HALO WARS 2
You had me at Halo
If videogaming had a bible, its first and foremost commandment might read: “thou shalt not porteth any real-time strategy game to home consoles”. It’s fitting then that a series so obsessed with human heresy should be the one to defy this common sense edict, and do so with admirable success.
Set some 28 years after the events of the first game, HaloWars2 finds the crew of the stranded UNSC Spirit Of Fire drifting listlessly through space. Their cryosleep shuteye soon comes to an end, however, as the ship is pulled off target and into the path of The Ark—a Halo-belching space factory that also serves as a sort of sentient species day care. How thoughtful.
Vying for control of the facility is the Banished, a group of Brute-force Covenant renegades, eager to slaughter both people and prophets for, well … profits. Their leader, Atriox, is a hulking great ogre of a merc, backed by vast armies of retooled Covenant tech and some equally bruising lieutenants. Waving the flag for the UNSC, meanwhile, are the returning characters of Captain Cutter and the always-impetuous Professor Anders—now fully performance-captured by a new set of actors. Rounding out the cast are the remaining Spartans of Red Team and a shipboard AI named Isabel—a surprisingly withdrawn figure rocked by Atriox’s massacre of her colony.
Lost for words
Together they make for an interesting mix. Unfortunately, where the actual narrative is concerned, HaloWars2 proves no better than ordinary— another missed opportunity in a franchise that’s practically brimming with them. Indeed, as even the most ardent Halo fan will admit, the series has always been better at crafting new worlds than in creating coherent narratives with which to fill them. There as here, dialogue largely consists of frenzied exposition, prompting players to pursue one shiny new MacGuffin before ushering you on to the next. Effort has been made to achieve organic character growth, but it isn’t paced well enough, with the resulting story beats feeling too often hurried or forced.
Take Atriox, for example. An early cutscene does a good job of imbuing the character with menace— something sorely lacking since the Covvies started blathering away in English. The following cutscene goes one better, raising a curious measure of sympathy for this terrifying beast. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the supposedly intelligent monster becomes just another adversary, bellowing out threats as would any other Brute.
A similar charge could also be levelled at the human cast, with Cutter’s decision to battle the
Banished (on behalf of his supposedly familial crew), and Isabel’s quest to avenge her dead colonists both feeling underdeveloped. There are some winning performances here, but they’re undermined, both by the immediacy of the mission and the plot’s inability to develop its characters. A generous codex feature does help to alleviate some of these issues. What story there is here is fine—there just isn’t ever enough of it.
You might argue that this particular issue has everything to do with the cost of farming out cutscenes. Here, as in the original, that work is turned over to Blur Studio. Blur’s work is, in a word, sumptuous, and no doubt incredibly expensive—enough perhaps to put the total kybosh on lengthier moments of character. Talk about seeing your money up on screen. You could pulp Richie Rich and smear him over an IMAX screen and still see less cash on display.
Blur’s work looks absolutely stunning here—approaching a level of CGI majesty that almost pole vaults the uncanny valley altogether. Of course, it isn’t all showy effects and raw CGI horsepower. Special mention should also be made of the game’s art direction. Seeing a swarm of Sentinels imitate their namesakes from the Matrix saga, or a few dozen Ghosts all pouring over a cliffside at sunset both make for some distinct visual treats. It’s just a shame that these moments also have the effect of rendering the rest of the game somewhat less impressive.
A certain dip in quality is to be expected of course—just as it was when Blur lent its talents to The
Master ChiefCollection. This is an RTS after all, its camera pulled out far further from the action than any third or first-person shooter. That said, some viewers may still be surprised at the sheer gulf between cutscenes and gameplay, with certain in-game textures looking decidedly dull. Make no mistake, however; Halo
Wars2 is a fine-looking title. New developer Creative Assembly has clearly opted for a more saturated, ever-so-slightly cartoonish look here, with the payoff being that every explosion, plasma burst, and/or rocket trail appears both visually punchy and gratifying. It may lack the sheer grit and grime of the famous Halo3 diorama, but when the flak starts flying HaloWars2 really comes into its own.
You might expect that the game’s visual clout is sacrificed in order to increase scale—less flashy graphics for more grunts on the ground. Oddly, however, that doesn’t seem to be the case—with battles that are indeed larger, but not by the order of magnitude you may have expected from an Xbox One sequel. It feels disappointing for sure, but entirely understandable given the difficulty of translating a complex RTS schema onto home consoles.
Every button is used here, and used smartly—meaning that you’ll seldom feel frustrated, just so long as you play the game as its developer intends. Micromanagement is kept to a minimum, with an almost AgeOf
Empires- like emphasis on grouping up clods of well-balanced units and throwing them at the nearest opposition. A certain level of depth is also achieved by granting certain units secondary attacks, though it can often prove fiddly to execute them in a hurry.
For the most part, battles are decided less by pure skill and more by the particular makeup of your army. Like its predecessor, HaloWars2 operates on a simple rock/paper/scissors system that grants air, ground and vehicle units a decided advantage or disadvantage against the other two types, respectively.
It may be a bit odd to see airborne fighters shattered by the might of a ground unit, but it’s a necessary caveat in a system that works well overall. Skilled players are also well advised to make use of the game’s D-pad keybind system, a simple concept, but one that offers more
influence over the outcome of every battle. Unfortunately, this solution becomes somewhat less appropriate when dividing up your forces for a pincer movement or holding action, at which point you might theoretically require three separate binds for each of your individual armies. You can of course still pick out these units manually, but it makes for a clunky, time-consuming alternative.
All told, it’s often best to keep your units together, save for a few troops to defend your most vulnerable bases. The campaign seems to reinforce this notion, with a good chunk of its 12 missions tasking you with slowly driving Atriox off the map. Occasional defence missions do crop up, however, and make for a nice change of pace, though a lack of resources often prevents players from maintaining separate forces at every pass. A small selection of skull challenges, and optional objectives help to round out the narrative package, though it’s unlikely to incentivize many to return for a second tour of duty. Compared to its predecessor, Halo
Wars2 certainly feels like a more confident outing, but it’s largely a case of careful iteration over any large-scale changes. To its credit, developer Creative Assembly hasn’t attempted to fix what wasn’t broken, but the lack of new additions— outside of a heavily rejigged multiplayer suite, now more in line with its RTS contemporaries—still feels a little disappointing.
A greater emphasis on scale, and on keybindings— say perhaps through a radial dial menu—might have been welcome, as would the ability to hunker down behind cover à la
Company Of Heroes. The game’s current alternative—a series of defensive hotspots, similar in use to those encountered in Republic
Commando— prove insufficient, particularly as you’re unable to build them yourself. Overwhelmingly defensive players need not apply.
Given its fairly intimate scale (at least for a real-time strategy adventure) it’s also a shame that there aren’t more opportunities for heroes to show off their skills. Spartans are still able to initiate vehicle jacks of course, but that’s about it. Branching out into more regular combat situations might have been an idea—perhaps by aping
Dawn Of War’s much-loved kill-sync animations, for instance. Where sound design is concerned,
Halo Wars 2 puts in a solid shift, though there’s nothing particularly daring or memorable to be found here. The menu theme does have a certain melancholic chill to it while you’re about to load the game, while your foot soldiers offer up the occasional funny quip during cutscenes, but there’s little else of note. Despite these grumbles, Halo
Wars2 makes for a thoroughly enjoyable second outing. It may not aim highly in terms of storyline or gameplay, its predecessor having already nailed the whole console/ real-time strategy incompatibility issue, but fans of quick-fire, action-packed strategy are sure to find something to love here. There’s also a unique Halo story which series veterans will need to experience.
“Everything looks expensive, like you pulped Richie Rich and smeared him across an IMAX”
Once the plasma starts pinging the game’s visuals really pop. left
The enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, at least according to new villain Atriox.
Flame troopers are all Scottish for some reason. Something, something, combustible personalities...
Resource gathering is kept to a bare minimum here, but extra supplies are available to adventurous commanders.
Blur Studio’s cutscenes are as stunning as ever.