unforeseen factors, like say, a specialized enemy unit appearing in the middle of combat.

IN THE MYTHOS

All this could be applied to any well-polished console RTS, but “Halo Wars 2” does feel appropriately like a “Halo” game. Iconic units like the Warthog and Hornet are back, and enemy vehicles are recognizable even from a birds-eye perspective. A couple of new units, the Kodiak and Jackrabbit, fit in nicely to the mood and tone of the game as an RTS. Most importantly for “Halo,” it features a squad of Spartans, the elite units of the Halo universe, reprising their role as premiere hero units that can turn the tide of battle. Plus, for those desperate moments, your commanders have their own sets of powerful leader abilities that can be triggered at the right time.
That par-for-the-course “Halo” feel applies to the story as well, in ways both good and bad. The Halo series has a unique space melodrama quality, with sweeping orchestral scores and characters showing a level of earnestness straight out of 1950s serials. But it also has a tendency to overcomplicate its mythology. The base idea in “Halo Wars 2” is understandable enough: a race called the Banished was cast out of the Covenant and has risen to prominence now that it’s gone. Trouble ensues.
But the finer myth-making of the titular Halos, and how exactly this story squares with the cliffhanger ending of “Halo 5: Guardians,” were less clear to me. I was left feeling like I’d reached a cliffhanger, but I wasn’t sure how or why. “Halo” has never excelled at storytelling, and a story like “Halo Wars,” that is told from the wider angle of a large conflict, struggles in many of the same ways.

STACKING THE DECK

Outside the campaign, the game offers traditional multiplayer, as well as a new “Blitz” Mode. Unlike its regular multiplayer, Blitz takes notes from the popular blind box trend in video games. Rather than build up a base to make your units, you have a single customizable deck made with cards earned through the campaign, for various achievements, and of course, for purchase.

This is where I expect to see “Halo Wars 2” find its longevity. Traditional RTS multiplayer can turn into very close to a solved game, as the win will usually go to the player who builds up a more versatile and larger army more quickly. The ability to balance your team by editing a deck beforehand adds a layer of pre-planning to the execution, which is where this distillation of strategy already shone anyway. It affords developers 343 and Creative Assembly to tempt players back with giveaway packs. I also suspect that the strength of decks gives another metric for accurate matchmaking, since I regularly seemed matched up with competitors around my skill level. Everything about it seems fine-tuned for long-term play.

I was more compelled by Blitz than the more traditional multiplayer, which packs plenty of mode variety but all feels fairly similar regardless. Whether building up a base, capturing control points, or playing a zippier game mode with near-limitless resources, it was hard for these slight twists to feel like they amounted to significant gameplay differences. There may be layers of high-level strategy beyond my current abilities, but I’m not sure I’ll get there if the traditional multiplayer doesn’t hold much of my interest. Blitz, by comparison, introduces deck builds and a dash of randomness that felt fresh more often.

DROP ZONE

“Halo Wars” didn’t rewrite the RTS playbook, and “Halo Wars 2” is unlikely to bring on many converts who weren’t convinced by the first attempt. In many ways this is an iterative sequel, with new units and balance, and a handful of additions. The campaign is well made and the multiplayer shines thanks largely to Blitz Mode. It’s a streamlined take on a genre that has faded even more in recent years, but in its own way, “Halo Wars 2” is still carrying the flame.