It's been eight years since Microsoft first brought its most valuable franchise to one of the most niche genres – real-time strategy
Where its predecessor was safely sequestered at a distant point in the series' timeline, Halo Wars 2 is right in the thick of things, set immediately after the events of Halo 5: Guardians. Given how seriously the Halo fandom takes its canon, this feels like it means something. The franchise spans media, from novels to comics to animation, but barring the original Halo Wars and a couple of mobile games, it rarely crosses game genres. And yet when it does in a meaningful way, it goes real-time strategy, which is pretty stodgy in this day and age, and a hard sell on consoles to boot. This also feels significant, and so does the fact that Microsoft has teamed up with Creative Assembly, possibly the last great independent studio committed wholly to the form.
David Nicholson, Halo Wars 2's executive producer, doesn't seem to be overthinking any of this. "Halo Wars 2 came from is a really strong original title. The community loved it and kept asking for a sequel but they also kept asking for, 'hey, can we play this on PC?,'" he said. "So we've got the fantastic privilege of being the first Halo RTS to be out on PC."
Halo Wars 2 is out February 21 for Xbox One and PC. I got to play a couple of hours of it last week, and of course, I decided to go whole hog on the console version, because why do things the easy way?
It works well enough with a gamepad, especially if you're new to RTS games
Especially if you play RTS games on a PC, the first thing you're probably wondering is whether Halo Wars 2 is even playable with a gamepad. Well, it is, more or less. If you aren't already accustomed to how these games work with a mouse and keyboard – with all the shortcuts, hotkeys, and grouping functionality that you take for granted – you'll probably be fine with Halo Wars 2 on a console simply due to a lack of expectations. You actually can do all the things I mentioned, via an interface that feels like it's been adapted to a console through sheer force of will... and nonetheless still manages to work, which is impressive in its own right.
As someone who's only slightly above dreadful at PC RTS games – by dint of muscle memory forged in the olden days (AKA, the Warcraft III era) – I felt a bit handicapped playing on a gamepad. I knew that I wanted to break my army up into control groups (which is indeed possible with a gamepad) but I couldn't manage it in the thick of things. I never felt like my individual units' special abilities were fully at my disposal, and employing all the shortcuts common to these sorts of games, like instantly panning to the last unit or building to issue a warning notification, was basically trial and error.
To be fair, it's probably a tall order to relearn and internalize all this stuff during the span of a brief demo session, after years of doing it another way. And I was able to get through the single-player mission on display just fine, albeit without much finesse. Still, if I end up playing Halo Wars 2 when it comes out, it'll be with a mouse and keyboard.
The interesting multiplayer modes seem mindful of the console's limitations
Halo Wars 2 is designed around the sort of traditional competitive play that comes to mind when you think of an RTS game – two or more sides building bases and armies, accruing resources, and trying to out-strategize each other in a protracted battle to the death. This mode exists, and it's called Deathmatch. But it's frankly the least interesting of the bunch, at least to me, someone with a limited appetite for the conventional RTS. Nicholson put it well, comparing high-level RTS play to spinning plates. He says his team is well aware of how daunting it can be, especially for newcomers, which Halo Wars 2 is well-positioned to attract. It sounds like the other competitive modes were conceived at least in part to help these folks. "We want to allow players to get in, put some units on the field, and fight. What's the quickest route?" he said. "Let's take away some of those plates."
Strongholds mode negates one of the biggest hurdles: resource management. During a Strongholds match, each team essentially has infinite resources, in effect allowing you to field a fully-formed army almost instantaneously. More powerful units become available at certain intervals (all sides "tech up" automatically, in other words), and only the limit is your population capacity, which also increases as the match goes on. It feels sort of like an RTS match in fast-forward. Rather than having to adapt your economy to respond to an opponent's strategy, you can do so instantly after every engagement, which happen frequently – Strongholds is a capture-and-hold mode, so you're always roaming.
Blitz mode goes even farther afield, eschewing the whole concept of an economy in favor of a deck-building metagame. It's designed around smaller-scale skirmishes as you roam the map, trying to hold control points and collect energy, which you use to summon units or activate global powers from your hand. The map I got to play in was relatively compact, which gave the match a definite MOBA vibe, favoring quick tactical decisions and emphasizing the luck of the draw. It was for sure the most fun I had playing Halo Wars 2 at the event.
It's certainly not a coincidence that the Blitz was the mode that felt best suited of all for playing on a gamepad. In any case, I have a feeling that RTS aficionados will take to Halo Wars 2. Creative Assembly has never been known to mess around. To hear Nicholson tell it, fans have been clamoring for a sequel for years, and especially for one on PC. Well, here it is.