Halo Wars is a series that managed the impossible: taking the lore and concept of Halo and blending it with the RTS Genre. Hitting the Xbox 360 in 2009, it was met with critical and audience success. Now, seven years later, 343 Industries, with the help of Creative Assembly, are bringing the series back. Bigger and more advanced than the previous game, Halo Wars 2 is bringing the Halo Wars franchise into the modern realm of RTS games, and this time it is hitting the PC as well as the Xbox One.
Taking place in the modern Halo universe, Halo Wars 2 brings back the iconic Spirit of Fire starship along with its commander Captain Cutter as they discover the mythical Ark that was first introduced in Halo 3. The power structure is no longer as it was in previous games, and the crew of the Spirit of Fire find themselves facing a new enemy, one more ruthless than anything the covenant had on offer: the Banished and their leader Atriox.
Atriox is a new breed of villain that you as the player must face. Brilliant and brutal, Atriox will stop at nothing to achieve his goals by crushing the opposition and forcibly pushing to gain power in the galaxy. Utilizing covenant-modified technology, the Banished, with Atriox at the helm, are a force unlike anything the UNSC have ever faced.
Now that these two factions are locked in a battle neither will back away from, Halo Wars 2 takes players to the varied terrain the Ark allows. Crafted by the Forerunners, the Ark is the seat of power and literal birthplace of Halo Rings. This is a trophy that neither side will give up easily. It is also a setting that offers countless terrains and areas for combat.
Now with the help from the team at Creative Assembly, the team behind the Total War series, Halo Wars 2 is in capable hands. The developer brings with it years of experience in the RTS genre and a skill for making tactical and fun strategy games. Few studios currently working today know the genre as well as these people. Combine that pedigree with 343 Industries, a studio that lives and breathes Halo, and you get the perfect combination for building a memorable experience in the Halo universe.
From the first minute I picked up the game and jumped into a mission, this history was clearly on display. The teams have managed to build a game that feels like a modern RTS. The controls were easy to master, and anyone who has been playing StarCraft or even Dota will feel right at home playing Halo Wars 2. It feels as if you are taking the reigns on a living, breathing world; one that reacts, in real time, to the situations presented.
The sound will change as combat ramps up, from the dynamic musical store to the way units react, and everything works to create an immersive experience, one that you quickly get lost within. There is clearly a level of care and craftsmanship on display that few games can achieve. Even four months out from release, the level of polish in the mission I played was second to none.
No matter how polished a game looks and feels, if it is not enjoyable to play it ultimately fails at its task. This is why it was so refreshing to see Halo Wars 2 surpass the previous installment in nearly every way. The way units are controlled and move was refreshing. It managed to achieve the right balance of challenge with a sense of accomplishment. From the way you need to hold out against units, to the back and forth trading as you push forward in an attack, it all worked as well as you would hope. There is clearly still balancing to be done before the game is ready for prime time consumption, but even in its current state the game was a blast to jump into.
The real winner for Halo Wars 2 has to be the Blitz mode, the card-style multiplayer mode that is new to the series. This new mode, which can be played solo or multiplayer, has the player work to maintain control of points on the map as your opponent tries to do the same. Unlike in other modes, Blitz limits what can be utilized in battle by offering a selection of cards from randomized packs. Much like a game of Magic or Harthstone, there are a variety of cards to draw from, all offering different costs and advantages. It is up to you to build a deck, and try to match wits with your opponent.
Despite how it may sound, the Blitz mode works far better then I would have imagined. The card mechanic makes for a unique challenge. By playing an RTS game with no base building and a random assortment of troops, you are forced to think on your toes. Will you play only power cards, biding your time as you collect resources to make big pushes on the opponent, or will you go with lower power cards and a steady stream of attacks? The choice and how you play are up to you. As I played I tried both methods, along with a mix, to varying degrees of success. The simple fact that you must hunt down the resources to be able to drop down the cards makes for a constant struggle to stay ahead of your opponent, and offers some amazing emergent gameplay moments. In a series of solo horde-style games along with some high intensity 2v2 matches, the mode never got old. I found myself tweaking the deck of cards I was using and trying to find the perfect combination to dominate the battlefield. It is a mode that I could see people getting lost in, especially if the team manages to get the balancing right. With countless possibilities for future expansion, Blitz is something that could help Halo Wars 2 stand out from the RTS crowd.
As with any game moths away from release, it is hard to say if this will end up being a must own. What I can say is Halo Wars 2 seems to have all the parts that could push it to be something special. The teams working on the project clearly care about the game, and the level of polish on display is second to none. Yet the devil is in the details, and that final balancing and tweaking are what separates the good games from the great ones. If what is on display is any indication, the teams at 343 Industries and Creative Assembly are building something that any real time strategy fan would love to play. It combines the Halo universe with the genre perfectly, and most important of all, it was fun to play. Halo Wars 2 is slated to launch on PC and Xbox One this February 21st, 2017.