Halo Wars 2


PC, Xbox One

Oh boy, the Spar­tans. If one unit sums up Halo Wars 2’ s ap­proach to re­al­time strat­egy, it’s the se­ries’ revered su­per­sol­diers. They leave en­emy grunts cow­er­ing in their wake, re­duce ve­hi­cles to piles of twisted metal, and are ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing bar­rages of mis­siles that would drop a tank, with lit­tle but a de­pleted shield to show for it. Their spe­cial, mean­while, sees them leap­ing high be­fore slam­ming down, dev­as­tat­ing any units in the vicin­ity – un­less you land on, say, a Wraith, in which case it’ll be yours to com­mand in a mat­ter of mo­ments. Sure, this mightn’t in­volve much more strate­gic nous than a kid grab­bing a Trans­form­ers toy and stomp­ing it across a chess­board. All the same, it’s a de­light to wit­ness.

Spar­tans apart, Cre­ative Assem­bly – hav­ing taken over the se­ries from the now-de­funct En­sem­ble Stu­dios – has done lit­tle to up­set the tac­ti­cal equi­lib­rium of the eight-year-old orig­i­nal. Some mi­nor ad­just­ments might throw re­turn­ing play­ers (com­mands mapped to trig­gers and bumpers have been swapped) but the core of the game is rel­a­tively un­changed. Ig­nor­ing the aes­thetic im­prove­ments, this feels like a straight fol­low-up, with lit­tle ev­i­dence of a new stu­dio at the helm.

In terms of the con­trols, that’s no bad thing. They mightn’t match the el­e­gance and flex­i­bil­ity of Pik­min 3 when it comes to a con­sole RTS, but they’re among the most in­tu­itive re­place­ments for a tra­di­tional mouse-and-key­board setup. Cre­ative Assem­bly has sen­si­bly opted to keep the orig­i­nal con­fig­u­ra­tion pretty much in­tact. Tap­ping A lets you se­lect in­di­vid­ual units; hold­ing it lets you grab a clus­ter. You can cy­cle be­tween types within larger groups, and quickly se­lect all lo­cal or global units, while the D-pad lets you in­stantly zip be­tween your bases and the front­line; com­bined with the right trig­ger, you can also as­sign spe­cific groups to the four com­pass points. Sim­ply, it works.

There are two re­source types this time, which can be har­vested from si­los on the bat­tle­field, with the rest cre­ated at your bases. In the­ory, this in­tro­duces an­other tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion – you may need more sup­ply pads than power gen­er­a­tors, de­pend­ing on the kind of army you’re look­ing to build – but in prac­tice it feels largely un­nec­es­sary. For the most part, Halo Wars 2 still feels like an ac­tion game mas­querad­ing as an RTS. Nat­u­rally, it pays to learn the rock-paper-scis­sors con­nec­tions be­tween units: if you’re fac­ing anti-air Reavers, it’s wise to get your Hor­nets to hang back and pro­tect them with a clutch of ar­moured Cy­clops troops be­fore un­leash­ing death from above. But of­ten it’s more about amass­ing a large army, point­ing it in the di­rec­tion of your op­po­nent and watch­ing the py­rotech­nics com­mence, weigh­ing in oc­ca­sion­ally with mis­siles and mines to de­bil­i­tate en­emy units or re­cov­ery pods to heal your own.

Un­til, sud­denly, it isn’t. Through­out a 12-mis­sion cam­paign, you fre­quently get away with brute-forc­ing your way to suc­cess – though par times en­cour­age ef­fi­ciency, most op­tional ob­jec­tives sim­ply ask you to be thor­ough – but on oc­ca­sion you’ll find both units and re­sources are lim­ited and you need to play with cau­tion. Such changes of tempo are wel­come in some re­spects: a mis­sion where a small ca­bal of units is forced to dig in against waves of at­tack­ers is beau­ti­fully judged. But in terms of wel­com­ing new play­ers to an un­fa­mil­iar genre, it’s per­haps un­wise to veer so sharply be­tween le­niency and strict­ness. And though there’s au­dio feed­back for every ac­tion, in the heat of con­flict it be­comes a ca­coph­ony of com­pet­ing sounds and shouts, so it may be tough for begin­ners to ef­fec­tively parse.

Still, it’s rare that los­ing a hand­ful of units is fa­tal when you can sim­ply throw more into the fray. Base con­struc­tion is lim­ited to de­fined build spots, giv­ing you one less thing to worry about, while af­ford­ing Cre­ative Assem­bly more con­trol over the pac­ing of the map. That in turn al­lows the de­vel­oper to slot in some strik­ing set-pieces: one stage, for ex­am­ple, re­quires you to at­tack a se­ries of valu­able tar­gets, while the en­emy spo­rad­i­cally calls in swarms of drones to pro­tect them, forc­ing you to pull back. No mat­ter: you’re promptly given a mas­sive EMP to take them down. While the cam­paign of­ten lets you roll up with the big guns and just out­mus­cle your op­po­nent, that’s much harder to do in on­line matches. The stan­dard com­pet­i­tive game types are en­joy­able if un­re­mark­able, though they’re el­e­vated by the va­ri­ety in leader pow­ers. AI ally Isabel can in­tro­duce holo­graphic troops as a dis­trac­tion; an­tag­o­nist Atriox’s de­fen­sive op­tions keep him in the game for longer, while his right-hand Brute Dec­imus is per­fect for those who pre­fer to rush their ri­vals. The stand­out mode, how­ever, is Blitz, which gives you a deck of cards with which to de­ploy new units as you bat­tle over cap­ture points. Its fran­tic pace, as you scurry be­tween zones, hop­ing for a kind draw – though you can shuf­fle your hand for a small en­ergy cost – suits the game, and while mi­cro­trans­ac­tions may yet prove in­tru­sive at a higher level, play­ing through the cam­paign alone should give you enough packs to get by. A wave-based Fire­fight mode is an en­ter­tain­ing co-op al­ter­na­tive, but rather over­whelm­ing tack­led alone.

It’s a scrappy kind of strat­egy, then, but Halo Wars 2 com­pen­sates in vis­ual drama – the ex­plo­sions when a base fi­nally falls make it worth the ef­fort and units you ex­pended, while an ODST drop is sim­i­larly sen­sa­tional. There’s a tac­tile plea­sure in the smaller an­i­ma­tions, too, like Pel­i­can drop­ships de­posit­ing ex­ten­sions to your home base. Sac­ri­fic­ing a de­gree of nu­ance at the al­tar of spec­ta­cle is a trade-off most Halo fans will be happy to make. Yes, at times it feels like you’re just smash­ing toys to­gether and watch­ing the car­nage un­fold. But what won­der­ful toys they are.

Cre­ative Assem­bly has done lit­tle to up­set the tac­ti­cal equi­lib­rium of the eight-yearold orig­i­nal

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