Halo Wars 2 Review

Review of: Halo Wars 2
Tyler Treese

Reviewed by:
On February 16, 2017
Last modified:February 16, 2017


Halo Wars 2 isn't afraid to mess with the standard RTS formula, and it's a better game because of it.

Halo Wars 2

Real-time strategy games don’t have a great track record on consoles. This is for a number of reasons, but the big one is that the complexities of the genre are tailor-made for a mouse and keyboard rather than a controller. However, there’s one notable example that showed that the genre could work well on even when it isn’t on PC, and that’s the Xbox 360 exclusive Halo Wars. Despite being a success both critically and commercially, the 2009 release didn’t usher in a golden era of RTS games on consoles. Instead, the genre continued to get PC ports that lacked polish, and it seems like all of the design lessons that developer Ensemble Studios had shown in the company’s swan song went ignored.

Fast forward eight years, and developer Creative Assembly has been given the Halo Wars mantle. This isn’t their first attempt at making an RTS game for consoles, as their Australian branch released Stormrise in March 2009, less than a month after the release of Halo Wars. Unlike its beloved competition, however, Stormrise had unruly controls and wasn’t able to find an audience. Can the studio behind Total War right their wrongs and gain redemption on consoles with Halo Wars 2?

The answer is a resounding yes, which means there’s finally a new real-time strategy game that feels truly at home on a console. If you’ve played the original, you’ll find that it controls almost identically. That’s a good thing, since there’s no reason to fix what isn’t broken. This means that players can select all the units on-screen with a press of the right bumper, and select all of the units period with a double tap. There are further intricacies that are fantastically taught in the game’s basic and advanced tutorial, such as switching between individual units and being able to quickly warp around the map by using the directional pad, but it does a tremendous job of making a complex genre feel immediately accessible.

Despite the control scheme working very well, it’s still no replacement for a mouse and keyboard. It seems like Creative Assembly understands that the controls are only one part of the puzzle though, as they’ve carefully designed the game’s campaign to never throw too much at the player at once. There were inevitably stressful moments where I started to fumble around with the controller and pressed the wrong buttons, but the combat is paced in such a way that I was always able to come back from my mistakes.

For those that are into the Halo lore, they’ll be glad to know that the cast of Halo Wars returns in the sequel, although they’ve been in suspended animation for the past 28 years. There’s a whole lot of background here for those that want it (it even takes place after the events of Halo 5), but the story also works pretty well as a standalone tale. Despite being someone who has zero desire to read any Halo novels and doesn’t care about the expanded universe, I was still able to enjoy the plot and there are plenty of file logs to read in case additional information is needed.

What’s most impressive about the campaign is how different each mission feels from one another. From the endearingly awkward cinematic chase sequence that kicks things off to a later level that had me freeing members of my fleet that had been taken captive, I was always doing something new. It’s not always a roaring success, as it sometimes gets away from the genre’s strengths, but it never strays far enough to become irksome. One of my favorite levels basically turned Halo Wars into a wave-based tower defense game, as I was on a small island and had to constantly fight enemies that were coming from all angles. It’s this sense of variety that makes the game feel truly like a Halo game from another perspective rather than an RTS title with a Halo skin slapped on.

While there are a lot of unique situations shown off in the highly replayable campaign (which has unlockable variants and even co-op play), this is still a real-time strategy game at its core. Players will be building bases, managing supplies in order to create new units and sending in advantageous troops in order to win battles. Those looking for a more traditional RTS challenge, however, will love the multiplayer (which can be played online or against the computer).

There are a variety of different modes including genre standards like Deathmatch and Domination, where you have to capture nodes on the map, to more unique offerings like Strongholds, a fast-paced mode where players attempt to control the most bases before time expires. I found everything on offer here to be quite fun, but I really enjoyed seeing just how crazy a six-person (two teams of three) Deathmatch gets. One of the few disappointments about Halo Wars 2 is that it’s missing several modes that were in the original game such as Keepaway (capture the flag), although it doesn’t hurt the overall package much since there’s still plenty to do.

The most creative multiplayer mode is called Blitz, which marries real-time strategy gameplay with the deck-building that’s seen in card games like Hearthstone. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. Blitz is a fast-paced mode that has players using cards to spawn units instead of building bases, and unleash powerful abilities. Since cards are randomly distributed from your deck, it feels a lot more random and less reliant on pure skill. As I’m not much of an RTS purist, I wasn’t bothered by it, and I had a lot of fun customizing my deck (you can new cards by finishing missions of the campaign and spending in-game currency on them). It undoubtedly feels out of place in a game where everything else is entirely skill-based, but I’m glad that Creative Assembly is willing to take risks and try something new. Since these matches are typically short, it’s a mode that I found myself going to when I didn’t want to fully commit to a lengthy multiplayer session that could last a half-hour.

Creative Assembly manages to successfully carry the torch for Ensemble Studios, as Halo Wars 2 marks a new high for RTS games on consoles. Once again it’s shown that the real-time strategy genre can not only work on consoles, but thrive if it’s designed with a controller in mind. The action it throws at the player is intense, and the varied base building opens up a ton of different strategies to try out. Simply put, this is one of the best reasons to own an Xbox One.

This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.

Halo Wars 2

Halo Wars 2 isn't afraid to mess with the standard RTS formula, and it's a better game because of it.