The first Halo Wars was an odd experiment. Bringing an RTS to consoles was a risky idea, but it mostly paid off, and you can find players clocking in HW time even today, after nearly a decade. Nobody even dared to hope that the game would receive a spin-off, but lo and behold, in 2015 an announcement was made that Halo Wars 2 was well underway, under new developer.
No reason to be afraid, however. Although the original game’s creators, the Ensemble Studios, are no longer active, the title passed to true RTS veterans: Creative Assembly of the Total War franchise fame. What does it mean for the game and the players? Let’s find out.
This is our brief assembly of everything you should know before Halo Wars 2 launches in February 21st. Let’s get to it.
The unifying sequel
The previous Halo Wars game was odd in more senses than just one. Not only was it a console-bound real-time strategy, but it also depicted the events taking place good 20 years before what we’ve seen unfold in Halo: Combat Evolved. As a result it was slightly disjointed from other games in the franchise not only by gameplay, but also by story. Well, no more.
Halo Wars 2’s plot is set about half a year after the conclusion of Halo 5: Guardians. The first game’s leading characters, the crew of UNSC warship Spirit of Fire returns, waking up from their cryosleep after 28 years. They come back to a rather different political situation than the one they left all those years before.
As a result, Halo Wars 2 becomes a full-fledged continuation not only to the first HW, but also the Halo franchise as a whole. We can only assume that whatever happens during the campaign will have profound influence on future entries. Which is nice.
In a stroke of genius, Creative Assembly decided against completely revamping the controls developed by the Ensemble Studios. Clearly deciding they work just fine and need only a bit of tinkering, one of the most important things CA have added are control groups. They will be fully customizable, of course, no predetermined makeups. Do you want to pair your infantry with your air units? Go ahead, nobody’s going to stop you.
For obvious reasons, this changes things tremendously from the previous entry. Control groups are a staple of PC strategies, and seeing them implemented into the console version is very welcome. It adds complexity without increasing difficulty or requiring tedious micromanagement, which wouldn’t even be that convenient with a gamepad.
The Blitz mode
Other than refreshing and updating the control scheme, Creative Assembly’s greatest and most interesting contribution to the title is the Blitz mode, over which numerous news outlets have been gushing as if it’s a Half Life 3 announcement. And it isn’t hard to see why, because the idea feels very refreshing to the genre as a whole.
And that’s because Blitz is a card game. No, don’t worry, it will not change Halo Wars 2 into some sort of Halo-themed Magic: the Gathering or Hearthstone.
You have a leader. You have a selection of cards. You create a deck, then draw a four-card hand. With a special resource you deploy units and use leader abilities. So far, so CCG. RTS elements come with everything else. You still have a traditional map, locations to capture and energy to harvest to speed things up. And an enemy, don’t forget about your enemy.
Using cards completely removes base building from the equation, letting you focus on the juiciest part of the experience: making sure the enemy is reduced to bloody gibs. Everything you want to do is done by drawing the right card and dropping it on the battlefield. Pop, you have a Spartan unit. Pop, you have a Kodiak. Pop, you have an energy deficit.
The card-based mechanic sadly invites microtransactions to the game. Players will be able to buy packs of cards for real money. Maybe it won’t unbalance the game very much, since the packs will be easily available for free, via periodical challenges and even just playing the campaign. Allegedly the solution is meant to make players without much time to play competitive, but it may go sideways very fast. It remains to be seen.
And new old enemy
Your new enemy is a splinter group of your previous enemy. Although the Covenant war is pretty much over, there remains a small (relatively) group, called the Banished, who don’t really care. They are led by Atriox, a warlord of the Brute species, who refused to die despite everything thrown at him by his supposed superiors.
The Banished are formed out of former Covenant troops, so while it is a new problem to deal with, it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, playing off previously established lore instead. It’s a good idea, inviting Halo veterans without alienating newcomers.
Halo Wars 2 is definitely shaping up to be an interesting game, if nothing else. The resurgence of console-friendly RTS, the continuation of an almost decade-old spin-off, the progression of the general Halo universe… Even before we factor in Blitz and other, more traditional modes, we get a title that is going to stand out from the crowd, and not only on consoles.
While PC players have enough RTS games to last a lifetime, there is a very short supply of Halo games, so a new title, even if it isn’t a shooter, is very welcome.
Halo Wars 2 launches on February 21st, so there is little time to decide how much you need to buy the pre-order. Will you join the Spirit of Fire crew in a fight against the Banished? Or will you take Atriox’s legions against everyone in your path?