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Halo Wars 2 Review - A mediocre RTS experience

Halo Wars 2.jpg

Halo Wars 2, developed by 343 Industries in collaboration with Creative Assembly and published by Microsoft is a real-time strategy (RTS) game for Xbox One and PC. Before I get to the review, you should know that Halo Wars 2 is my first Halo game and I only started playing on console for the first time in December 2016. With that being said, I’ve been playing RTS games for over two decades and have seen the genre evolve…and Halo Wars 2 felt like the embodiment of mediocrity.

Warning: There be mind spoilers ahead

We've broken the gameplay videos into sections, but you can also watch the compilation at the end of the article.

Halo Wars 2 - What SA gamers need to know

Before we get started on the review, you need to know a few things about multiplayer in Halo Wars 2. Myself and my colleague Marco Cocomello tested the multiplayer this weekend on two different connections:

In the multiplayer matches I played, there wasn’t any game-breaking lag, but I did feel some. It didn’t really detract from the experience, as you don’t need lightning reflexes to be competitive. With that being said, even one timeout can cause you to lose control of your army and I wasn’t able to reconnect to a match after disconnecting, something I am sure many South African players are used to. What this means is that if you have an unstable internet connection that disconnects from time to time, you stand a good chance of suffering a defeat in a multiplayer match due to internet issues.

Mr. Coco speaks about his multiplayer experience: "After the early access period began for pre-order customers, I started to pick up more matches than before. Matchmaking was quick, and matches never lagged out or disconnected. Given that Halo Wars 2 is an RTS, the netcode does not rely on any heavy latency requirements. Multiplayer matches went off without a hitch."

Myself and Coco had the same experience with finding a match once the pre-order customers started flooding in. We did have a different experience in terms of disconnects, which can be attributed to my ADSL line connection being a bit unstable. Therefore, for those with a stable internet connection, you should experience no issues in multiplayer matches.

In the video below, you can see how much time there is between a command input for unit movement or build actions in a 3 versus 3 match from my connection.

Wake up, Captain Cutter

The story revolves around Captain James Cutter and his ship, the Spirit of Fire (from the first game), after they wake up from an extended cryogenic sleep of 28 years. In Halo lore, the game plays off right after the events of Halo 5: Guardians. Captain Cutter and his crew face a new threat, an extremely deadly enemy called Atriox and his faction, the Banished, who has managed to defy the mighty Covenant.

Shortly after the Spirit of Fire’s crew awakes, they meet an Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Serina who clues them in on what’s going on in the galaxy they have arrived in. The antagonist’s exploits and devastating brutality is explained and Cutter decides that his lone ship will set out on a mission to stop Atriox, despite warnings that it is a futile task. As cutter, you command troops throughout the campaign in a struggle to save the galaxy from total annihilation with the help of some interesting characters, such as dr. Anders, a selection of Spartans and their Spartan-antics as well as the AI Isabel.

If you aren’t a Halo fan, or at least researched what the Halo story is about (like I did before this review), everything might seem a bit confusing. The game’s story is tailored towards Halo fans and drop multiple hints from previous games as well as subtle nods to the more hardcore fans. Even though the story was a bit confusing at the start, the game explains what is going on quite well and after just a couple of hours of play, I was hooked on the characters of the Spirit of Fire. I wanted to know what happens next and pushed on from mission to mission (there are 12 in total) just so I could get to the ending; and the beautifully crafted cinematics in between some missions.

I said pushed on, and it means exactly what you probably think it means. The gameplay itself quickly became boring and I had to push myself to get to the end. Each mission is in essence one of, or a combination of the following. Destroy a base, capture points or defend against enemy waves. The game always finds a reason for you to, for example, capture three watchtowers, or to hold the line for a specific amount of time. It is a tired formula, and I feel like Halo Wars 2 brings nothing new to the RTS genre. For me it is simply put: Boring.

Coupled with infinite loading screen bugs, lag when a boss used a crucial ability and some other bugs and glitches, for example a unit getting stuck, I am not impressed. However, for those who have only played games on console and are not a RTS veteran like myself, you might find the formula refreshing and exciting. That’s why reviews like this one are basically opinions about a person’s experience with the game; and the campaign did have some highlights for me as well. Hold the Line is one of my favourite missions, where you need to defend waves of enemy troops for 30 minutes.

Another fun mission is where you use snipers to spot targets for your artillery all while infiltrating an enemy compound in the hopes of infiltrating a ship. However, apart from those two missions I mentioned, the campaign is dull; all seven hours of it.

Yes, the whole campaign is only seven hours long, at best. I took my time and even did a lot of optional extras in a mission, but I saw the credit screen rolling in six hours and 52 minutes played. That wouldn’t have been so bad, unless you factor in that the finale was one of the most unsatisfying endings I have ever experienced.

Further, the game saying “local units” and “all units” every time you select your army, as you can hear in every video in this review, has been one of the most annoying thing’s I have ever experienced in gaming.

Rock, Paper, Scissor gameplay

At the heart of the gameplay is a rock, paper, scissor mechanic that just never stops churning. Build anti-vehicle infantry (for example a Cyclopes) to take down, you’ve guessed it, a tank. Build anti-air to take down a flying unit for example a Hornet…and round and round we go. The two factions in multiplayer and against AI, called the UNSC and The Defiled, aren’t all that varied. Yes, they look different, but the factions play pretty much the same way and base building is exactly the same. It all still just comes down to building anti-something units and countering your opponent.

There are some map elements that make strategic positioning possible, for example a high ground advantage and the use of garrisons to protect your infantry. Watch towers help you scout an enemy and therefore more easily counter them, giving you enough time to build the units you want. The only big difference is the leader powers, earned as you level up.

My favourite ability is Restoration Drones, which heals friendly units in an area of your choosing. In my experience, an opponent without Restoration Drones are left at a disadvantage for most of the early to mid-game.

Controlling your units is probably the best you will get on a console. The controls are intuitive and after just a few minutes in the tutorial missions, I felt comfortable with a controller in an RTS. That’s something the game does extremely well. Although I still missed a mouse and keyboard while playing the game, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. With that being said, Halo Wars 2 is a Play Anywhere title, which means if you purchased the game on Xbox One you can play it on PC as well. However, when I tried the game with a mouse and keyboard, it was evident just how much its gameplay was restricted due to the design surrounding a controller.

The Blitz effect

Blitz is a new, innovate mode, that is, in my opinion, the best part about Halo Wars 2. In Blitz, you need to capture more zones than your opponents and collect energy from energy cores dropped at certain times in a map. That might sound like standard multiplayer domination game modes, but Blitz has one big twist. Instead of building units, you have cards that you throw in the battlefield using energy which spawns a unit. Energy management and building a deck that suits your playstyle is key to victory here, as well as choosing which commander you want to use.  

Teamwork is absolutely crucial in Blitz and it is a very exciting game mode to play. It even has its own section in the main menu and is definitely one of the game’s selling points. However, even the Blitz mode that I enjoyed playing has some flaws. First off, it relies heavily on luck. If you don’t draw the correct cards, your opponent can crush you easily; with all the cards available, there is definitely a lot of luck involved, especially when you consider a four-player match. Secondly, you can purchase more card packs in the store from prices ranging from R59.50 for 3 packs to R1499 for 135 packs.

In the video above, my ally and I flank and enemy from both sides, capturing the crucial middle point as I draw first blood. You can see I used the Clone ability card to confuse my enemy before decimating his force, while my ally took a bit too long to move around the other side.

Seeing as even duplicate cards increase a specific unit’s power level and that the chances of unlocking a very rare card is obviously slim, the blitz mode can unfortunately be seen as somewhat of a pay-to-win affair. You can do daily and weekly challenges, for example “winning six match-made games”, to rank up and unlock more packs, but if someone purchases the 135 packs option, you won’t have a good chance of beating them.

Halo Wars 2 summary.jpg

The Verdict

Halo Wars 2 isn’t a terrible game, but it is not great either. The story, although intriguing at first, ended on a massive let-down. The gameplay is generic and lacks real strategic depth, and although the game is made with an Xbox One controller in mind, I can’t help but feel that the developers could have done more. The limitations of creating an RTS on console shouldn’t stop the game from having more varied units or factions, nor should the argument of “but it is an RTS on console” be seen as any kind of excuse of lag and bugs.

Halo Wars 2 is catered for Halo fans of course and I am sure many of them will enjoy it. If you want to play an RTS on console, Halo Wars 2 is probably your best bet. However, as someone who hasn’t played a game from the Halo franchise yet, but love the RTS genre, I simply cannot recommend the game to anyone except those who are Halo fans. Standing alone without the Halo name, Halo Wars 2 is a mediocre RTS at its best.  

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"one of the most unsatisfying endings I have ever experienced"

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