Halo Wars 2 Review: RTS Awakens From Cryosleep

By: Ryan Cox | February 16th, 2017

When I first bore witness to the reveal of Halo Wars 2, I wasn’t quite sure where to set my expectations. The original installment, Halo Wars, was a fascinating new perspective for the Halo franchise. The title injected the real-time strategy genre into a franchise that was predominantly comprised of first-person shooter games. Nevertheless, Halo Wars attracted fans, both new and old, to tell a refreshing prequel story and introduce RTS multiplayer concepts to not only Halo fans, but also the console audience as a whole.

What possibly could 343 Industries, Creative Assembly, and Microsoft Studios find up their sleeves for a sequel that I have anticipated for nearly eight years? Halo Wars 2 finds itself releasing in a fascinatingly unique position: a new core developer in Creative Assembly, a new bearer of the Halo franchise in 343 Industries, an entirely new gaming industry and ecosystem, and most importantly, an entirely different place in the Halo universe. Let’s get started.


Presentation

The ongoing partnership between 343 Industries and Blur Studios has proven successful once again. Halo Wars 2’s cutscenes, although slightly low in quantity (seven total), are undeniably gorgeous. Action, character performances, and cinematography have once again all been handled beautifully by Blur and I can’t wait to see once again what they bring to the Halo franchise in the future.

Halo Wars 2 soundtrack doesn’t particularly stand out amongst others in the franchise, but has strong themes familiar to a traditional sci-fi epic. Additionally, the newest renditions of some of the iconic tracks from the original Halo Wars were delightful to hear, and the energy of the final two climactic missions was greatly amplified by an exciting score.

The game’s user interface is also notably clear, fluid, and functional.

And finally, it goes without saying that the return of many elements of the classic Halo art style is greatly welcomed and appreciated.


Gameplay

Halo Wars 2 intends to captivate players with the honor and thrill of commanding large armies on the battlefield. Halo Wars 1 did an impressive job at bringing RTS gameplay and controls to console for a large audience, and although the original installment may have lacked the depth found in popular RTS titles, there was a unique cogency in its simplicity and how it was presented. The charm of hearing ‘All Units!’ shouted hundreds of times per game will never get old. Halo Wars 2 maintains this simplicity for its console audience while also expanding on traditional RTS values and complexities for its simultaneous Windows 10 PC release.

When I participated in the first Halo Wars 2 Multiplayer Beta, I was surprisingly disappointed. I expected bugs and hiccups, but something about the gameplay’s presentation and feel seemed… off. The lack of contrast and identifiability with UI and base building, the selection of units and enemies didn’t feel as crisp as the original Halo Wars, the controls were less intuitive, and more.

Thankfully, majority of these issues have been ironed out and improved in great ways. Halo Wars 2’s new and improved economy provides clear context regarding unit management and the importance of each resource available to the player. Halo Wars 2 still features the same pillars of the RTS gameplay that was established in Halo Wars 1—base building, resource management, unit/leader power upgrades, and more. Campaign missions take advantage of these pillars and offer consistently fresh gameplay opportunities that test the player’s ability to manage their army of soldiers on the battlefield.

I found the majority of Halo Wars 2’s story missions very enjoyable. Objectives included tower/lane defense, boss fights, enemy base destructions, multiplayer-themed 3-Plot control, and more. The occasional filler missions were a bit of a drag, but still offered fun wave-defense gameplay moments. One of the most notable gameplay moments involved a climactic and fast-paced boss fight against Decimus, one of Atriox’s strongest commanders, in which he calls in an orbital strike on himself that will damage any of the player’s units in range. The mechanic doesn’t introduce a ton of depth, but it adds a new element that players must think and act upon when fighting the mission’s final battle.

The final two missions of the campaign are without a doubt the most enjoyable and well designed. The former pits the player against The Banished in a pseudo-multiplayer Domination match, but also includes a major Forerunner threat that both allied and enemy units must remain aware of. I humbly admit that I had to replay this mission due to my underestimation of its difficulty. The final mission of the campaign is an all-out explosion fest, wherein the Spirit of Fire lends you all of its strongest forces. Resource management and base defense are thrown out the window and the player is given a colossal army to cause as much destruction as they please—an extremely enjoyable way to end a climactic and energetic story.

I played through the campaign on Normal difficulty, and concluded with a rough playtime of 6-8 hours. Each mission, without rushing or focusing too hard on completion time, took about 20-40 minutes to complete on average. Additionally, missions feature numerous side objectives that vary in difficulty level, and will undoubtedly provide a large amount of replayability for future campaign sessions.

Halo Wars 2’s gameplay is extremely refined. I can’t promise that future gimmicks and imbalances won’t surface, especially in multiplayer, but the game’s resource, ability, and unit economy feels more fleshed out and balanced than its predecessor. Unit pathing has been improved, AI enemies pose more of a challenge, especially at higher difficulties, and strategies and tactics are at the forefront of how you approach every aspect of Halo Wars 2’s gameplay.


Story

Halo Wars 2 follows the story of the UNSC Spirit of Fire and its crew, led by Captain James Cutter. At the conclusion of the first Halo Wars installment, the Spirit of Fire was left adrift in space after sacrificing their slipspace capabilities in their previous battle.

The sequel’s first act opens as Cutter and his crew awake from cyrosleep and find themselves above The Ark, one of the most massive Forerunner creations, and the birthplace of the Halo rings. During the events of Halo 3, Humanity discovered The Ark via a portal on Earth, but it is quickly revealed that said portal has shut down within the past five months. A new force has now laid claim to the colossal landscape deep within space. Unfortunately, the first plot hole of Halo Wars 2’s story is introduced in the very first cutscene, when it is established that a separate entity has brought the UNSC ship through slipspace to arrive at The Ark. This fact is never directly questioned or addressed again by any characters throughout the remainder of the campaign, and the player never discovers who is responsible for the Spirit of Fire’s spontaneous change in location.

An early Spartan scouting mission issued by Captain Cutter reveals a severe lack of human activity on The Ark. The recon team discovers a weathered and abandoned research facility with one lone survivor—a UNSC logistics AI by the name of Isabel.

During the first encounter with Isabel, her confusion at the Spartans’ lack of awareness and knowledge regarding the Covenant and Halo events was a creative way to provide context for the situation that the main characters find themselves in. The captain and crew of the Spirit of Fire are very much in the dark, they lack 28 years of knowledge and information, and their only source of guidance is Isabel, a non-military AI who has witnessed the wrath of the enemy first hand. This dynamic between characters and their respective awareness of the current situation was a strong way to begin the story, but the theme never takes advantage of its full potential as the story progresses. This introduction scene is quickly brought to a halt when the Spartans are decimated in hand to hand combat by a hulking, armor-clad Brute by the name of Atriox.

The Spartans manage to escape Atriox’s surprise assault and deliver Isabel to the Spirit of Fire, where she meets Cutter, as well as Ellen Anders, the ship’s resident professor and scientist. A primary chunk of Atriox’s backstory is then delivered in a flashback told from Isabel’s perspective; she explains that her outpost and the humans stationed there were attacked and that she failed to protect them. Although it is understandably difficult to provide context and backstory for an entirely new antagonist before the first act of a story, Isabel’s speech about Atriox didn’t feel natural. Aside from the fact that the entire exposition for the entity who is supposedly stronger than the Covenant from the original Halo trilogy was being crammed into a five minute cutscene, Isabel’s dialogue and performances occasionally felt overly-emotional, but were not inevitably damaging to the game’s overall storytelling. Some of her earlier emotional behavior becomes justified in a later cutscene, but a lot of the game’s initial rising action felt forced and not fully thought out. The performance was still admirable.

Atriox, who has been advertised and marketed as a menacing opponent and capable adversary for Cutter and the Spirit of Fire, is unfortunately absent far too frequently throughout the game’s story. Large portions of the game’s first and second acts are comprised of the Spirit of Fire attempting to identify and attack The Banished’s leadership and uncover Atriox’s intentions and motivations on The Ark. It’s unfortunate, considering the overwhelming negative response to the disconnect between Halo 5’s marketing and story, to see 343 Industries and Microsoft once again misrepresent a game’s story through trailers and additional marketing/advertisement materials.

Atriox is made out to be a brilliant tactician who provides a constant back-and-forth dynamic in the war against Cutter. Because the marketing continuously suggested the theme of “Knowing Your Enemy”, I was left extremely disappointed when there was little to no dynamic between Cutter and Atriox whatsoever throughout the game; the two only share one brief conversation of dialogue throughout the story. Halo Wars 2 also provides no context for Atriox’s motivations throughout the storyline, and you rarely see the conflict from his perspective, except in moments of defeat. We become aware that he has taken over The Ark’s portal network, but little context is provided to the player to feel opposed or threatened by Atriox. Majority of the game’s content feels like a war between the UNSC and the Banished, not a chess match between Cutter and Atriox, as the marketing had suggested. It is also a bit difficult to support Cutter’s claim that the ‘galaxy would be at the mercy of a monster’ when the only reason to dislike or feel threatened by Atriox was the exposition given by Isabel after the first mission.

Additionally, the game’s first and second acts contain a massive period of time without cutscenes or pivotal plot points. Despite the gameplay feeling consistently fresh throughout this entire period with great mission variety, it was still heavily disappointing to find a majority of Halo Wars 2’s story featured in the third act of the game. A handful of these missions, featuring Red Team Spartan Alice as a core character, are blatant filler and contribute very little to the overall efforts of other characters and the progression of the plot.

With those negatives aside, I think it’s important that I recognize the excellent components of Halo Wars 2’s storytelling. As mentioned previously, Atriox and his supposed dynamic against Cutter is nearly nonexistent in the game’s narrative, however there is a second overarching objective for our heroes aboard the Spirit of Fire—to make contact with humanity and the UNSC and escape The Ark alive. As the second act winds down, Professor Anders and Isabel formulate a strategy involving a Halo ring to go about achieving this goal. Although I won’t go too far in detail, I will say that the most enjoyable parts of Halo Wars 2’s story occur once this plan is set in motion and the third act picks up speed. Isabel also provides an exciting perspective to help formulate this plan, and proves her own abilities as a talented tactician and strategist as well.

Despite the second and third acts containing a clear vision and exciting story path for our characters, the very basis of the UNSC’s strategy is flawed when you realize it was formulated using another plot hole as its foundation. The person who formulates the epic plan to utilize the Halo ring is Professor Anders, who should technically have absolutely no clue what a Halo ring is, considering she’s been asleep for 28 years while the Halo events occurred. Granted, it’s likely that Isabel could have briefed Cutter and Anders about the Halo events off-screen, but it still seems illogical that Anders is somehow able to summon Halo rings from The Ark and disable their firing mechanisms without any prior knowledge whatsoever. Having a narrative’s pivotal characters progress through the story lacking 28 years of information is an fascinating premise, but not if that premise is abandoned by the game’s fourth cutscene.

Halo Wars 2’s ending provides an enormous amount of setup and storytelling material for future installments in the Halo universe, but its overall, self-contained story felt weak and anti-climactic. The plot to protect and rescue the Spirit of Fire and contact humanity was well-written, despite its plot holes and missing information, but the advertised dynamic between leaders and tacticians is not present in the game’s story, and that fact is exacerbated even further by the campaign’s abrupt conclusion. No characters stand out in specific, but they all have their moments wherein they respectively contribute to the plot, and despite Isabel’s occasional odd lines or moments, she was definitely the most unique role in the game’s cast of characters.


Multiplayer

After being tossed around during a campaign and story filled with ups and downs, I was surprisingly delighted with Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer offerings, despite my qualms with the multiplayer beta. All of the game’s admirable gameplay traits get carried over into multiplayer, where you can compete against AI with varying difficulty options, or other players in PvP custom games and matchmaking.


Halo Wars 2 offers three standard multiplayer modes: Deathmatch, Domination, and Strongholds, which each provide different rhythms for a match and offer different paths to employ new strategies. Strongholds offers fast games with a flat time limit, Domination is a classic 3-Plot point-based mode that is also featured in the campaign, and Deathmatch is the classic ‘Destroy the Enemy HQ’ style of Halo Wars gameplay.

A lot of the gimmicks present in the original Halo Wars have been removed or replaced with more dynamic and strategic gameplay options. Unit purchases, group movements/attacks, resource management, and more all are strong tests of a player’s micromanagement and capability to adapt and make fast strategical decisions. Counter units, such as the Anti-Infantry Hellbringers, or the Anti-Air Wolverines, now fit more of a niche role used to augment your army, rather than acting as hard-counters (I’m looking at you, Halo Wars 1 Cobras and Cryo Bombs).

Leader powers, although they don’t have as much personality and charm relative to the original installment, are now more intricate and fleshed out. Each leader brings a tree of passive and active abilities and talents to the table that players can invest in as a match progresses. Unlike the original Halo Wars, one player using Captain Cutter can employ far different tactics and strategies than someone playing the exact same leader. Player choice and flexible gameplay is at the forefront of Halo Wars 2 multiplayer, and I have a feeling it will continuously rope me in for many hours to come.


Miscellaneous

A lot of my qualms with Halo Wars 2 are slight and minor notes, so I decided to provide a bullet list of some of the things that I encountered.

  • I’ve experienced about three full game crashes so far, both in campaign and multiplayer. The game doesn’t hitch or freeze too frequently, but it is something that I encountered and is cause for concern.
  • One of Halo Wars 2’s most enjoyable campaign missions can’t actually be failed. Don’t attack the Banished enemies, and nothing will happen when they reach their objective. This is a glaring quality assurance issue that I’m surprised made it through to the final release.
  • Certain controls feel slightly more restrictive compared to Halo Wars 1. In specific, the All Units command is more difficult to access, and scrolling through your list of selected units is sticky and sometimes completely non-responsive. This was one of the most vital parts of unit management in the original Halo Wars, so it’s a bit unfortunate that its quality has degraded in the sequel.
  • Halo Wars 2 offers no alternate or customizable control schemes/button layouts.
  • Halo Wars 2 does not feature a spectator mode or ranking system at launch.

 


Conclusion

Halo Wars 2 is a capable successor to the original Halo Wars, and a sturdy addition to the Halo franchise. It introduces new fluidity and flexibility to gameplay throughout singleplayer and multiplayer, and features a well-written overarching story and well-rounded cast of characters. A lack of character development for Atriox and The Banished was unfortunate to see, and the story isn’t without its fair share of plot holes and missing information, but there is a strong foundation to build upon as 343 Industries prepares for Halo 6 and future Halo installments. Perhaps if the game was marketed/advertised differently, my expectations for the characters and story would have been in a different place.

Not mentioned in this review is Halo Wars 2’s new card-based Blitz multiplayer mode, which didn’t entice me too much, but adds a new department to spend more time with the game’s well-refined gameplay in both a PvP and PvE setting. This mode seems to me as more of an ‘icing on the cake’ addition rather than a forceful micro-transaction gaming environment, so I don’t think it creates too much reason to be concerned.

Creative Assembly and 343 Industries have created a multiplayer suite that offers variety and depth, new metagame and strategy potential, and a strong focus on player creativity and individuality. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with Halo Wars 2’s multiplayer and I have a feeling it will be seeing a lot more playtime on my console in the years to come.

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