Title: Halo Wars 2
Developer: 343 Industries / Creative Assembly
Release Date: February 17 for Ultimate Edition owners, February 21 for everyone
Platforms available: Xbox One / Windows 10 as Play Anywhere Title
Difficulty played: Normal
The sequel to the best-selling console real-time strategy (RTS) of all time is launching tomorrow for Ultimate Edition owners and in five days for Standard owners. Developed in partnership with 343 Industries and legendary RTS maker Creative Assembly (from Total War franchise, and Alien Isolation), Halo Wars 2 is looking to bring this long-gone genre on the console to the action with a big bang. It’s been eight long years since its predecessor arrived, so how is the sequel? Read our full review below!
MAY CONTAIN MINOR CAMPAIGN SPOILERS – BE ADVISED
Halo Wars 2 takes place 28 years after the events of Halo Wars in 2531. Phoenix-class colony ship UNSC Spirit of Fire has floated adrift in space for decades and declared by the rest of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) as Killed-In-Action. The remaining crew of Spirit of Fire are awoken from cryo-sleep above the Forerunners’ Installation 00, previously the setting for the critically-acclaimed Halo 3. Led by Cpt. James Cutter, Spirit of Fire encounters the violent faction known as The Banished, commanded by the warlord Atriox. The primary crux of the plot is these two commanders fighting each other in an attempt to gain control of Installation 00.
A lot of the artwork for the Banished, and as a whole for the entire game, will feel natural to all classic fans of the franchise. 343 Industries adopted the classic art style establishing conceivably the strongest entrance for the franchise since Halo: Reach back in 2010.
Kevin Grace, Narrative Director at 343i, previously stated, “We probably took most inspiration from Halo CE, frankly, as far as the tone and the arc and how contained things are and the thread.”
Throughout the campaign you’ll come across Phoenix Logs, akin to terminals from previous Halo entries, giving you Halo Wars 2’s more complex narrative material from maps, leaders, and bases to faction soldiers, vehicles, and much more. For the lore folks reading the review, we’ve got a little description of each vital character, and we highly recommend you read it before you dive in!
Captain James Cutter is the commander and heart of the UNSC combat support vessel Spirit of Fire, and he first made a name for himself fighting against the human Insurrection (before that rebellion was interrupted by the arrival of the Covenant). Cutter’s role in the UNSC fleet was vital to keeping humanity supplied and fighting in the war against the Covenant.
After chasing a Covenant task force across the galaxy and into a massive artificial planet, Cutter willingly sacrificed his ship’s FTL engine and any hope of returning home to stop the Covenant from acquiring an ancient alien fleet of warships which could have spelled the end of humanity.
Fast-forward 28 years and Cutter is lost in space, adrift in the cold of cryosleep, and now has to decide what’s worth fighting for in the galaxy.
Professor Ellen Anders is one of the galaxy’s most brilliant scientific minds and a leading expert on xenobiology and ancient Forerunner systems. Even 28 years frozen in cryosleep can’t diminish the hands-on experience she’s had with Forerunner technology, and Captain Cutter will need every bit of her expertise as the Spirit of Fire awakes from cryo to find itself battling to control the birthplace of the Halo rings.
Anders is famous for her “nothing ventured, nothing gained” approach to field work, although near-death experiences with the Flood and Covenant zealots have given her a newfound appreciation for keeping a Spartan or two around for backup.
Atriox is the iron-willed master of the Banished, a growing army of former Covenant warriors and mercenaries now poised to take control of the largest weapons platform in the history of the Halo universe. As a battle-scarred Jiralhanae (known as “Brutes” in Halo), Atriox possesses incredible physical and combat abilities, but unlike other Brutes, Atriox’s real threat lies in his strategic and tactical brilliance.
Atriox was once a foot soldier for the Covenant, and because the Covenant considered Brutes expendable for years, he took orders which led to the unnecessary deaths of almost all of his clan. After killing those sent to execute him, Atriox assumed leadership over a small group of like-minded Brutes and did the unthinkable: He declared war on the Covenant.
Red Team is comprised of Jerome-092 (as team leader), Alice-130, and Douglas-042. These Spartans are even more notable as three of the very few remaining Spartan IIs, the same class of Spartan as the Master Chief, still officially in active duty. After the loss of Sergeant John Forge in the Spirit of Fire’s last campaign, Jerome-092 has taken over much of the ground command and execution for Captain Cutter’s battle strategy. But when push comes to shove you’ll find Jerome, Alice, and Douglas right there on the front line fighting together as only Spartans can.
Isabel (AI Service Number ISA 1307-2)
Isabel is an artificial intelligence (AI) created to manage logistics at a UNSC base on the Forerunner installation known as “The Ark”. When her base was destroyed in a surprise attack by the Banished, she was powerless to stop the slaughter of her friends and she swore revenge against Atriox.
As a “smart” AI, Isabel has incredible computational power and a fully independent creative mind, allowing her to immediately integrate with the Spirit of Fire when Captain Cutter and his Spartans recover Isabel from the ruins of her base. AIs like Isabel have strictly enforced seven-year lifespans to prevent a dangerous loss of system control known as “rampancy”. Isabel is three years into that seven-year period, which means she has plenty of time left to take the fight to the Banished.
Decimus is the embodiment of every horror story UNSC Marines have ever swapped about fighting the Brutes. He’s ruthless, gloriously bloodthirsty, and almost unparalleled in raw physical strength. When Decimus fought for the Covenant he took particular delight in hand-to-hand combat with the woefully outmatched soldiers on the side of humanity. However, Decimus never thought to question the status quo until Atriox dared to refuse the commands of the Prophets and opened a crack in the rigid rule of Covenant tradition. Decimus respects strength above all else and Atriox’s initial rebellion and continued success ever since have earned Decimus’ absolute loyalty.
Shipmaster Let ‘Volir
In the chaotic last days of the Covenant, the Shipmaster found himself grappling with betrayal by his former Covenant leaders and no clear path forward as all Covenant beliefs had been forcibly cast aside. The one constant of his command, however, was his obligation to his crew and to keep that crew together and alive.
With a powerful Carrier and that crew of veteran fighters at his command, the Shipmaster was soon noticed by Atriox who offered to fuel the ship and supply the crew in exchange for the Shipmaster’s unquestioning loyalty. This arrangement was deeply unpleasant for the Shipmaster, especially since Elites were used to lording over the Brutes during the time of the Covenant, but in the new order of the galaxy serving as a mercenary for Atriox was the only viable option.
Back in 2009 the original Halo Wars had stellar gameplay for a console RTS, providing the right tools to adopt this PC genre into a controller. This time, with Halo Wars 2, everything feels practically identical but with some slight and very welcoming improvements. Shifting to campaign, the mode offers 12 playable missions, three of which are basically a tutorial to make you familiar with the present Universe. Like the first game, Halo Wars 2 doesn’t offer splitscreen but allows for cooperative gameplay with a friend. Combat is balanced by ‘rock-paper-scissors’ counter-attack coordination in which ground vehicles are effective in combat against infantry, infantry are effective against aircraft, and aircraft are effective against vehicles.
If you’re a novice to RTS genre, Halo Wars 2 offers Basic, Advanced and Blitz tutorials to help ease you into the game. Before you venture into Multiplayer or Campaign, I recommend you give the tutorial a go.
One particular gameplay changer everyone has been hoping for are the skulls, and I’m pleased to report they’re back for the sequel! When obtained and activated they can alter gameplay difficulty and add interesting features. You can find all of them (15 in total) by completing the optional objectives in all campaign missions and then activate the Scoring skulls to collect more points.
Multiplayer – Game Modes
Since Halo Wars 2 was revealed at Gamescom 2015 with a campaign CGI, 343 Industries has been giving an emphasis on multiplayer up until its launch day. First, there was a Beta right after E3 2016, giving players a first glimpse of what the team at Redmond has been working on, and then a Blitz beta last month showing the new mode called Blitz. So what is Blitz exactly?
Blitz is a new, innovative and action-packed twist on RTS gameplay that combines card-based strategy with explosive combat. Your card deck is your army in Blitz as you build collections of powerful Halo vehicles and troops and command those units in fast-action battles. Anytime you hold a control point you will increase score points. If both teams control an equal amount of points the scoring is paused until one of the teams takes the majority of the control points. The team with the highest score at the end of the game timer, or to reach 200 points first, triumphs.
Another mode within Blitz is Firefight. As you may know, Firefight is a cooperative PVE mode introduced in Halo 3: ODST allowing you to skirmish against wave after wave of foes. After being absent from Halo for a couple of years, its return for Halo 5: Guardians as Warzone Firefight was well received by fans. Halo Wars 2 Blitz Firefight is identical to Warzone Firefight, but instead of REQ Packs you have Card Packs. Your goal is to capture and hold points A, B, and C while preventing the AI from capturing any control points. As you progress through waves, enemies start ramping up in numbers and difficulty at regular intervals. Blitz Firefight is a worthy mode to pull you out of the regular modes, but its lack of dynamic objectives and maps at launch will probably only sidetrack you for a little while.
Multiplayer – Card Packs
Card packs can be compared to REQ Packs as they are very similar. Players will be able to earn them purely by playing the game, whether finishing campaign missions or doing daily/weekly challenges. Creative Assembly and 343 Industries have guaranteed players will match based on deck strength and skill rather than matching against players who have paid more money than you in Card Packs.
Multiplayer – Game Modes
At launch there are 5 game modes available offering a good amount of variety for everyone. As this was a review copy, our best option to test all game modes was through custom games to get an impression on how Strongholds, Domination, and Deathmatch play out. Of these three my personal favorite is Deathmatch, where you plan and build your base and army, but instead of fighting for map control you’ll fight until only one team remains standing.
Strongholds is a fast-paced game mode where the objective is to capture and control the most bases when the round’s timer runs out. You will start off with a pre-built base and a pool of resources to quickly deploy troops. Capturing a base increases the total amount of forces a player can control.
In Domination you build your base, build your army, and battle for control of the map. Take control of distinct nodes on the map and hold them long enough to win the game. There’s no time limit and a match will end when one player has held enough nodes to get the enemy counter down to zero.
Halo Wars 2’s Skirmish is a mode where you fight against a range of AI difficulty levels. Fight across all the environments and multiplayer game modes with as many AI and co-op friends (or enemies!) as each mode will allow.
Halo Wars 2 is a game I thoroughly enjoyed while reviewing it and will continue appreciating as long as the servers are active. Campaign felt slightly shorter than I previously expected, though with a campaign expansion imminent, that might scratch the eagerness I have for more single-player experience. As for multiplayer, I extremely encourage everyone reading the review to get the game and experience it, as it’s perhaps going to be the finest RTS experience available on a console system. The User Interface is clean, good-looking, and easy to navigate, something we haven’t seen in a while. I dare say Microsoft is going to replicate the success of its predecessor in 2009 once again with Halo Wars 2. I expect a third installment is just a matter of time.