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