RTS games have been popping up on consoles now and again for decades, but their popularity – and the success of their implementation – would make for a mountain range of a line graph. We’re living in the space year 2017 now, though! We might not have a flying car each yet, but we’ve surely reached the point where a console RTS can stand proudly beside the best of its PC cousins, right?
Although it’s a cross-buy title (buy a digital Xbox One copy and you get PC digital for free, and vice-versa), there’s absolutely no doubt that this is a game developed from the brief “make a console-friendly RTS that appeals to the console mass market”. While those who tend to stick to PC gaming will doubtless snigger and sneer at such an idea, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the concept. Indeed, it’s the birthplace of some of the game’s best ideas. But, yeah, it’s also the source of some of its biggest drawbacks.
Some of the marketing blurb around Halo Wars 2 promises a game with the speed/pace of a Halo FPS, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that this claim is donkey doo-doo (although Halo games don’t often rattle along at breakneck speed themselves). Nonetheless, it definitely feels like a game that firmly belongs in the Halo universe. The music, the art design, and the fact that units include Warthogs, Hunters, Banshees, Grunts, ODST soldiers, Scarabs, and stacks more all earn the Halo tag.
What also helps the Halo atmosphere – and one of the elements that most obviously has its roots in a desire to sell to the console market – is the storytelling. Well, that’s the wrong word perhaps, because there’s no such thing as a Halo game with fantastic storytelling. The effort that’s gone into the story is commendable though, with expensive-looking cutscenes and plenty of chatter during Campaign levels to give context to what you’re doing and why. What value story has when you’re talking about an RTS is another conversation altogether.
Although there are a few brief tutorials to give you a handle on what to expect and how to play, the Campaign is in effect treated as one big tutorial to slowly introduce new units and tactics, and hint at different game modes. Basically, it’s designed to prepare newcomers for online play (though this is masked very well). Unfortunately, what this means is that things don’t really get interesting until about two thirds of the way through, and the remainder of the story relies on sieges a little too much.
It’s also too tempting (and too easy) to ignore the ‘proper’ way to play and just bludgeon your way through the stages. One of the fundamental theories behind how Halo Wars 2 works is rock-paper-scissors play or, if you prefer, Pokémon style combat designs. The various units are split into different types such as Infantry, Ground, Air, Anti-Air etc; then those types are split into sub-divisions with varying emphases on different strengths and weaknesses. So for example, Hellbringers are powerful infantry excellent at damaging buildings and bringing down other infantry, but have limited range and cannot attack air units. Warthogs can ram groups of infantry for instant chunks of damage, but will quickly fall if left unprotected against units designed to take down vehicles such as Hunters. Conversely, the anti-vehicle units Hunter and Cyclops are less effective against infantry, and completely vulnerable to air. Units designed to be most effective against air attackers tend to be more vulnerable against ground units, and so on. The basic idea is to use the right units in the right places at the right time.
In practice, so far as the Campaign is concerned, you can brute-force your way through 90% of the time simply by keeping a huge group of varied units topped up and, bunching them together like some kind of futuristic and deadly stag do group, leading them from point A to point B.
One of the reasons it’s tempting to do this is a point of frustration shared across all modes. Your zoom is incredibly limited. You can’t zoom in as far as you might hope but, most damningly, you can’t zoom out enough to see more than a tiny portion of the battlefield at once. This is an RTS, right??!? The presence of shortcuts to instantly switch between bases and units is very welcome, but it’s not quite enough to make you feel like you have complete control.
Speaking of control, trying to select or control individual units or groups of units is more difficult than it should be. You can individually select or ‘paint’ units to form separate groups, which is great. What isn’t great is that, if different units are standing right next to one another (which they usually will be), picking out the ones you want can be like trying to pick your favourite colour Smarties out of a bowl while wearing oven gloves. It doesn’t help that some units – different infantry especially – look very similar at first glance (and of course, you can’t zoom in enough to make this selection easy). Trying to sort units in this way under pressure is not fun.
More broadly speaking, the ordinary game modes are all about that RTS favourite, resource management. There are two different types of resources – energy and power – which you ‘spend’ to use your leader powers (also running on a cooldown, which include instantly summoning units, a laser or missile barrage, and creating a healing area) and to build, upgrade, and generate units from bases. Upgrading bases relies solely on power, certain basics such as turrets and marines rely only on energy, and pretty much everything else requires a combination of the two to generate. Everything that you build or summon runs down a clock before it arrives, and is also assigned a number that contributes toward your total current population cap. The best stuff, of course, requires the most saving-up-for and takes the longest to arrive. Base building alone requires careful tactical thought. What should you generate, and when? How best to balance use of your limited space between generators, supply pads, and buildings that will allow you access to better units and upgrades?
Halo Wars 2 also introduces (again, to encourage the console market methinks) Blitz mode as a multiplayer alternative. This ditches resources generated from bases in favour of that current industry obsession, virtual cards. You can instantly summon a unit, attack, or buff by playing a card. Each card requires a different amount of energy to activate. Each player starts off with a few basic units, and a slowly increasing reserve of energy. There are three bases to control, and the player/s with domination see their energy increase faster. Pods will occasionally drop into the map, allowing you to destroy them and consume the tasty energy within. First player/team to reach the target score by holding two or more bases the longest wins.
At its best, Blitz is a (relatively) fast-paced and enjoyable tactical mode that, by stripping away most of the waiting and complexity of the main mode, appeals to the highest number of players possible. It’s also arguably the mode that most quickly and clearly demonstrates that this is a game at its best when played with other people. However, if one were cynical, one might say that the microtransactions were inevitable the very second the concept of cards was first mentioned in the boardroom. While you can and will earn card packs for free across all game modes simply by playing and levelling up, the presence of microtransactions immediately presents a fundamental problem with Blitz.
Getting a good variety of cards, including some decent ones, for free isn’t a problem (so long as you put the time in other modes before your first Blitz match). The problem is that what initially seems like an excellent way to deal with duplicates – automatically trashing them in exchange for XP, levelling up the copy of the card you already have – contributes to the already-obvious potential problems when you let people buy unlimited numbers of card packs for real money. A person could, were they rich/stupid enough, keep throwing money at Microsoft until they have all the best cards and have levelled some/many/all of them to max. There’s no way to increase your starting energy or rate of energy regeneration with money (not yet, at any rate), but having your cheapest units more powerful than those of your opponent is going to give you a significant advantage. It’s too early to tell, however, if this will result in widespread disparity in Blitz matches.
One thing Halo Wars 2 does right is offer a variety of game modes (though at time of writing, there are still no ranked matches). They offer tweaks to rules and players, including the opportunity to play either one-on-one or in two teams of two or three players each. Those that offer the full-blown RTS experience are of course best suited to the more hardcore. Your best chances of success when playing in a team rely on communication. If one or more of you are unable or unwilling to chat via an Xbox Live party though… you have zero other options, and opportunities for co-ordinating are almost nil. A few pre-programmed text messages for team members (“I’ll concentrate on resources!” I’m making air units!” etc.) would have made a huge difference, and their omission is a little odd.
Regardless of what multiplayer mode you play – Blitz, standard, survival against AI, Campaign co-op – this is, as I’ve said, a game at its best when played with others. Claiming a win over human opponents is immensely satisfying, and even a defeat can be genuinely educational in terms of observing tactics you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. Unfortunately, there’s one element that plagues the game across every single mode.
Halo Wars 2 isn’t nearly as technically stable as it should be.
Through the course of playing the fairly short Campaign (twelve missions), I had the game crash on me on two separate occasions when trying to load two separate saves. Online, match disconnection is a depressingly regular occurrence, and a quick Google confirms this is a widespread issue. The cause of the disconnection is (intentionally?) obfuscated by vaguely referring to a “sync” issue. Server failure, or rage quits? Most likely a mix of both. In my personal experience, this is most likely to happen during a 3v3 match (record: three matches in a row prematurely ended due to “sync” issues). Oh, and if this happens to you, the match is recorded as a loss – even if you were mere seconds away from victory. Gee, that’s not frustrating!
The icing on this unpleasant cake is that if a teammate disappears – due to losing connection, or simply quitting because your team is losing and they’re a talentless gutless loser (no, I’m not bitter) – all of their units and bases instantly disappear, meaning your chances of success in the match rapidly plummet to “are you having a laugh, mate?”. Was it really impossible to hand control in that instance to another player, or to have AI step in? Or to otherwise soften the blow?
What’s the bottom line? A competent console RTS but, under the production gloss, it talks and walks like an unfinished Early Access title.
Review by Luke Kemp. Thanks to Xbox for the review code.