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Game review: Halo Wars 2 – bringing back real-time strategy

Microsoft gives the RTS genre a new lease of life, using expertise from some the industry’s best to make a game that is instinctive to play and exciting to watch

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 1:03pm

Halo Wars 2

Microsoft

4/5 stars

Few genres have fallen from grace quite as fast as the real-time strategy (RTS). It’s now nearly a decade since Starcraft, Command & Conquer and Age of Empires regularly duked it out at the top of the charts. Today, two of those mighty names are no more and even 2009’s Halo Wars, which tried to rethink the whole experience from the ground up, proved to be developer Ensemble Studios’ final game. So all credit to Microsoft for having another go at taking its most treasured product in this most difficult of directions.

Luckily, Halo Wars 2 (for Xbox One and PC) arrives with plenty of shock and awe in its arsenal – not just a rollicking 13-level campaign, but a flurry of multiplayer modes and a whole new game type called Blitz. Development duties have switched to strategy specialist Creative Assembly (the Total War series) and Halo specialist 343 Industries , but otherwise this is instantly familiar stuff to fans of the original.

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The plot sees the battlecruiser Spirit of Fire, emerging from a 28-year cryosleep and confronted by a new Covenant faction; the Banished and their brutish leader, Atriox. Although the game takes place shortly after the events of Halo 5, the early feel is much more like Battlestar Galactica, as crusty old Captain Cutter and his depleted crew set about restoring order to the Ark. In fact, after a while you won’t even care that Master Chief is nowhere to be seen, as these grungier, more battle-worn characters have plenty of personality and intrigue. In keeping with the lore that gave us Cortana, there’s even a new sentient AI named Isabel to guide you.

After a disappointingly on-rails opening mission, the game throws you straight into the fray – so you’re well advised to try the two excellent tutorial missions to get ready for the first hurdle: learning to live with the UI. If you’ve never played an RTS before, this means collecting resources, building various combat units and directing them out on the terrain to do battle with enemy craft, attempting to outbuild, outmanoeuvre, and outgun your foe in every mission.

A console RTS is always going to stand or fall on how well it copes with troop management. Halo Wars 2 takes the old interface and tweaks it in just the right places.

The game retains its pared-down approach to buildings and resource management. There are only two resources to worry about (supplies and energy), and only a handful of modular buildings, each with their own upgrade paths. Pathfinding is much improved, even with all the alternative routes available. Indeed, the AI does a pretty good job of taking care of units when you’re off fighting somewhere else, although it’s less reliable when it comes to attacking, something needs to be micromanaged more closely.

But focusing on what the user interface (UI) may lack is to ignore all the great things that come from the Halo part of this unholy alliance. This is a game packed with familiar lore, high production values (including some stunningly atmospheric cut scenes) and units that look and feel just like their FPS equivalents. The first time you hear your all-terrain Warthogs crunching gravel while turning, or your powerful Spartans slicing through enemies like butter, you’re right back in the core Halo experience. Finally, although there’s no sign of series antagonists The Flood in this game, don’t assume that Covenant and UNSC are the only technologies available. In fact, getting your hands on Forerunner tech can be an unexpected game changer if it comes your way.

You might expect Creative Assembly to use their Total War: Warhammer expertise to overhaul the multiplayer side of things, and it shows. In addition to Deathmatch and Domination – which are perfect for those who enjoy base building – there’s a new quick-fix mode called Strongholds where you can recruit as many units as you wish, provided you keep expanding to increase your population cap. Bungie’s latest video game, Destiny, expected to change the face of gaming

There’s also a great battle mode, dedicated maps for smaller team skirmishes and a version of Firefight that can be played solo or co-op against waves of relentless AI forces, only ending with your death.

However, the big new addition to MP is Blitz – an intriguing combination of Deathmatch and card game, where 12-card decks are played during the game for tactical advantage. With all base building removed from these matches, assembling and playing the perfect deck will take practice, but initial impressions seem to favour taking an aggressive approach and deploying your strongest units early.

So has Microsoft pulled off the double whammy of pleasing both Halo and RTS fans? Apparently so. This is a game that can sit proudly in the Halo canon and also call itself a true, albeit hybrid, RTS. It’s instinctive to play, exciting to watch and packs in some genuinely new ideas that deserve exploring. And if you still can’t get past the inevitable compromises and unfamiliar UI, there’s always the PC version.