Halo Wars 2 may be a sequel to 2009’s Halo Wars, but for all practical purposes it feels like a real-time strategy game in the tone of the first-person shooter that started it all — Halo: Combat Evolved.
Much like that game popularised first-person shooters on consoles with a heady mix of intuitive controls and slick story-telling, Halo Wars 2 does just the same for the strategy genre. While its predecessor was lauded for its accessibility, Halo Wars didn’t explain its finer points too well. Furthermore, the plot was so far removed from the overarching narrative of the other games in the series that it felt disconnected.
Halo Wars 2 manages to rectify these concerns swimmingly. It ties in neatly with the events of other Halo games, taking place shortly after what happened in Halo 5 and 28 years the proceedings of the first Halo Wars game. You’re in control of the troops of a giant space cruiser known as the Spirit of Fire. And while its the same ship and characters from Halo Wars, you find yourself on the Ark — a sprawling planet like installation from other games - against a new alien faction known as the Banished.
From the opening moments that set up what you’ll be up against to the introduction of many a likeable character, Halo Wars 2 feels like a new game rather than a sequel. Even if you haven’t played previous Halo games, the mix of gorgeous cinematics and cut-scenes rendered in-game do well to tell a tale that’s well-paced enough to keep you gripped till the end (which hints at a sequel, no surprise there). But this doesn’t mean, there’s nothing for hardcore Halo loyalists. Peppered through the game are logs that give you more information on the events leading up to Halo Wars 2 and the areas you’re in.
Although Halo Wars 2’s story treads the fine line between accessibility with optional depth for fans, the gameplay sticks itself firmly in the court of the former. This isn’t a bad thing. Be it cycling through troops at your disposal or coordinating an assault on enemy base, you’re never more than a tap or two of a button to do what’s needed. All of this is lucidly explained in the game’s optional tutorials, hints on loading screens, and within missions too. Even when you load your progress mid-mission, Halo Wars 2 briefs you on your objectives before you can continue, a welcome touch ensuring you’re never lost on what you need to do.
The simplicity extends to gameplay mechanics. While strategy games traditionally focus on managing your base and resources such as power and supplies as well as combat, Halo Wars 2 tends to veer towards the latter. Although you will build a number of structures, your efforts are mainly targeted towards taking the fight to the Banished.
With a thirteen missions to peruse in its campaign, developer Creative Assembly has managed to cram in a welcome amount of variety. Your army will square off against powerful bosses, hold off certain death deep behind enemy lines, and explore alien structures while decimating any resistance in your way.
Through it all, there’s a certain ebb and flow to proceedings that makes Halo Wars 2 enjoyable. Soon enough you’ll realise that infantry units work well against air units, while air units are great against vehicles, and vehicles can tear infantry to shreds. Battles in Halo Wars 2 are fought on this principle with subtle variations depending on the special abilities you have at your disposal such as being able to heal your troops quickly, or calling in an orbital strike to thin the opposition.
As for your units, they’re a varied bunch. Be it powerful tanks, or flame-thrower toting space marines, or even the franchise mascot Spartans — cybernetically enhanced supersoldiers that can take down swathes of foes - the emphasis is on an assortment of options at your disposal. Instead of each of them having a deep skill tree, you’re restricted to one or two alternate abilities at best.
For most part, it works well — particularly in the game’s multiplayer modes like Blitz, which combines Halo 5’s Warzone with Hearthstone’s cards. Halo Wars 2 does away with base building and resources altogether, demanding you to create a perfect set of cards consisting of a slew of units for you to summon in battle. Blitz is a great take on conventional real-time strategy multiplayer (which is still present and pits one against the other), what with the fast pace of play favouring quick thinking instead of mulling over options. This could be to the detriment of those looking for something slower or more cerebral — Halo Wars 2 isn’t for you.
Other grouses include difficulty, which we found rather erratic. Early missions were on the tougher side, while latter ones were a lot easier to accomplish. In terms of technical concerns, there were minor but visible frame-rate drops in certain areas of intense firefights. Odd since Halo Wars 2, while looking serviceable, doesn’t seem to stress the Xbox One in any major fashion. In fact zooming in to see your base or units up close doesn’t yield much detail either. We haven’t played it on PC yet, but we’d suspect it would fair better on all counts.
With a single-player campaign lasting around 15 hours, and multiplayer to follow, Halo Wars 2 is yet another solid entry in the franchise. Its minor problems do little to make this worth checking out for fans and newcomers alike.
Rating (out of 10): 8
We played a review copy of Halo Wars 2 on the Xbox One S. The game is available from February 21 and costs Rs.4,000 ($60 in the US) for Windows 10 PC and Xbox One.