HALO WARS 2

You had me at Halo

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - Sa­muel Ri­ley

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.

Halo scores

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.

Hid­den tal­ents

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”

Above

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.

Above

Flame troop­ers are all Scot­tish for some rea­son. Some­thing, some­thing, com­bustible per­son­al­i­ties...

Left

Re­source gath­er­ing is kept to a bare min­i­mum here, but ex­tra sup­plies are avail­able to ad­ven­tur­ous com­man­ders.

Above

Blur Stu­dio’s cutscenes are as stun­ning as ever.

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